Paint a Vulgar Picture with DH Lawrence

burning-photograph dhl

A friend of mine recently splashed out on a painting by the Nottingham-born artist Paul Waplington. Naturally, this gave me an excuse to photocopy a short essay by Lawrence called Pictures on the Wall and post it through her letterbox. ‘The human race loves pictures,’ declares Lawrence, ‘barbarians or civilised, we are all alike, we straightway go to look at a picture if there is a picture to look at’. This is perfectly true, although my first port of call for distraction and stimulation is the contents of a bookshelf. I remember once being shown around a house I was interested in buying, and being put off by the seller’s book collection. I just couldn’t bring myself to live in a space that had housed such a shabby collection of fiction. My partner at the time was appalled by what she perceived as my lack of sincerity. But I was deadly serious. The space had been polluted and I didn’t want to catch anything. We split up a year or so later.

Lawrence is fascinated by the pictures we hang on our walls. But needless to say they bring as much pleasure as pain. He takes particular offence at painting that have been hanging around for a long time as they represent ‘sheer inertia’ and a ‘staleness in the home is stifling and oppressive to the spirit’. He uses an analogy of fashion to explain these sentiments. Fashion in clothes changes because ‘we ourselves change, in the slow metamorphosis of time,’ consequently it is hard to imagine ourselves in the clothes we bought six years ago because we have since become different people. This is true, although fashion is also a process of aesthetic obsolescence that keeps the greasy wheels of capitalism turning.

Our reason for buying paintings, he argues, is that the painting somehow reflect or respond to some feeling in us. But as we grow (or age) these feelings change. If our feeling for a picture are superficial, our feelings for the picture wears away quickly. This is definitely true and I witness this every year when there’s a poster sale outside Nottingham Trent University for the latest batch of students. There’s only so long you can have a poster of a ‘doh’ing Homer Simpson, Bob Marley toking on a joint, or Tupac ‘God rest his soul’ Shakur on your wall before you feel a bit silly.

Lawrence, as subtle as a flying brick, has a simple solution for dealing with unwanted unfeeling pictures: Burn them.

Now this might seem extreme at first, and it is, but that’s because Lawrence doesn’t like art that’s reduced to materialism. ‘It is fatal to look on pictures as pieces of property. Pictures are like flowers, that fade sooner or later, and die, and must be thrown in the dustbin and burnt’. A picture, therefore, is only useful when it is ‘fresh and fragrant with attraction’. Once the aesthetic emotion is dead, the picture is no more than ‘a piece of ugly litter’.

And there’s more…

It’s a fallacy to see a picture as part of the architectural structure of a house, as somehow opening up the walls and functioning with the same purpose as say, the fire. Oh no. ‘The room exists to shelter and house us, the picture exists only to please us.’ Pictures are decoration, nothing more.

It’s at this point that a lot of readers probably pack in reading this six page essay. Life is too short to be scalded for having a painting on your wall for a decade. Some, good to his word, may even set Lawrence’s essay on fire. But try to have the one thing that Lawrence lacks, patience. He’s toying with you. He’s slowly building up to a bigger idea on how to make art more accessible to the masses. And to do this he brings in the example of public libraries.

In the 18th century books were very expensive. If you asked a gentleman whether he had read so and so he would most likely reply ‘I have a fine example in folio in my library’. Books being expensive rendered them a form of property, thereby overwhelming ‘any sense of literary delight’. It was only the development of the lending library system that changed the direction of the conversation to the contents of the book, the pleasure of reading for readings sake. ‘The great public was utterly deprived of books till books ceased to be looked on as lumps of real estate, and came to be regarded as something belonging to the mind and consciousness, a spiritual instead of a gross material property’.


Lawrence argues that the same principles apply to art as long as a ‘picture is regarded as a piece of property, and not as a source of aesthetic emotion.’ He suggests that we need a Circulating Picture scheme that follows the principles of the library, where we can hire pictures as we hire books until we’ve ‘assimilated their content’. Obviously he doesn’t offer any practical advice on how to implement such an arrangement, but the sentiments are honourable.

In 2010 Lord Biro and me created a ‘recession-busting’ Hirst skull covered in jelly tots. You can read about that here.

Money is always a corrupting influence for Lawrence, and he suspects that a man who pays a hundred pounds for a canvas is doing it in the secret belief, or hope, that one day it will be worth thousands of pounds. The world of modern art supports these accusations, not least the vulgarity of Damien Hirst’s diamond encrusted skull. But I think Lawrence’s arguments don’t necessarily apply to my friend. She hasn’t purchased her Waplington painting for financial reward, she’s bought it because he’s a local artist and, perhaps, it helps her feel a sense of home, within her home. And she certainly wouldn’t burn it because that’s wasteful and she’s someone who thinks about her impact on the planet. I’m quite sure she didn’t bother to read Lawrence’s essay on paintings but this doesn’t matter. If we’re still friends in ten years and the Waplington is still on her wall, I’ll post another copy through her door.

dhl-trunkIn 2019 Paul Fillingham and me will be creating a DH Lawrence Memory Theatre. It will include artefacts that address aspects of Lawrence’s life. Perhaps ‘Pictures on the Wall’ will be one of these artefacts. If you’d like to get involved and have any suggestions,  please submit your ideas here.

Why DH Lawrence would never ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’

keep-calm-and-carry-on DHL

Keep Calm and Carry On was a motivational poster designed by the Ministry of Defence in 1939 in preparation for the outbreak of World War II. The poster was intended to raise the morale of the British public, but no doubt it would have infuriated Lawrence, if he’d still been alive, as he hated instructions for emotions. In his essay Nobody Loves Me, which sounds a bit like a Morrissey song, he remembers the time he was curt with a friend who visited him in the Swiss Alps and gushingly declared ‘These mountains! – well! – I’ve lost all my cosmic consciousness, and all my love of humanity.’

Lawrence scalded his friend for her ‘exasperated frenzy of the moment’, finding her sentiments a bit too gushing. But later, after he’d had a few years to calm down, he acknowledged he’d been a bit spiteful and that his friend was simply trying to find a bit of inner peace. He is only able to come to this conclusion after rationalising that by ‘love of humanity’ she really means ‘being at one with the struggling soul…of our fellow man’. There’s nowt wrong with that, but of course there are rules…

The young have ‘shed the cerebral husk of generalisation from their emotional state’ as well as ‘the flower that was inside the husk’. Consequently the young say they care for ‘unseen people’ but really, they don’t care. And Lawrence sympathises with them for not caring. He goes as far to say that all of this caring for ‘the wrongs of unseen people has been rather overdone.’

It’s this kind of talk that often gets him into trouble. But it’s worth persevering with Lawrence as the hole he appears to be digging for himself will eventually bore through to the other side and reward you with light.

Although we can never really understand what it is to be one of the ‘unseen people’ – the collier, a cotton worker in Carolina or a rice-grower in China, ‘in some depth of us, we know that we are connected vitally…we dimly realise that mankind is one, almost one flesh’. But we lose this connection, this vibration, when we kill the ‘sensitive responses in ourselves’. All encompassing, pronounced benevolence – do gooders – are nothing more than a ‘form of self-assertion and of bullying’. Later on in the essay he develops this idea further, suggesting the last generation who claimed to care for humanity, for the plight of the Irish, Armenians and Congo Rubber negroes, were fake, self-conceited and only interested in proving they were far superior.

The way to kill any feeling is ‘to insist on it, harp on it, exaggerate it,’ criticisms which could quite easily be applied to Lawrence’s novels. But I digress. He simply hates generalisations and instructions for emotions: ‘Insist on loving humanity, and sure as fate you’ll come to hate everybody.’

Any kind of forced emotion imposes a tyranny on humanity as people don’t like to be forced to do things they don’t believe in. And this is why he would hate the Keep Calm and Carry On posters. ‘The slogan Keep smiling! Produces at last a sort of savage rage in the breast of all smilers, and the famous ‘cheery morning greeting’ makes the gall accumulate in all the cheery ones.’

If you force your feelings you end up damaging yourself. It creates ignorance and kills off real sensitivity.

Likewise the couple who claim to love England and would die for England are quite safe at the moment because ‘England does not seem to be in any danger of asking them’. But what about when England does need them? And what is England anyway? Lawrence rips these sentimentalised perceptions of an imagined nation apart, which is why he believes in the specific.

The rest of the essay delves into some generalisations about the role of men and women in marriage and gives Lawrence the excuse to justify the numerous arguments and fights he had with his wife Frieda. They were an odd couple who would never say anything like ‘I love you’ or ‘Keep calm and carry on’ just for the sake of it. They were brutally honest with each other. A sign of love is to confess ‘I could murder him, and that’s a fact. But I suppose I’d better not.’

It’s lucky Lawrence isn’t around today. He’d be fuming. To Kill a Mocking Bird has been removed from the school syllabus because difficult issues concerning race and identity might cause offence. Social media is nurturing a form of digital narcissism  that panders so deeply to the ego that our eyes are in danger of rotating and facing inwards. Slogans have long been the preserve of advertising but now they’re infiltrating everyday life. In Nottingham you’ll find graffiti instructing people to have  ‘a lovely day’  which makes me feel so miserable I return home when ever I read it. And even in Wilkos, the last bastion of poverty shopping, checkout staff insist on insisting you leave feedback about how well they’ve performed in scanning your Mars bar and a packet of bin liners. When this happens to you think of Lawrence and rage to the very smithy of your soul. Spit, scream and shout.  On no condition, whatsoever, should you remain calm and carry on.

dhl-trunkIn 2019 we are launching a memory theatre to celebrate Lawrence’s self imposed exile from Britain. It will include artefacts that explore various facets of his life. Perhaps ‘cosmic consciousness’ will be one of them. Or rage. If you have ideas for artefacts we can include and would like to be involved in the project you can submit here

Lawrence Essays: ‘Getting On’ (1927)

lawrence eastwood

I am 44. The same age as Lawrence was when he died. So far I have a couple of digital projects on my CV: The Sillitoe Trail, Being Arthur and Dawn of the Unread (see image above). Lawrence wrote 12 novels, 4 travel books, 8 plays, numerous short stories and 12 poetry collections published during his life. And that’s not including the non-fiction, forays into psychoanalysis, and the eight volumes of his letters published posthumously. It will probably take me my entire life to work my way through them, let alone replicate his phenomenal output.

When I was the literature editor of LeftLion magazine I once interviewed a self-published author who proudly informed me that he had written his novel in 25 days and then pressed the publish button on Kindle. Although Lawrence may have welcomed the ease with which we are now able to get our work out into the public domain, particularly given the censorship he experienced throughout his life, I suspect he would also be suspicious of the instant gratification offered by digital technology. This is evident in the short essay Getting On, unpublished during his brief life. In this essay he reveals that he struggled for five years to get his debut novel, The White Peacock (1911), “out of the utterly unformed chaos of my consciousness, having written some of it eleven times, and all of it four times”. Lawrence didn’t just bang out books, he worked tirelessly on them, perfecting and correcting until they were ready. The self publish button on Kindle does not encourage such discipline.

Due to his work being so heavily censored, many of Lawrence’s books were either banned, burned or deemed too controversial to read by respectable society. Consequently, he lived large periods of his life in abject poverty. He could have churned out more edifying narratives in order to live a comfortable life but he wasn’t interested in comfort. He had a message to tell and nothing would detract him from this. From 1919 he lived his life in self-imposed exile, travelling the globe in what he described as his ‘savage pilgrimage’. He addresses this in the opening lines of Getting On: “They talk about home, but what is home? I find I can be at home anywhere, except at home.”

Sun Inn, Derby Road, Eastwood, 1920s. Source: Picture the Past (AP Knighton)

On briefly returning home, Lawrence reflects on his parent’s relationship. His father, Arthur, was a collier “who drank, who never went to church, who spoke broad dialect”. He was a commoner and this annoyed Lawrence’s mother Lydia, a well-spoken city girl who enjoyed chapel and derived pleasure from temperance. Growing up, Lawrence sidled with his mother. His father would be brutally portrayed in his novels. In his latter years, Lawrence realised his mother was a snob and that her aspirations were not born out of a desire for spiritual self-improvement, rather the more mundane and obvious desire to climb social ladders. He notes this in her admiration of Henry Saxon, a “burly bullying fellow” who owned a shop and would provide the model of Paxton, the elderly paralysed tyrant in Lady Chatterley’s Lover. What seems to infuriate Lawrence the most about his mother’s admiration of Saxton, who “wore his gold watch and chain on his full stomach as it gave off royal rays”, was it represented an underselling of herself. She was better bred and better educated. She didn’t have a shop, though, and she was married to a collier.

“Now I am forty I realise that my mother deceived me. She stood for all that was lofty and noble and delicate and sensitive and pure, in my life. And all the time, she was worshipping success, because she hadn’t got it.”

As a child, Lawrence prayed that his father might be converted to the chapel or die from a bad mining accident. But “they were not my own prayers. They were a child’s prayers for his mother, who has captured him and in whom he believes implicitly”. He recognises that his mother was conflicted. That she “begrudged and hated her own love” for her husband and that this had an impact on her feelings for Lawrence and his siblings as “we were her own, therefore she loved us. But we were ‘his,’ so she despised us a little”.

Lawrence’s writing, particularly his letters, are full of contradictions and conflicts. One moment he craves the simplicity of life in Italy. The next they’re all ignorant peasants. Amit Chaudhuri picks up on this in DH Lawrence and ‘Difference’, arguing for an intertextual reading of his poetry, suggesting Lawrence’s works cannot be read in isolation. Perhaps this is why he constantly revised his work: He was constantly revising his life. He was “divided”. Andrew Harrison, in his critical biography of Lawrence, notes that Lawrence addresses these profound divisions in the family home in his poem Red Herring, where he describes himself and his siblings as being “in betweens” and “little non-descripts”.


Lydia Lawrence had a profound effect on Lawrence. He adulated her. But he resented her snobbery as well. She was proud when he won his scholarship to the Nottingham High School because he was going to be “a little gentleman”, he would find a respectable profession above ground rather than an unrespectable life in the bowels of the earth. For a while he lived up to her expectations as a teacher, but education bored him. He quit and pursued a life as a writer which is why his debut novel went through so many drafts: “I hewed it out with infinitely more labour than my father hewed out coal.”

The great tragedy of Lawrence’s life is that he never got the recognition he deserved during his 44 years on this planet. He would enter the Canon decades after his death in 1930. The White Peacock was published when he was twenty five and his mother was dying of cancer. She held the book in her hands and then died two days later. It was probably for the best as the controversy surrounding his novels would no doubt have brought shame to the family name. He would never be a Henry Saxton, thank goodness. But at least she was able to witness “the delicate brat with a chest catarrh and an abnormal love for her” begin to carve out a career that, at the very least, meant clean fingernails.

“Perhaps she thought it spelled success. Perhaps she thought it helped to justify her life. Perhaps she only felt terribly, terribly bitter that she was dying, just as the great adventure was opening before her. Anyhow she died.”

There is no way of knowing the exact date Lawrence wrote Getting On as it was unpublished during his lifetime. James T Boulton has traced a duplicate copy of the essay being sent to Nancy Pearn in a letter dated 9 January 1927. He suggests it was probably a personal article written for the German publishing house Insel Verlag and that it most likely refers to his visit to Eastwood in September 1926.

In the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. If you can think of a way that we can address the “divided” conflict of his homelife or his perception of his siblings and he being “in betweens” please get involved. You can submit ideas here.

Getting on is published in The Cambridge Edition of the Works of DH Lawrence: Late Essays and Articles, edited by James T Boulton.