By Helen Murphy and Nick Pelling

In the sepia depths of ‘The Horse and Groom,’ in Mercatoria, one can often find two of the brightest stars in the St Leonards’ art firmament: Annie and Bruce Rae. They are not, however, natural self-advertisers, so HIP decided it was time we had a serious chat, to get beyond their self-effacing modesty. They have a lot not to be modest about.

Annie and Bruce married in the hot, punk summer of 1976 but, looking back at their individual profiles, it does look as though their lives had a natural symmetry – almost as if their destinies were always fated to intersect. Both grew up in the late 1940s and early 1950s in Scottish cities part ravaged by war. Annie lived just south of Glasgow and Bruce in Aberdeen. Both went to city art colleges – Annie to Edinburgh and Bruce to Birmingham – and then both went on to the Royal Academy. But curiously they did not meet there. It was later at the ‘401 and a Half’ studios on Wandsworth Road. Both went on to lecture at the University of East London. 

Annie and Bruce

It was perhaps because they followed different disciplines that they never met at RA. She is a painter, illustrator and curator, and he is a master photographer. Each has gone on to flourish in their respective areas. They have lived, laughed and breathed together for many years, but they have always remained entirely distinct artists. 

DRAWING IN GHOSTS

Annie is an artist whose work has an illustrative tendency, but she is quite dismissive of people who think that such art is ‘commercial’ and therefore not ‘fine’ art. In fact, she feels that these arbitrary divisions are unhelpful. She says that when she was training as an artist, things were much ‘freer’ and there was none of the absurd snobbishness about the supposed superiority of fine art. 

But it is nevertheless true that some of her more personal and serious work has a magnetism and a depth too, that raises it above standard depiction. An excellent example of this is her series of works inspired by the Hastings Pier when it was a burnt-out skeletal structure after the fire in October 2010. She saw the black and twisted frame
as something almost beautiful, and her drawings capture that weird collision of the appalling and the appealing. But she went further. She began to draw scenes from bygone ages that might have occurred on the old pier; as if drawing in ghosts, or imagined memories, of people enjoying the elegant Pier and its ballroom before its searing demise. Drawings of Edwardian ladies on a promenade or, our favourite, 1950s dancers whirling around to Acker Bilk’s jazz band. Beautiful drawings with a strange poetry about them.

Rock and Roll Doll by Bruce Rae; Acker Bilk by Annie Rae

Her pencil line has both delicacy and force. The late, great Python, Terry Jones, wrote that Annie has a “sureness of line that is quite breath-taking”.   He was spot on. Annie is a believer in artistic skill as something too much undervalued. She has a pithy view on what art school should be about, “I want to be taught by a bloody painter who can paint.” She is not a fan of art theory; a small mercy, given the endless streams of drivel that now engulf too much art practice.

DISTORTING THE BLUES

The curious symmetry of their lives has a physical dimension. Annie has lost some of her sight and Bruce is partly deaf. In Annie’s case, this has an impact on her art practice. She suffers from macular deterioration but also from what she calls “visual distortion”. She cannot quite trust her sight because it will judge space and colour and distance in unreliable ways. This is obviously dangerous. But she admits that there is an upside. Colours come to her in unusual ways. “Blues can hover and vibrate.”  

She explored the whole business of perception under strain in a three-person exhibition at the Hastings Arts Forum Gallery in 2017, alongside John Cole and Jess Norgrove. John is quite deaf, and Jess Norgrove has mild cerebral palsy, and between them they put on an exhibition that probed these profound sensory challenges.

Annie’s work was set out in ways that partly obstructed or obscured itself, so that viewers could not easily ‘read’ the work, perhaps giving the viewer some sense of the frustration and effort needed to understand her world. She captured something of what her experience is like in a powerful piece with this stony inscription: “I have gone to another country where I can neither read nor understand the language. So I am on permanent alert, looking for visual clues.” 

A DARK ROOM OF MAGIC

Bruce Rae’s creative journey as a young man was painfully redirected by extraordinary misfortune. Namely, being offered a drink of ‘homemade wine’ that turned out to be antifreeze! The result was not just renal failure, a long coma and a dice with death, but also a permanent partial loss of hearing that destroyed his promising music ambitions (Bruce had perfect pitch). The agonised eventual outcome of this horror story was a friend’s suggestion that maybe he should now try a visual art, like photography. 

Bruce subsequently attended Birmingham School of Photography. The course was intensely about the chemical nuts and bolts of photography. As he puts it, “we never heard a word about Susan Sontag or Walter Benjamin.” Instead, Bruce learned everything about how filmic processes work – he was, in fact, taught by an ex-forensic photographer from the Met. Although he did not know it at the time, he had been ushered into a dark-room world of secret knowledge and magical alchemy now almost entirely lost in our bland digital wonderland. 

From Birmingham, he moved up to the Royal College. It was here that he began to be aware of the intellectual theorisation of photography that was going on in the later sixties. But, due to his grounding in crucial skills, he was not blown off course by meta-theory. Indeed, he left the RC and moved straight into commercial work, making portraits for book and magazine covers. He soon realised that he had a gift for portraiture. He was also doing that thing so many artists find tricky: making good money. And not only that, he was meeting and snapping the glitterati of the seventies such as Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer and Dennis Hopper.

At Hastings Art Forum – Annie Rae; Shipyard Worker by Bruce Rae

His talent for making a portrait that really suggested something about the inner life of the subject hit an extraordinarily high note when he started to work for the Side Gallery in Newcastle. This resulted in the most incredible portraits of Geordie men at work in the Tyne shipyards. These works captured a tough but highly skilled world of working-class men. They seem to look proud, defiant and doomed all at the same time. It is of course a world now largely slipped away, which adds an elegiac note. They were taken in around the time that Mrs. Thatcher was gearing up for her clash with the miners, when the old working class was, arguably, about to make its last stand.

THE MISCHIEVOUS EYE  

We asked if he saw these prints as overtly ‘political’? He replied that “you can’t work for the Side Gallery in Newcastle and not be political.” But he also saw it as “a job of work”.  To some extent, Bruce has always been primarily obsessed with mastering his craft. He has a passion for the history of the subject. You could even say he has resolutely resisted the modern world – he is scathing about digital photography. 

Becoming partly deaf, perhaps exacerbated his inclination to be something of an outsider looking in: a watcher with a mischievous eye. From time to time, he admits, “I tire of being serious.” His noirish photographs of odd combinations of 1950s and 60s doll parts – entitled Rock-and-Roll Dolls – came out of this spirit of almost childish subversiveness.  

We inevitably asked him about his camera of choice and the reply was somewhat surprising: he said, “I use a Lotus camera made by Austrian Trappist monks.” For a moment we thought this was more of Bruce’s mischief. But then he brought out the beautiful old camera, with its wooden frame and jack-in-a-box concertina body. Bruce recalls that when he first saw this camera, he declared himself “in love.” 

His interest in the past impelled him to look deeply into the history of photographic techniques. He began to experiment with the early slow chemical processes, such as the salt and silver nitrate method pioneered by bearded Victorians, such as Henry Fox Talbot.  

CONDITION HUMAN

The outcome of this exploration was a set of incredible prints of flowers and other natural forms. The resultant exhibition in 1997 created quite a stir. The Telegraph had a front page of an internal section on Bruce in 2001.  The works have a unique depth, luminosity and warmth but retain a close-up intimacy. But there is also a slightly eerie mood. The salt prints tend to be looking very closely at the delicate, fragile ‘flesh’ of petals. Undoubtedly, these works provoke meanings and feelings beyond horticulture. They suggest all sorts of aspects of the human condition: frailty, sexual unfolding and spiritual revelation. They can seem a celebration of the intricacies of life – but there is also more than an icy hint of our inevitable withering away. 

Both Annie and Bruce are still working, thinking and kicking. Their entwined lives are in some ways a work of commitment to creativity; lives dedicated to being and feeling alive. They are not a loud couple but in their quiet persistence they stand out as artists who resist the get-famous-for-nothing joys of our age and who live out the almost revolutionary doctrine that true artists never stop learning their trade. It may sound like a simple point, but in Annie and Bruce we can surely see the sublime power of this credo.


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