The story of a ‘lost’ Arthur Dooley and how it arrived in the house – a story from Liverpool
The Potato Woman
By John Finch
Going up or down stairs in the cosy, pleasant little cottage where we now live I am often reminded of an icy cold day in Liverpool some thirty five years ago. In an alcove in a bend in the stairs was a small steel and brass sculpture which its creator called “The Potato Woman”. A rotund figure in brass stands in front of a steel fabricated exterior which looks vaguely like a terraced house in the North of England.. The figure in brass, the sculptor told me, was created by wrapping a piece of rope round a potato, from which a casting was eventually produced. Hence the title. It looks much better than it sounds. In fact I regard it as a small work of genius.
The sculptor was the giant amiable Catholic communist Liverpudlian called Arthur Dooley. I met him one day when Henry Livings, the playwright, phoned me and asked if I fancied a trip to Liverpool. Henry didn’t drive, so we went in my car. We picked up David Scace who was then running the Library Theatre in Manchester. On the way Henry produced a scrap of paper with an address on it. “Why don’t we go and see Arthur Dooley,” he said. He knew that having been at one time employed by the sculptor Jacob Epstein, I was likely to be interested. I had seen Arthur once on television, when he had pretended to toss a small but heavy looking sculpture across to an alarmed Lord Hailsham so he could feel the weight. I seem to remember that Hailsham had just rubbished him.
My ABC guide gave the address as being somewhere on the edge of the city, but when we arrived where the map indicated there was just a wasteland. Yesterday’s horrible housing had been demolished to make way for tomorrow’s horrible housing. There was one remaining terrace of half a dozen or so derelict houses. Most of them were boarded up, but a sign on the end house established that this indeed was the address we sought.
“I must have got it wrong, said Henry..
We might have driven on, but something prompted me to suggest we had a scout round. We did, shivering in the bitter cold. The house, the number of which was on Henry’s scrap of paper, was like the rest except that the back door was swinging on its hinges in the bitter Siberian wind.
“Let’s go,” said Henry.
I glanced inside.
“Hang on, “ I said, “there’s something here. “
On the floor inside the door there was a small pile of metal shavings. We looked at one another and something clicked. We mounted the dirty, uncarpeted stairs and looked in the rooms on the first floor, but they were empty. Henry called.
“Arthur,” he shouted.
A muffled sound came from the floor above. We mounted the stairs. One of the doors on the next landing was closed. We knocked. “Enter,” a voice said. We did.
A large room, without curtains but with a large double bed and a few scraps of furniture. In the bed was Arthur with what we imagined was his current girl friend. They were eating, if I remember rightly, a breakfast of chocolate marshmallows.
Arthur beamed at us.
Well well,” he said, “look who’s here.”
We were offered chocolate marshmallows but declined. After they had dressed, the next step was Arthur’s local. There followed a succession of locals. At some stage we lost the girl friend and acquired the television critic of the Guardian”. I was a somewhat envious observer of their increasingly high spirits, since I was driving, and just hoped that someone would not be sick in the car.
There was a point at which Arthur ran out of cash, but insisted on signing an i.o.u. each time his round came up. It was all a bit of a joke, but with serious undertones. When pressed about his financial situation Arthur had to admit that business was bad in the sculpture world. It was with some relief that they all eventually decided they had reached a reasonable saturation point, and we headed for home.
On the way we dropped Arthur at the derelict terrace, but he insisted we came in. “Something to show you,” he said.
We were ushered into a locked room on the ground floor. It was Arthur’s workshop, crowded with metal, with tools and with sculptures, some of which were obviously part of the larger works he sometimes undertook on commission, and some of which were finished and ready for sale.
It was pretty clear to me that he was hoping one of us would buy something. It was apparent, also, that the others were aware of this. None of them could have been described as well-heeled, and I suspect that all three were completely lacking in surplus capital. I was driving a new largish car and was known to have been very successful recently in the world of television. I was aware of four pairs of eye directed at me.
I had spotted the piece which Arthur had displayed to Hailsham. I remembered I had been rather impressed with it at the time, politics aside.
“What sort of price,” I asked Arthur, “would you be expecting for something like this?”
He looked at it thoughtfully, as if the prospect of selling it had never occurred to him.
“If I was thinking of selling it,” he said, “I’d be expecting at least seventy pounds……… but perhaps to a friend, sixty-five.”
It wasn’t a fortune but even so it was, at the time, a fairly considerable sum to somebody who was doing very nicely at the moment, but might be out on his ear next year. A couple of years before, to spend that amount on a work of art would have seemed irresponsible. There was also the problem of what my wife might say. Sensing my hesitation Arthur picked it up and held it out to me. “ Feel it,” he said. “It could last you a lifetime.”
So there it sits, in a little alcove at the turn of the stairs. Not long ago, being aware of coming pressures on my capital assets, such as they were, I decided I ought to have it valued. My wife had become very attached to it, and I could sense problems ahead. I emailed a picture of it to a gallery in Arthur’s home town, Liverpool. (He had died a couple of years before, and all those who had gone on our little expedition were no more.). I asked the gallery if they could give me some guidance on its current value. They obliged.
“Five thousand plus,” they said.
But my wife put her foot down, and I was only ready to part with it in extremis, so it remains with the family.
“It could last you a lifetime,” Arthur had said.
Hopefully it will.