In 1769, the Royal Academy of Art in London held its first Summer Exhibition of contemporary art. Between 26 April and 27 May, 14,008 visitors took in 136 works by 54 artists, including Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds. The Exhibition has been held every year since, even during World War II.
Leaping forwards to the Summer Exhibition of 1973, amongst more than 60,000 visitors was 23-year old Peter Gabriel, lead singer and theatrical frontman for progressive rock band Genesis, who was drawn to an image on a wall of the Large South Room gallery: a pencil drawing by Betty Swanwick called The Dream.
Elizabeth Edith Swanwick (1915 – 1989) was the daughter of a reservist in the Royal Navy who was also a watercolorist. Her father’s death when she was just 10 fuelled her determination to be an artist. At age 21 she was commissioned to create posters for London Transport, which she did for a number of years. This work was whimsical, presented in bright colours, and often depicted a variety of animals (she herself owned, among other creatures, an African grey parrot). Over the years her oeuvre included illustrations for periodicals and books (including child and adult works for which she also wrote the texts), murals, watercolours and drawings. She exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Her later works evolved to depict images that were rather other-worldly, almost ethereal in nature, often with religious and spiritual themes. Some consider her later watercolours to be in the tradition of William Blake while some of the vibrant lithographs certainly evoke Marc Chagall.
Back to 1973. In October of that year, Genesis released their fifth studio album, Selling England By The Pound. The second track, “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”, includes these lyrics:
When the sun beats down and I lie on the bench
I can always hear them talk
Me, I’m just a lawn mower – you can tell me by the way I walk
The album’s lyrics are printed inside the LP gatefold and according to the disclosure beneath the song title, were “based on the Cover Painting”. Inspiration had struck.
Swanwick had already completed a watercolour version of The Dream when the band visited her, had tea on the lawn, and asked her to create another version that included a lawn mower and a pitchfork. Swanwick, Gabriel recalled in 2007, was somewhat eccentric, often addressing remarks to her parrot. “She was a great old lady,” said Mike Rutherford. As an artist, she took a considerable amount of time creating her paintings; she was known as “a perfectionist, completing her work with difficulty.” Thus, rather than start from scratch, she agreed to simply add the requested items to the painting she’d already created, and that image adorned the album cover upon its release.
Left: The Dream (watercolor, pencil), by Betty Swanwick; right: the album cover (1973)
So what are we to make of The Dream and the bloke on the bench, with his helmet of ginger hair, tuber-like fingers and enormous feet? Gabriel’s opening line of “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)” is “It’s one o’clock and time for lunch (dum de dum, de dum)” …our friend doesn’t seem to have made much of a dent in the baguette under the bench, and the other items are hard to discern… a hunk of cheese or a piece of fruit? And then there’s that mug and empty bottle, too. Is he sleeping off a mid-day tipple after completing a morning’s work in the garden? Is he even asleep? Close inspection suggests the gardener’s eyes are open.
Without knowing the work’s title, the only suggestion it’s depicting a dream are the eight individuals emerging in unison from among the neatly manicured hedgerows (a quintessentially British element for an album celebrating England while lamenting the decay of folk culture). A woman wearing a flower-bedecked hat and carrying a parasol approaches. Is she preparing to rouse our sleeping friend? Or to admonish him? Perhaps she’s going to remind him to, as the song says, “Keep them mowing blades sharp…”.
The gardening images seeped into the Genesis stage shows of the time. In addition to Britannia (“Dancing With The Moonlit Knight”, the opening cut from the LP) and concert staples such as his masked Watcher In The Skies, Peter Gabriel added a rustic type who sported a floppy felt hat, affected a West Country dialect, and chewed on a straw as he mimed pushing a lawnmower across the stage during the introduction to “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”.
Yet the song, despite being a successful single and an excellent example of this classic Genesis line-up, is not the centrepiece of Selling England By The Pound. That honour, most would agree, goes to the magnificent “Firth of Fifth”. With rich harmonies, shifting time-signatures and complex yet accessible ensemble playing, Tony Banks’ “Firth” is one of the pinnacles of Seventies progressive music.
These are not the only pleasures to be found in Selling England By The Pound. “The Cinema Show” holds up very well to repeated listens and demonstrates what fans revere in the band. Steve Hackett has commented that he was enjoying The Mahavishnu Orchestra at the time and included some of what he heard in his own playing. Same for Phil Collins, who enjoyed incorporating jazz-rock rhythms into the weave. Meanwhile, in “More Fool Me”, we hear a different side of Genesis: a heartfelt ballad sung by the drummer.
My only reservation about the album is the epic that opens side two. Although some defend “The Battle of Epping Forrest”, its extended length, lack of variety, and the parodic “East End” theatrics make it something of a chore. Collins described it as “a barrage of information” and even lyricist Gabriel conceded it could have used “some editing”.
Perhaps Selling England By The Pound is not quite as great an album as Foxtrot, its predecessor. But as the third instalment in a Genesis trilogy of legendary progressive rock albums it thoroughly deserves the respect in which it is held. There is something quintessentially English and a tad eccentric about the entire record, almost as if the dreamlike, mythological mundanity of the cover pervades and colours the music. The LP is consistently entertaining and multi-layered enough to satisfy prog fans, or indeed anyone seeking assiduously constructed and beautifully played “thinking” rock music. And if, perchance, such music causes fatigue on initial acquaintance, a quick kip on a handy park bench is sure to revive you enough for another listen.
Art On Your Sleeve is an occasional series that has been enriched by contributions from JDB at Augenblick, who explores the fine art perspective, while the music is tackled by your correspondent. We hope you enjoy this most recent melding of sound and vision.