The Life of
John Pickering

The Life of John Pickering
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Family, Childhood and 94 Amos Lane

John Pickering’s life was unique, but his humble beginnings belied how exceptional his life was to be.

John and his twin brother, Arthur, were born in 1934 in Wednesfield, a village on the outskirts of the city of Wolverhampton in the West Midlands.

Arthur Pickering, their father, was one of four children born to Frederick Pickering who owned a successful construction business that was responsible for the building of much of the new housing in the area. Arthur joined the family business and married Alice Marston, the daughter of another local Wednesfield family.

The married couple took up residence in one of the houses built by the family business, a well-built, semi-detached house, on a corner plot, at 94 Amos Lane, Wednesfield. This would be the house in which the three sons, the twins John and Arthur, and Robert who was born 9 years after the twins, would grow up in and live in for the rest of their lives, indeed Robert and Arthur continue to live there to this day.

The house has barely changed since the 1930’s when John’s parents took up residence. The same wooden draining board, stone sink, and quarry tiled floor remain in the kitchen today, even the old kitchen table with its red formica top and the old fireplace and mantelpiece too. The ‘front room’ still has the original plate rack running all around the room, the old coal fire has been replaced with a gas fire, one of the few modernisations, however the whole house still has no central heating. Domestic arrangements were never a priority to John and his brothers. The three brothers all went to the local primary school which was a short walk from their house. It was here, at the age of eight that John decided he would be an artist. He remembers drawing knights in armour with their horses.

The brothers were always playing cricket in the drive with their friends or off into the surrounding countryside on their bikes. It was a life of freedom for those times, with little parental control, so that some family members and neighbours were to consider the boys rather wild.

Their mother, Alice, suffered from poor health throughout her married life and tragically died from cancer when John and Arthur were 21 years old. She was a very gentle and intelligent woman and had a very close bond with John, who was very involved with his mother’s care during the final stages of her illness. After Alice’s death, their father remarried and for a time the new wife moved into the family home with the boys, who by this time were in their late 20’s. It was not a successful arrangement and the father and stepmother moved into a new home leaving the boys living on their own in Amos Lane.

On her deathbed Alice asked her sister in law, Lillian Pickering, to look after her boys, and in particular John, perhaps a mother’s intuition that John would also suffer from ill health in later life. Their aunt Lillian had two children, and John’s childhood friendship with the younger cousin Jillian, was to become one of the most significant relationships in John’s life.

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John had failed the eleven plus exam but his twin brother, Arthur, passed and attended a good school in Wolverhampton and then went on to take a degree in Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry. John hated going to the local secondary modern school which he considered to be a complete waste of time. He couldn’t wait to apply to Bilston College of Art where he completed the Foundation Course and then continued to Birmingham College of Art to study Sculpture. Following art college he worked as a stone carver on several projects, including St Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham and as an assistant in a wood pattern-making factory.

In these early years John largely educated himself. He read widely using the public library. He was profoundly influenced by ‘The Golden Bough’ by James George Frazer and the works of Carl Jung, Nietzsche and D.H. Lawrence. The brothers listened to classical music from an early age and refined their tastes over the years. There was and still is classical music in the house, and for John music, and in particular contemporary music was to become an important part of his artistic life.

Perhaps as a result of his liberal upbringing, and the wildness of his early years, John had a rebellious attitude towards rules and conventions, particularly if he considered them to be meaningless. This was the reason that he failed to graduate with the rest of his year from art school. To graduate the students had to produce a final piece of sculpture to a specific size. John’s final sculpture did not adhere to the stipulated size and so he failed his course. John would always do things his way, in fact ‘JP’s Way’ is the title given to an essay by the architect George L. Legendre included in the book ‘Mathematical Form: John Pickering and the Architecture of the Inversion Principle’.

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Rheumatoid Arthritis

When John was in his early 20’s at art school when he started to experience pain in his elbow; years earlier he had fallen off his bike and probably broken his arm but hadn’t sought any medical treatment. He was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disabling disease that was to dramatically impact on his life from an early age. As the disease progressed he was unable to continue with his work as a stone carver and was forced to pursue his own art from his home in Amos Lane.

During these years, John worked in isolation from the back room in Amos Lane, living with his brothers, Arthur, now a maths teacher and Robert, an architect. As his health deteriorated, his twin brother, became increasingly responsible for John’s care. During those key years the treatment was still very limited for severe RA and John’s treatment consisted largely of joint replacement surgery on hips, knees and hands, with painful gold injections into the joints and the taking of high doses of steroids. For most of his life he also had to wear the same heavy leather boot with a built up sole and metal brace, very reminiscent of something that polio sufferers wore in the 1950’s. He was in his 60’s by the time new TCR immunotherapy treatments became available and thanks to Wyeth pharmaceuticals, he was able to start treatment with Enbrel and Methotrexate. Sadly, John’s RA was so advanced by this stage, there was no significant improvement, but he did believe that it slowed further deterioration over the rest of his life.

John himself, was always adamant that his arthritis had absolutely no connection with his art and certainly never considered himself to be a ‘disabled artist’. However, all who met John and saw his hands and their extreme state of deformity for themselves, could only marvel that he was able to make his intricate sculptures.

The physical and mental effort that was required in John’s works was exceptional. For each piece of sculpture there is a folder of literally hundreds of handwritten pages of meticulous calculations of algebra and analytic geometry all done manually and drawings that serve as illustrations of the numerical calculations. It might be conjectured, that the constant pain, drove or even enabled him to achieve intense long periods of concentration and achieve such a high level of intellectual endeavour.

Rheumatoid Arthritis

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John’s Work

After an artistic career founded on figurative work, having trained in classical sculpture, he became fascinated in the 1970’s with projective geometry, inversion and fractals. He was strongly influenced by seminal texts such as ‘Geometry and the Imagination’ by D. Hilbert and S. Cohn-Vossen as well as taking inspiration from French Gothic cathedrals, spacecraft and the music of Stockhausen. One day, as he recounts it, he literally drew the curtains in his back room and left nature behind and became ‘anti-nature’.

Pickering was specifically inspired by the inversion principle, MP.MQ=MR2, and wrote that ‘the inversion principle can be used for transforming one thing into another, for both large and small-scale form. It produces a certain skeletal consistency but is not the rigid system one might suppose, as it allows the artist imaginative choices and flexibility, enabling personality to be imposed as part of the process. Logic is nothing to be afraid of when applied to art; it is simply part of human thought, spatial relations, balance and the laws of nature.’

John’s work, complex by the nature of its mathematical origin and complex in its final manifestation, can be appreciated on many levels. It is beautiful and intriguing work to the non-mathematician, or non-architect and even entranced children when exhibited at the Walsall Gallery. However, it also arouses great interest from architects and mathematicians, and provokes questions about the work’s relation to architecture.

For those seeking a more in-depth understanding of the work, the essays contained in the book ‘Mathematical Form: John Pickering and the Architecture of the Inversion Principle’, published by the Architectural Association (and available from Amazon) would be worthwhile reading.

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John and Music

As stated previously, music was an important part of John’s artistic life. His own essay on the subject in the Mathematical Form book gives us a good insight into the reasons why. He saw similarities in the twelve-note method of the Second Viennese School and the inversion principle. Later he discovered the music of the avant-garde composer Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007) and towards the end of John’s life he would listen to Stockhausen exclusively whilst working.

‘Karlheinz Stockhausen has forged a new musical language that has profoundly inspired me, giving rise to various parallels in my work. For example, in his Kontakte, the composer uses what he calls ‘moment form’ to make ‘vertical incisions’ that ‘break through the horizontal concepts of time’. In Klavierstück X, he includes long silences when the listener is meant to complete the space from his memory of what has gone before. Stockhausen has thus introduced a completely revolutionary way of listening to music, and I see this music as enfolded within the beauty of the sensual spatial curves of inversion. I like to imagine Stockhausen’s music being performed inside one of my own structures (made on a grand scale), so that the sensuality of the music emanates from the curvaceous sculpture around it.’

John met with Stockhausen in London in 2005 and was able to speak to him directly about his dream of Stockhausen’s music being performed in one of his structures. There was a bond between the two men and a dialogue continued over many years between John and Stockhausen’s partner, Kathinka Pasveer.

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An Inspiring Life

All who had the good fortune to visit the Pickering home, were to experience the unique atmosphere. John always warm and welcoming, with a devilish sense of humour was at the centre of life at 94 Amos Lane. Few people were to venture into the ‘back room’ cramped with sculptures on every surface, its tattered curtains, remnants from the 1930’s, were nicotine stained and pegged shut. His work board was cluttered with pencils, rulers, cardboard, Stanley knife, glue, his cigarettes, lighter and brimming ashtray and dark brown mugs, stained inside to the same rich brown from decades of tea stains.

This small, dark, cluttered room is where John spent almost all his life, he worked with tireless self-discipline despite living with constant chronic pain. The days were dictated by a routine, that included a short break in the morning for a phone call to his cousin Jillian, lunch, a short break in the afternoon for a cup of tea and a jam tart, supper and then back to his room until 9pm. It was the same every day, even Christmas Day. A day away from his work was an exceptional event, only for things he considered worthwhile, which were few and far between.

John’s relationship with Jillian, gave him a window to the outside world and they spoke at least once every day. Jillian’s husband, David, and her two daughters, Sarah and Rebecca were closely involved with John and his work and John had funny nicknames for all the family that had been used for so many years that the origins of many had been long forgotten.

John did take the occasional break from his work routine with a visit to his cousin’s home in Cambridge and later to the market town of Stamford, Lincolnshire. Here he totally relaxed, enjoyed the treat of a full English breakfast, sat outside with his cup of tea and a small cigar and on a summer’s evening they would all listen to music, such as the songs of Chausson and Duparc in the garden. The family also took trips to Paris with John, and visited his favourite cathedral at Chatres.

After years of working in complete isolation, Rebecca finally manged to persuade John to let her take three small models to the Royal Society of British Sculptors in South Kensington. The Director was so amazed by the works that he immediately said he wanted an exhibition as soon as possible. This was the beginning of John’s work being recognised and appreciated by many, particularly from the world of architecture. Architects such as Santiago Calatrava, Richard Rogers, John Silver, Chris Wise and many others came to see and admire the work. This led to a following exhibition at the prestigious London school of architecture, the AA. It was at the AA that John was to meet the architect George Legendre and the collaboration that was to last the rest of John’s life began.

John’s sculptures, are not only beautiful, complex and intriguing they are a truly inspiring example of man’s ability through sheer strength of will and total dedication to overcome what would for most people be impossible.