In 2016 Phrased & Confused asked Lizzie Nunnery to respond to the work of the poet Adrian Henri, as part of the Liverpool wide celebration of the Mersey Poets and the 50th anniversary in 2017 of the publication of the Mersey Sound. Here Art Historian Catherine Marcangeli considers Adrian, his work and his impact.
Adrian Henri (1932-2000) was an artist, poet, musician and a pioneer of happenings in Britain. He trained as a painter at King’s College, Newcastle under Roger de Grey, Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton, then moved to Liverpool in 1956, later teaching at the Art College there. His early Pop Art sensibility translated into urban imagery, collages and hyperrealist paintings of meat against a clinical white background.
Henri came to prominence as a writer alongside Roger McGough and Brian Patten in the groundbreaking and resolutely contemporary Penguin anthology The Mersey Sound (1967), one of the best-selling poetry books of all time. His live poetry readings, and his ability to juxtapose everyday or pop images with highbrow cultural references, shaped several generations’ perceptions of what poetry could be, and could be about.
Performance was central to Henri’s practice, both as a visual artist and as a poet. He gave numerous poetry readings and, in the 1960s and 1970s, fronted the poetry-and-rock group The Liverpool Scene, signed by RCA. Their debut album was produced by John Peel, who dubbed Henri “one of the great non-singers of our time.” In 1969, the band performed at the Isle of Wight Festival, supported Led Zeppelin and toured America.
Henri’s eclectic interests and multi-faceted interdisciplinary œuvre placed him at the centre of a distinctively local yet internationally connected counter-culture.
References to Liverpool, in particular the Bohemian area of Liverpool 8, abound in his work, from the titles of his books, paintings and performances, to the name of his band.
His first Happening was titled City (1962), and its backdrop was an assemblage of posters, detritus and objects found in the streets of Liverpool. City was also the title of his 1969 poetry collection whose front cover showed a map of Liverpool 8. His play The Big Feller, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi, is also set in 1960s Liverpool, and comically pits Ubu’s stilted language against colourful Scouse idioms. In many of Henri’s paintings too, Père Ubu walks the streets of Liverpool.
As for his large oil on canvas The Entry of Christ into Liverpool in 1964 (1962-64, Paul Sacher Foundation, Basle), it is a variation on James Ensor’s Entry of Christ into Brussels in 1889 (1888, Getty Museum). In this frontal composition, which anticipates the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s album cover, Henri assembles a cast of friends and heroes, real and imaginary, local and international: James Ensor, Alfred Jarry and his Père Ubu character, William Burroughs, Charlie Mingus and Charlie Parker, as well as members of Liverpool’s 1960s bohemia, such as photographer Philip Jones Griffiths, painters Don McKinlay and Sam Walsh, jazz singer George Melly (Henri’s first art patron), musician Mike Evans and poets Pete Brown, Brian Patten and Roger McGough. “The Entry of Christ into Liverpool”, the corresponding poem written not long after, is also firmly relocated to Liverpool, street names giving a specificity to the scene and lending it an increased sense of reality which further jars with the fantastical spectacle.
This recurrent relocation and appropriation process is not a form of proudly claimed provincialism. More interestingly, it is as though Henri were creating a parallel city where characters and artists he liked and admired convened and mingled with the locals, a mental city in which his Imaginary Museum flourished, a way of bridging the gap between art and life.
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This essay was first published as part of a programme launching the Mersey Sound exhibition, curated by Catherine, at the Southbank Poetry library. The event featured a performance of Horny Handed Tons of Soil.