Terry Scales, Painter
Terry Scales has lived for more than fifty years in a quiet back street in a forgotten corner of Greenwich where the tourists do not stray. To find him, I wandered through narrow thoroughfares between modest old terraces that splayed off at different angles with eccentric geometry, just like lines upon a protractor, to reach the park at zero degrees Longitude.
In the front room, Terry’s wife, Cristiana Angelini, was painting and he ushered me past. “She has the best room, but I have the best light,” He whispered with a sly grin as he led me quickly into his crowded studio overlooking the garden. There, among a proliferation of handsome pictures of boats upon the Thames that are his forte, Terry showed me the first oil painting that he did at art school – an accomplished still life in the manner of Cezanne – and a fine pencil drawing of him in his teens by Susan Einzeg. A portrait that is recognisable seventy years later on account of Terry’s distinctively crooked aquiline nose and feverish youthful energy.
I know of no other painter so well placed to paint scenes of the Thames as Terry Scales since, alongside his natural facility with the brush, he is able to draw upon a lifetime’s experience, growing up in a family that made its living upon the river for generations and then working in the Docks himself. “Because of the strikes, people think that dockers were all muscle and brawn, but we had men who left solicitors’ offices to work in Docks. It has to do with the independent lifestyle, you were never working for just one company, you were working all over the shop.” Terry assured me, eager to dispel the notion of dockers as an unsophisticated workforce, “Among that vast body of men, there were many very talented people.”
“They discovered I was a professionally trained artist and asked me to draw portraits,” he revealed, showing me his work for the National Dock Labour Board magazine in the fifties, “but my senior colleagues were very suspicious and conservative. I grew a beard after two years in the Docks and they were all scandalised!”
Terry’s work is the outcome of an intimate relationship with his subject, both the working life of the river and its shifting climate. “Most of the subjects of my paintings have gone now,” he confessed, casting his eyes fondly around the gallery of maritime scenes that surrounded us, evoking the vanished world of the Docks with such vibrant presence. I was fascinated to learn how Terry had combined his employment as a docker with his artistic endeavour – so that each fed the other – and he obliged by telling me the whole story.
“I was born in 1932 in St Olave’s, Rotherhithe, and my family lived in that area for as long as anyone knew. My mother’s people came over from Ireland in the eighteen-fifties after the potato famine, and they were called O’Driscoll which they changed to Driscoll. On both sides, my family worked in the Docks, and my father was a ganger in the Albert Docks and a lighterman. A hundred years ago, they were very adventurous, with my grandfather travelling to Australia and America, taking ships here and there, and picking up work. On my father’s side, they were all dockers in Bermondsey working on the grain wharfs near Cherry Gardens Pier – the lightermen’s stopping point where they changed barges.
I was evacuated to Seaton in the West Country which opened my eyes to the splendour of landscape and I returned after the war with a broad Devon accent to live in one of the prefab villages in Bermondsey. After a good schooling in Devon, I was sent to school in Rotherhithe which was appalling – there was a complete lack of discipline and I learnt absolutely nothing. The Labour government brought in a scheme where pupils that were talented but not academic could go to a college and learn a craft. So, at the age of thirteen, I applied to Camberwell School of Art and was accepted. And when I arrived there it was like heaven, because we had the best painters in England teaching us and, being thirteen I took it very seriously indeed – there was Victor Pasmore, Keith Vaughan, John Minton, William Coldstream and members of the Euston Rd Group.
I think the teachers must have appreciated that I was such a serious student because, by the age of sixteen, I had sold paintings to all the staff and William Coldstream bought a canal scene of mine. So I was doing very well as a student artist. Keith Vaughan, John Minton and Susan Einzig, they were the Neo-Romantic group and they took me under their wing. But the members of the Euston Rd Group taught me to draw because they were keen on observation, so I owe my drawing ability to them. There was an ideological war going on between their subdued English Realism and the Neo-Romantics who were influenced by Picasso and Matisse.
I was the youngest in my year and, when we graduated in 1952, I had to do National Service so I applied to the RAF. A Jazz musician called Monty Sunshine told me I should be a telephonist because it was the cushiest job. So I applied to do signals in the Far East, but they sent me to work at East India Docks and I was able to live at home. By the time I was demobbed all my friends were teaching, but I didn’t fancy that, as I was only twenty-one, so I took a job at a publicity studio in Fleet St that did posters for Hollywood films and I became a background artist. Once, I painted a brooding sky with lightning as the background to the poster for ‘The Night My Number Came Up’ but after they had put a great big aeroplane on it, and the stars’ faces, and the title, you could hardly see any of my work! I was paid a very low wage, the painters who did the stars’ faces got the top money with the lettering artists below them, so I realised it would be a long time before I earned any money.
I was ambitious, so my father said to me, ‘This is peanuts – why don’t you come and work in the Docks? You could build up your bank balance.’ In 1955, I took a docker’s brief at number one sector, Surrey Docks, and over a five year period I worked every wharf from Tower Bridge to Woolwich. In the summer, once the Baltic Sea thawed, I worked on the timber ships. They came with huge cargoes and every strip had to be manhandled into barges. I worked quite hard, earned very good wages and had no accidents.
One day, I finished early after unloading a ship of Belgian chocolates, so I decided to go over to Camberwell and see my old teachers. I dropped in on the Foundation Course and they said, ‘Thank God you’ve turned up because one of the tutors has been taken ill! Can you take the class?’ And afterwards, they said, ‘Can you come back tomorrow?’ Prior to that, I had an exhibition at the South London Gallery and I continued painting while I was working at the Docks. I painted a whole exhibition once during an eight week strike.
I knew the Welfare Officer at the Surrey Docks and I said, ‘I’m going to leave to teach.’ He said, ‘Teaching is a very insecure profession, you shouldn’t give up the Docks.’ But the Docks closed ten years later and I stayed teaching at Camberwell in the Fine Art Department for the next thirty years, until I retired in 1990 to concentrate on my own work.
The appeal of painting the Thames for me is not just because of my personal background, but because the river has space. In London, you are aware of being closed in yet when you see the Thames it has a grandeur, and when the tall ships are there you feel the magnificence of it. You get changes of light and, although I’ve often been prevented from finishing paintings because of surprises, like breaks in the weather or the sudden appearance of smoke, it always adds something. You start to paint a ship on a Monday, it rains on a Tuesday and it’s a different ship there on the Thursday – but if you are a landscape artist seeking qualities of light, ambiguity has to be part of it.”
Terry in his studio, sitting with the first painting he ever did at art school. “A man who paints puts his heart on the wall and in that painting is the man’s life” - John Minton, 1951.
Bert and James, Barges, Prior’s Wharf, 1990
View from the Festival Hall
Pier at Bankside
Red Tug passing St Paul’s
Shipping off Piper’s Wharf, 1983
The ‘John Mackay,’ Trans-Atlantic Cable Layer, Enderby’s Wharf, 1979
Mike Canty’s Boat Yard, 1988
Terry with his shed that he constructed entirely out of driftwood from the Thames.
Paintings and drawings copyright © Terry Scales