Graham Knuttel was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1954, of German and English parentage. Among his mother’s family were several noted architects and artists including Thomas Cooper Gotch who confounded the Newlyn School of Painting.
He mentions also his great uncle, Archie Leach, better known as Cary Grant. His father’s family roots are cloaked in secrecy and Knuttel considers himself to be Irish or more specifically, a Dubliner. Initially renowned for his large wooden mechanical animated sculptures, Knuttel has more recently emerged as a painter with a rapidly growing international reputation. He is represented in many important collections in Europe and the USA as well as many public collections in Ireland. He is a prolific worker, spending up to 15 hours in his studio every day. His lifestyle could be considered eccentric and in recent years he has become reclusive and attaches great importance to his private life.
I was born in Dublin, in March 1954. My parents came to Ireland in 1947 from Bedford in England where my father had served with the R.A.F. His father, Adolf Knuttel, was a stone quarry owner in Dresden but my father and his mother came to England after the 1st World War.
My father is a strange eccentric man, but had nothing on his mother. I met her only once when I was four of five but the memory will never leave me. She was very tall and thin with a hook like nose not dissimilar to my own. Her cheeks were hollow, whitened with powder and highlighted with rouge. She was dressed all in black, except for a white lace frill at her neck. The sight of her beside my father’s huge dark wardrobe sent me into a state of total hysteria. There being no one else in the room, she tried to lock me in the wardrobe. I can still hear her cackling and feel her long white claws at the back of my neck.
I often look at my drawings of birds with which I have had a long obsession and I wonder. I am glad that I managed to find some sort of humour in what I firmly believe was a very close call. I think she might easily have strangled me and possibly eaten me had not my cries been heard. She was returned that same day to Margate where she lived in a guest house surrounded by her collection of stuffed animals until her death in 1962.
My mothers family were more normal. Many of my summer holidays were spent at their house in Northampton, then a small market town. My grandfather had been shell-shocked in Flanders during the 1st World War but the only manifestations of this that I could discern were a tendency to shout in his sleep all night and to cross roads as if he were in a trench, holding his hat, knees bent, gripping the wall firmly on the other side. He would take me to see my Uncle Freddie who was a municipal painter. Part of his brief was to maintain the various coats of arms and painted war memorials throughout the town. We would sit in the sun for hours watching him paint his bright rich reds and blues, and his fine and important gold leaf highlights.
We went to England two or three times a year and I remember the atmosphere of that journey very well. We took The Princess Maud, a steam-ship notorious for its creaking and rolling, packed as it was in those days too, with emigrant faces. We made the journey at night with a three hour wait at dawn in Crewe Station for a connection. Under the grime and soot it was a magnificent building with its ornate brickwork and cast and wrought iron. In many ways the scenes were reminiscent of the air raid drawings of Henry Moore. Today when I draw people, I draw in caricature railway porters I have seen asleep on mail bags, weary worried men and women busy and intent on that awful survival.
I had a happy childhood and did all the things horrid boys do. My brother and sister were ten years older than me so I was left very much to follow my own destiny. I suppose my parents realised that children never turn out to be any thing other than what they want to be. My earliest memories of my own work are of battle scenes: columns of soldiers advancing and retreating by the use of my rubber, explosions caused by splashes of red ink, generals promoted and demoted by addition and subtraction of medals.
My school days were not those of model student. In fact, few of them were spent at school at all. With my schoolbag safely hidden in a neighbour’s hedge, many mornings and afternoons were spent sampling the cafe society and pubs of Dublin and exploring the rocky coastline of Dublin Bay.
As my interest on formal education waned, my absorption in drawing and painting grew. When I was eighteen, I started at art school. My years of training had given me an insight into the possibilities of bohemian life and art school suited me very well. I had always had interest in figurative work, in the portrayal of the human condition, and from an early age I was familiar with the work of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso. In art school I was attracted to the life drawing room where I determined to develop my skills as a figurative painter. I found Graham Knuttel myself to be an intuitive painter. I had little patience with the intellectual processes and conclusions which were involved with abstract and conceptual art. For me, to paint what I saw or felt or imagined around me should be a simple affair, painted from the gut.
In my last year of study, some new tutors arrived, fresh from post-graduate studies in America, and proved to be a dangerous lot altogether. They were rabid abstract expressionists to whom artists such as Barnet Newman assumed god-like status. My difficulty then was that I was isolated as a figurative painter and should I decline to imitate a transatlantic culture, I would certainly be doomed to failure. I found it pragmatic therefore to stop painting temporarily and adjourn to the sculpture department for my final year. My tutor there was an elderly sculptor who had seen trends come and go over the years and who emphasised to me the qualities of the older painters Cezanne, Goya, Rembandt. From his lifetime of carving wood and stone he was able to tell me something of the way that light reveals form and how paint can break the light into colours. It was a valuable year for me.
In 1976 I received my diploma for my exhibition of sinister moving wood constructions – a wooden bird, a portcullis, a shield, wooden machines reminiscent of medieval times – just as solidly built as my father’s wardrobe.
I developed a love for sculpture at this time and for some years worked hard in carving and construction. However through drawing and using colour in my sculpture, I gradually found myself returning to painting. Nowadays I work as both a painter and a sculptor. For a young artist, the initial years are extremely tough and hazardous. The bohemian life can be often dangerous too. My observations of humanity led me down some very dark alleyways indeed during my wilderness years, and like my grandfather I am also prone to shout in
my sleep at my memories. At the beginning of 1987 I realised that I must mend my ways.
Overnight I became a workaholic with sensational results. Nowadays painting is an obsession for me. I have a strict discipline and I work from first light every morning until darkness, and beyond. As I work, I use as source matter my experiences as a younger man. I like to paint the human predicament as I have seen it. My figures appear in an urban landscape of which I am part. I try to use colour and form to express the emotion of my figures.
I have recently developed this to include portraiture which I find exhilarating. I prefer a nightmare world full of shadows where danger and savagery is always close to hand. My own doubts and fears and hopes are expressed on the faces that appear in the bars and backrooms in my work. Mr. Punch is my alter ego. He reflects my moods. We fight the same battles from the same cupboards. I return in my work constantly to still-life as a source of inspiration. Its potential for simplicity and invention and its deep roots in tradition bring me back to my student studies of Cezanne and Picasso. I try not to concern myself overly with intellectual reasoning or planning in my work. As a hard-working painter, my concerns are mainly technical, practical and immediate. My concern is to paint the picture first and think about it afterwards. That way I can progress in a proper manner. Above all I try to speak with my own voice and see with my own eyes.