Dubbed “the secret Lowry”, Eric Tucker documented everyday life in Warrington over hundreds of paintings, which only came to life after his death in 2018. Niloo Sharifi speaks with his nephew to uncover some details on the life of an unknown painter.
ERIC TUCKER was a previously unknown painter from Warrington who made national headlines last year when his family discovered upwards of 400 paintings in his house after he died. Over a decades-long career, carried out silently and prolifically, he had left his family with a huge body of distinctive work; mainly portraiture focused on locals and oddballs he came across in pubs and carnivals. Intrigued by a flurry of rumours and stories (some of which we later found to be untrue), we joined the two-hour long queue of people lining the Warrington cul-de-sac where he lived. The October morning air was bitterly cold and, as we waited, we discussed the rumours, wondering what we would find in the semi-detached when we finally reached the front door. As we learned from the artist’s nephew, Joe, who was waiting with a clicker by the entrance, the Daily Mail headlines claiming Eric Tucker had died alone were, in typical fashion, totally fabricated. I called him later on to get the real story and ended up with a touching insight into the man behind the beautiful, strange paintings on the walls of a semi-detached house that hosted 1,500 people over one weekend.
“It’s one of those things were the story was a little bit more nuanced than you can easily fit into a fairly brief article.” He is generous in his interpretation: “I think the headline writer is separate to the person who writes the article, so there was just a bit of oversimplification. Most of the papers corrected those claims, at least online, although once it’s gone out in print it’s gone out in print.” His family bore the brunt of the mainstream media’s tendency for exaggeration. “There were a few stories where they’d written that he died alone, which my dad who is his brother, and was very close to my uncle, and also my auntie, Eric’s sister, were quite upset about, because he hadn’t. I mean, he literally hadn’t, they were both there with him in the moment that he died.” The hurtful implication contained within these untruths was that a neglectful family had come across this vault of paintings, and started rubbing their hands with dollar signs in their eyes.
Again, this was a gross exaggeration that painted a distorted picture of the family as exploitative. “[They] kind of made it sound like it was a total shock to us. First of all, my parents saw my uncle every week, if not two or three times a week. And we always knew he’d painted all his life, since his 20s. It was more that no one quite knew how much work he’d done. “Even when you go round to a relative’s house, it’s not like you go looking around every room. So, it wasn’t until he died and my parents were starting to catalogue and clear his house out that they started counting these paintings. They thought there would be about a hundred, I remember I was fairly amazed when they said there were two hundred, but in the end, they got to four hundred plus.”
As Joe tells me this, I am struck by Tucker’s total lack of ego. Historically, artists have been precociously self-involved, creatures of pride. These days, I tell him, especially in the age of digital reproduction – and for me personally, growing up in the digital age – it’s a struggle for me to picture doing anything that other people won’t see. Eric’s work to me also contains this sense of self-effacement; there is a doting attention to and obsession with the people he encounters. But perhaps my interpretation is too romantic. “I don’t exactly know if he thought no one would see them,” he responds, “and it’s interesting, actually; since the exhibition, a few people have contacted me and told us things about our uncle that we didn’t previously know. So, one guy worked with him at a building yard in 1962, and he said he wanted to go to St Ives and become a painter. He did dream about this, it was a legitimate dream, I just think that he didn’t conceive that there was any way of getting these works shown.”
I am curious as to why this should be the case for an artist with Tucker’s tremendous drive to paint and obvious skill. “I think the art world seemed extremely middle class to him and therefore out of reach, or even, to be honest, he had a bit of an aversion to it. They weren’t his people. But he still prolifically produced this work without needing to know that anyone might see it. It’s the complete opposite of these days – you take a quick photo on your phone and you can immediately show that to a potentially infinite number of people.” Although he never went to art school, Tucker was self-educated on art history, and frequented all the galleries he could easily get to. There seems something almost ideological about his refusal to enter that world in earnest. “I think the other part of it was probably a bit of a sense of class betrayal. Y’know, he was a dyed-in-the-wool, lifelong socialist. He didn’t even have a bank account. I think he had, like, a post office account. And that wasn’t because he couldn’t have opened a bank account in NatWest in Warrington. I think it was a class thing for him, he felt like [it] would be slightly betraying the person that he was. So, I think that was why he felt like he would always be outside of the art world, he kind of felt like he would be leaving the world that he portrayed, I suppose.”
This world was strange and unfamiliar for Joe as a child. “That house was my grandmother’s house, he lived with my nana. Occasionally as a kid I’d go into his front room and have a look at what he was painting and they were quite weird to me. I vaguely recognised some of the places because I’d grown up in Warrington, but I used to think, ‘People don’t look like this’, they just seemed odd to me.” But witnessing his uncle’s artistic process for himself, he came to understand that the paintings were the result of a unique eye for characters. “He did these little sketches at pubs. I remember once being with him as a kid and he got his sketchbook out, and he scanned the pub and started to draw people. Out of 30 people in the pub, he would select maybe three or four and start to draw them. I could sort of see [that] these are his people. Once he populates the painting with these particular people he’s kind of picked out of a crowd, they were his world.”
“He’d managed to hold on to the world of the 1950s and early 60s, I suppose, of illegal drinking dens and these kinds of places. So, it was kind of like a glimpse into another world.” The people Tucker portrayed belong to a bygone era, and in this obsolescence, he found beauty. “As I got older, I realised that they are the people of his youth, but also that he continued to know throughout his life. The sort of people who don’t appear in a lot of artwork, but just ordinary people that he would bump into at the pub or bookmakers. When he would speak to me about his paintings, he would pick people out of the painting and say, ‘This lady used to come in and she would just sing opera in the afternoons on a Thursday in this bar in Salford’, so they had little stories woven within them that are all slightly lost now in one sense, but obviously in another they are there forever, y’know, in the paintings.”
The integral story binding all these vignettes together is Eric Tucker’s warm disposition. “I guess in a way, unsurprisingly, he was extremely people-orientated. He was a mix of contradictions, in that he was in some ways quite shy, but in other ways very gregarious. If he came into a room he would immediately want to meet everyone and talk to them. He couldn’t bear not to have a kind of rapport going with absolutely everyone in a room. And I think that was his lifelong interest was. The vast majority of his paintings are of people or of social life, the world he knew.” His work shows a fascination for unusual people. “He was like that in life, really, he was immediately drawn to anyone who was slightly marginalised. Eccentrics or, y’know, tramps, clowns. He had tremendous empathy for anyone on the margins. I think that’s how he felt himself, and he was interested in great characters. It wasn’t done out of pity or an act of charity, it felt like an act of friendship, because I think he really felt like those were his people and he was genuinely interested in characters like that. That was a great thing.” His lack of ego, which meant even his family were more aware of Tucker’s personality than his work, made him a true observer. They say that grace visits those who are able to silence the self, making them a conduit for something truly great, free of the limiting strain of self-absorption. This describes not only Tucker’s artistic practice, but also the man he was in life.
Laughing, Joe points out, “He could have done with a bit more ego in terms of getting the work shown in his lifetime. But I think when it came to his work he was free of that. And it shows in the work as well. It’s an interesting mix of sophisticated and artless, because he’s coming from an unusual perspective where he knew a lot about art through his own endeavours, but at the same time he had practically no tuition beyond school.” I am curious to find out whether his family feel they need to honour his ambivalence towards art institutions. What would they do, hypothetically, if the National Portrait Gallery wanted to formally celebrate and show Tucker’s work? “I think, if I’m really honest, we’d be incredibly excited, because the key thing is that we would like as many people as possible to see the work. We were resistant from the outset to just selling it in commercial galleries, because it would just disappear into people’s houses. I know exactly what you mean; it’s a funny one. And a lot of what I say about his attitude towards the art world, it’s a little bit of speculation. He was a regular visitor to all the galleries in Liverpool and Manchester, and I have no doubt – like towards the end of his life, he did say to my dad, ‘I would love to have an exhibition at Warrington Art Gallery’, and little things like the man who told me my uncle had dreamt of going to St Ives. I think it was his dream to be a known artist.”
To this end, plans have been set to bring Tucker’s work to a wider audience. “Warrington Museum and Art Gallery are going to hold a retrospective of his work, which is brilliant because it means we’re going to get to show a lot more of the work than we could just in his house. I’d like the work to be seen as widely as it possibly can be, not least because I feel like that’s the way it will survive in this world the longest.” Ready For Christmas, his only publicly exhibited piece so far, is now viewable by the public in the gallery ahead of the major retrospective scheduled for November 2019. I ask Joe whether he and the family are apprehensive about the reception they may encounter along this journey. “Like with any art, once you put it out there you kind of release it to the world and you don’t really have any control over the response. To be honest we had a little bit of that even having the exhibition in the house, which was free, we had a few negative comments saying, ‘Oh, they’re trying to exploit [him] – this poor guy’s done this work all his life,’ and it was difficult. It’s not nice to hear comments like that, but I sort of just held on to what I thought the greater good was. We think it deserves to be seen, and if that means facing down a few comments like that, that feels like nothing in comparison to the overwhelmingly positive response we got to the house exhibition.”
If Eric Tucker’s name was to be recognised by history, Joe believes that this would have positive implications for the art world, and perhaps open the way for a living Eric Tucker, and other precocious working-class talents who could do with a little more audacity, a little more ego. “I think it’s just that for someone from a background, a working-class background, there’s always that slight difficulty about betraying your background in some sense.” Joe, a scriptwriter for television, is keenly aware of the discourse that surrounds artist like his uncle. “I work in the media where this is a bit of a hot thing – his voice, people from backgrounds like my uncle’s, sort of staunchly working class, they’re very, very few and far between in the art world, and that’s probably as true now as it was in 1943 when my uncle was a young man. The North feels like another underrepresented bit of the art world, we’re kind of allowed LS Lowry and that’s sort of it. I think it’s important that artists like my uncle are seen because they’re such a rare commodity.” Eric Tucker is well deserving of being remembered, and the art world, increasingly a game of ‘clout’ and self-regard, could learn something from this rare artist.
Right up until the moment he passed away, at 86 years old, Tucker lived on his own terms. “He had a degenerative heart problem that he refused all treatment for. So, he was the uncompromising artist right ’til the end. Everything he did, he curated it the way he wanted it. My dad and his sister were right there with him until the end and I saw him a few hours before. He was very peaceful, he wasn’t in any pain or anything.”