Well, not really. One of the revelations in Rob Chapman’s new biography of the legendary painter, piper, mystic Syd Barrett, founder member of rock mastodon Pink Floyd, is that Syd wasn’t planning to write a story of art, sad to say.
I first heard about Syd Barrett's “History of Art” several years ago, and was really hoping it would turn out to be true. Imagine, not Gombrich’s Story of Art or Janson’s History of Art, but Syd Barrett’s History of Art,. I was looking forward to seeing the expression on the faces of the librarians when I ordered it for the university. Tragically, Syd’s “History of Art” turns out to be some notes he made on major painters, copied from catalogues and art books, subsequently auctioned off as Lot 725 after Syd’s death in 2006.
As Chapman says, “the art folder contained nine pages of notes, arranged chronologically from the Byzantine period- a favourite period of Syd’s, I think- through Florentine and Gothic Art, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the Dutch School, Rembrandt and Vermeer, through to the mid- twentieth century.”
By reading this book I thought I was taking a holiday from arty matters. Little did I know. There’s quite a lot on Barrett’s music in relation to his painting aesthetic, the cultural explosion of the 60s and the art school dance. Before Barrett became a rock legend with Pink Floyd, he was a painter, but he made the decision to pursue music and forsake art, at least as a professional career. Syd was a student at Camberwell Art College, a very promising one by all accounts; but Syd seems to have been more skilled at painting himself out of the picture. One of the most poignant episodes is a friend telling of Syd simply stopping painting, and consequently abandoning a vital part of himself, never re-captured again.
There’s much to enjoy in this book: I particularly liked the description of halcyon days at Cambridge in the 60s, as well finding out that the inspiration for the Alice-like Emily in Syd’s first great song, See Emily Play, may have been the sculptress Emily Young, who’s highly regarded in Britain today. Click here for a clip of the song performed by Syd and his mates in their heyday.
Syd destroyed most of his paintings, although interestingly he took photos of them. The book coincides with an exhibition, Syd Barrett: Art and Letters, currently on in London.