Patrick Middleton meets a local artist who after a long lifetime in Islington delights in painting Nice.
“I’m north London through and through,” says Alfred Head. “Born in Holloway, lived and worked for years in Islington.” What did he do? “I was an architect and that just shows you how good can come out of bad. I was 17 when the war started and working in an office of the old London County Council. Soon enough I was called up and then when it finally looked like peace was coming I had to think about what I’d do in civvy street. In fact, the matter was settled for me. Hitler had made it necessary to rebuild large parts of London and so the LCC decided it had to train up some additional architects.” They offered this possibility to the just demobbed Alfred, and he “grabbed it with both hands. I don’t quite know, though, why they picked me out.” Maybe they’d seen his handwriting which is exceptionally graceful and clearly that of a talented draughtsman.
“Keen to express myself”
“Anyway, after qualifying I went into the architect’s department and worked on all sorts of projects. This was an interesting period — Festival of Britain time, remember? — and architecture was in flux between the very traditional and the newer trends. I tried to design decent buildings that did the job they were supposed to. For my last twenty years I was borough architect in Islington.” Islington? That’s very Labour, isn’t it? “Well, Tony Blair used to live there but I worked for both Labour and Tory councils. I did get to know some of the leading local Labour people. Jeremy Corbin, for example, and Margaret Hodge. There’s good in everyone, you know.”
So what about the painting? “I was always keen to express myself more personally than I could in my buildings and I did quite a lot of painting in oils and watercolours. In 1988 I retired to France. My wife is French and we felt happy about coming here. Do I miss north London? To be frank, I don’t. I’ve got memories going back over sixty years but I prefer to be here. Once retired, I had more leisure time for my painting and I’ve spent a lot of time recording local scenes. My pictures are often used for Christmas cards and calendars. This year I’m doing a calendar in aid of the Anglo-American Library. It shows twelve local châteaux, including le château de l’Anglais in Nice (pictured) which was built in the eighteen-fifties by a retired Indian Army engineer.”
“An idea for a Christmas present”
There’ll be a chance to appreciate the full range of Alfred’s work at an exhibition to be held at Holy Trinity parish hall in Nice (weekends of November 6/7 and 13/14). “Quite a lot will be local topography — paintings of places — but there’ll also be some of my copies. I’ve always enjoyed making my own versions of the great painters — from Vermeer to Picasso — and I think they’re quite good. My show’s in a good cause, half the proceeds are going to the Nice branch of Amnesty International and you’ll find the prices are very reasonable. You might get an idea for a Christmas present. After all, if you can’t afford to offer someone a Matisse or a Modigliani at least you can enable them to have a Head on the wall.”