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30th March 2023

Art critic Martin Gayford on what he’s learned from his stellar career

Martin Gayford


From my experience young people are sometimes perplexed about how to begin a career in journalism. Personally, blundered my way in. I started writing about music and I became jazz critic of the Daily Telegraph which was a small niche, and I was talking to the arts editor one day and she asked, quite casually over lunch, if there was anything else I wanted to write about, and I said art, and that was that.

I’m not sure if that sort of thing would happen today – and you often hear it said that it’s all much more difficult nowadays, and there are more hoops you’ve got to jump through. But then I was in the position I was as I’d carried out a campaign of self-education – I’d written many pieces and submitted them to until someone said yes. That took a degree of determination, I suppose.

Contributors were as good as your last piece – if you started to go off, you would be edged towards the door really. I think that’s probably still true in a lot of media; if you don’t perform, people won’t be nice forever. They won’t publish dud columns on the basis you’re a nice person -or not for long. Possibly, if you know the owner it helps!

Then the question was, could you do it? Having a qualification in journalism would be nice, but it wouldn’t cut the mustard if you couldn’t produce 1,000 words on deadline, and not needing extensive work by the subeditors or anything that makes people who make irritable.

Do the big artists, the Lucians and the David Hockneys feel that way? Lucian Freud’s charm comes across in the current edition of the letters I’ve written with David Dawson. He would say the two worst things you could think is I’ve spent 8- or 100 hours on this so I can’t throw it away – it must be good. The other is it’s mine so it must be good. Lucian was ruthless at editing work. Francis Bacon was a masochist in his private life, but also quite masochistic in terms of self-judgement.

David Dawson thinks maybe 25-30% of things were destroyed. You’ve seen quite good, or adequate. He was quite sweet: ‘I’m always in trouble with my pictures.’

David Hockney preserves things, but I think artists have to be aware – rather like writers – their work is only as good as the last work. You can’t coast on your reputation. All artists who succeed would regard that as a dangerous

I think if you’re trying to do something new, it carries on the equally difficult, something would only be easy if you’ve established a formula which you don’t want to do. David was saying the other day that turning out product is a dangerous thing to do – piling up a lot of stuff of a fairly similar type.

Painters have different interests. In the mid-1950s, Lucian got more interested in texture, and Hockney is more of a painter-draughtsman. David would say what’s absolutely fundamental to him is drawing. Lucian started out with that sort of view, but it took him some time to become the kind of artist he became.

My inherent tendency is to want to learn from artists. There are two kinds of people who call themselves critics: there are one or two who think you should close yourself off from the art world. I was at a dinner party once with a critic of that ilk, and this was aimed at David Sylvester who was also there, and this critic said: “If you make friends with artists, that will undermine your critical distance” and David Sylvester said he thought all critics and art historians should talk to them if only to see how they don’t think.”

Interviewing artists isn’t like trying to interview the Chancellor of the Exchequer where you’re trying to get them to divulge information they’re keeping from the public: it’s not the enterprise.




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