On The Fringes of the Independent Group: The Collages of Gene & Michael Harrison (Robert Holcombe 1923 – 2003)
Gene and Michael Harrison are pseudonyms used by the artist Robert Holcombe (b.Leeds 1923, d.Exeter 2003), whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts while in convalescence from injuries sustained on active service in Malaya in 1944. He recovered quickly – the injuries sustained were not, it seems, life-threatening – but completed his service in civilian roles. Once demobilised, after a couple of years pursuing studies with the WEA while working in a variety of clerical jobs, he was finally accepted at the Slade School of Art in 1948 to study printmaking.
Although the same age as Slade contemporaries like Richard Hamilton, Holcombe’s feeling of being slightly apart, combined with his introverted and somewhat absent minded character, ensured that despite many shared interests – in collage, popular music, science, technology and cinema – his involvement with the then developing Independent Group was casual and marginal: while he is known to have regularly met and corresponded with some of the Independent Group’s key members over many years, he did not exhibit with them and did not attend its more formal discussions and meetings.
Even so, both Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi have noted Holcombe’s contributions between 1948 and 1954, and Holcombe stayed in touch with Paolozzi on a sporadic basis at least until the early 1980s, sending him occasional batches of new collages or short stories, and – Paolozzi notes – resisting attempts by himself and others to include Holcombe in exhibitions. His relationship with the Newcastle-based Hamilton after his return to Leeds was evidently more sporadic and complex, if the Holcombe side of their correspondence gives a true indication: Hamilton’s letters to Holcombe remain unavailable, if they survive.
In the winter of 1955, Holcombe left London and returned to Leeds, and from 1955 until his retirement in 1988 worked mainly in the City Planning Offices, a role that involved assessing architects’ and developers’ plans for private and public construction projects in the city: the work undertaken by Holcombe in this role may have had some influence on his fascination with modernist buildings, domestic design and the more general emergent popular culture of the post-war period, as displayed in many of the collage series he made, always signing his works GH or MH – Gene and Michael Harrison – names chosen, he once explained, for their American sound.
It is notable that the split character of Holcombe’s pseudonym reflects a dual aspect of the works. Although not entirely consistent (the bodies of work overlap to a significant degree, and Holcombe appears to have constructed his own chronology from memory, often dating works many years after they were actually made) GH, or Gene Harrison, is the device used to sign works in which technological processes, machinery and architecture are foregrounded, while MH, Michael Harrison, is usually assigned to works built around organic, anatomical and natural imagery.
Many works are also unsigned, notably those in the Biological Camouflage series (1974 – 1981) and Krakow (1964), but while it’s been suggested that these unsigned works might be read as Holcombe’s own rather than as belonging to either pseudonym, his exact intention remains unknown: it’s equally possible that he simply never got around to signing and dating these works. In a 1964 letter to Paolozzi, Holcombe suggests that this division of his thinking into two separate but related identities allowed him to pursue different sets of obsessions on parallel lines, allowing him to:
“…open a distance between the work and myself. Few things irritate me more than lazy assumptions that artworks are invariably the confessions of their creators.”
He admired and often quoted the writings of Fernando Pessoa, the Portuguese modernist poet and author of The Book of Disquiet whose many ‘heteronyms’ allowed similar stylistic and thematic interests to be encompassed within a single body of work. Some of the constructions in Holcombe’s The Modernists (1965 – 1978) are thought to refer obliquely to Pessoa’s writings, but exact correlations between particular works and specific texts are difficult to establish with any certainty.
Direct allusions to Whistler, Delacroix, Bataille, Carroll, Millais and others in works made at all stages of his active period, contained roughly between 1950 and 1981, not to mention the stock characters and story-lines found in 1960s comic books, or the range of print materials Holcombe managed to acquire for his collages, all tend to support the idea that he maintained a keen interest in incorporating such parallels and references into his images. Perhaps Pessoa, alongside other known influences like Borges and Benjamin, is simply too deeply embedded to see clearly: an assumed and permanent presence whose significance needs no particular signpost.
From 1965 until around 1974, Holcombe was responsible for overseeing the design and construction of two major hospital buildings, and it had been suggested that this may have played a part in bringing Holcombe’s interest in anatomical diagrams and medical imagery to the fore. This has since been fairly comprehensively disproved with the emergence of many works, unknown earlier, showing that Holcombe was already including such material in his collages at the Slade soon after 1948, and surviving examples date from as early as 1952’s Gothic Conversation: A Crucifix for Luis Bunuel.
The Krakow portfolio, made in 1964, to give only one particularly significant example from long before Holcombe’s work in hospital building, shows Holcombe paying homage and entering into a dialogue with the Polish sculptor and holocaust survivor Alina Szapocznikow, whose own interest in anatomical forms, body casts and tumours is echoed in Holcombe’s additions to 26 scenes cut from a guidebook to the Polish city.
Holcombe’s move into municipal planning after 1955 and his known encounters with the Independent Group between 1948 and 1955 would tend to suggest he must have enjoyed early contact with the ‘brutalist’ ideas of Alison and Peter Smithson and the thinking and writing on architecture, technology and design of Reyner Banham, John McHale and Magda Cordell, though to date no firm evidence of meetings or correspondence with these figures has yet surfaced. The probability seems high that such exchanges took place and more detail may well emerge from the archival material held by the artist’s sister, Elizabeth Booth, in Exeter. It was Booth to whom Holcombe’s previously unseen archive passed on the artist’s death in 2003.
One recently recovered folder contained silkscreen images made from the cover designs used on Scientific Book Club editions of the years between 1958 – 1962, the first evidence we have (beyond the bare record of his 1948 acceptance to study printmaking at the Slade, a specialism he may not have pursued long) that he did, in fact, make prints. Further portfolios of collage, screenprints, photographs, writings and letters are sure to emerge and will continue to add surprising twists to the picture we have of Holcombe’s output across 40 years of mostly private but often very intensely focused productive activity.
During the 1970s Holcombe wrote a handful of science fiction stories. One of these, Personal Playback, found a home in a small American journal, while another, Not Smoking Can Seriously Damage Your Health, was selected by J.D. Cowling in the Best of SF anthology published by Bantam in the US during 1977. This particular story, perhaps the best known of Holcombe’s works in terms of a wider public, first appeared in the Lomax Review in 1976, and went on to have a major influence on the Chicago-based musician Tomas Satz, whose own career, as pieced together by the Canadian journalist Nicholas Carter in Albany Six (2012), resembles an SF odyssey more than any normal musical trajectory.
Interest in Holcombe today is largely due to the new availability of his work and the recent uncovering of these connections. His writings and works can be seen to have played a significant if mostly submerged part in marginally influencing a disparate group of people whose activities – themselves previously little understood – prove to have played a key role in directing the general trajectory of the post-war era. The Independent Group’s reinvention of Modernism for the second half of the twentieth century and Tomas Satz’s journey from cult 1960s musician to military researcher and pioneer of neural echo technologies place Holcombe deep inside the cultural unconscious of our own century.
Whether Holcombe understood or was much aware of the role he played in all this is debatable, though his surviving correspondence, particularly that with Paolozzi, which is the most consistent and detailed account of his evolving ideas that we have, suggests that the questions at issue were important to him and they can certainly be seen to have shaped both the particular content and the general direction of his work. Holcombe offers us a distorting mirror, a sensibility intent on using the reconfiguration of images as a template and model for both the reconfiguration of his own multiple identity and – in some symbolic or metaphorical way – the contours of reality itself.
It’s these properties that have awakened recent interest in Holcombe’s curious life and work. Those with an interest in the relationship between the still-evolving cultures formed in the crucible of post-war reconstruction and our own problematic but potentially transformative moment can find that Holcombe, consciously or otherwise, anticipates, anatomises and embodies much that remains unfinished business in our own time, though rarely in any straightforward or easily categorised way. His perplexing and contrary qualities remain even as his archive promises to carry us deeper into the symbolic portals and disturbed spaces that resonate in so many of his images.
All images are reproduced courtesy of the estate of Robert Holcombe/Geranium Ltd, with permission from Elizabeth Booth. All Rights Reserved.