Born Maurice Brown in Amersham, England, of unknown parentage; adopted and renamed Geoffrey George Humphries by Zoë and Leslie Montague Humphries, lorry driver.
Begins music study. ‘While I still like the definition of a gentleman – a man who can play the accordion but doesn’t – I had to study it because my best friend did. I can only remember three pieces, but it taught me to read music and it introduced me to my great loves, the blues and the guitar. I’ve played all over the world, even New Orleans, and it’s my favourite way of letting off steam.’
Begins drawing and painting at William Penn Secondary Modern, Slough. ‘Half the students were on probation there – I’d been expelled from my other school, Wexham, for refusing to take a caning – but here I had a teacher who saw that I could draw – and showed me how to make a portfolio which got me a scholarship to art school.’
Awarded three-year scholarship for illustration at High Wycombe School of Art. ‘It was a brand new building with nothing aesthetic about it, but it did teach me about the basics, with young enthusiastic teachers from the Slade.’
Opens The Folk Club, Aylesbury. ‘We would get bands together for a weekend; it was the time of Mods and Rockers but there was a folk revival. Nothing more exciting than hiring a band from The Hundred Club in London, and having a mike for the audience to perform too. I tried to book the Rolling Stones for my art school in High Wycombe, but when I talked to Brian Jones and found they’d just hired their first manager, and that it would cost 20 quid – well, the next week they’d sailed into London and that was that. And then, I started spending more and more time in Italy and my blues became a more private thing.’
First trip to Italy. ‘When I arrived in Rome I was overwhelmed by the huge modern marble-filled railway station – after that, I was never going to see old Victorian London in the same way again.’ Visits Rome, Florence, Venice; stays at the hostel on the Giudecca. ‘It was an island of miseria, still part of dockland, full of drunken stevedores, factory workers, thieves; the bars closed at 2am and reopened at 4 for the dockworkers. It was pouring with rain – I felt right at home.’ Travels to Bologna where he meets and studies etching with Vittorio Piazza, who was to become etching master at Accademia di Belle Arti in Bologna.
Attends London College of Printing. ‘Full of old-school technicians in lithography; great for learning technique but again, a brand new building with a lot of teething problems and they wanted to make me a graphic designer – something I was never going to be.’
Attends Chelsea School of Art; encounters the work of Klimt, Schiele and the Secessionists with the renaissance of interest in Art Nouveau in the 1960s. ‘Here I studied sculpture with George Fullard; he died young but was a very sophisticated modeller and I learned a lot from him; but again I was in the wrong place – my painting was too illustrative and my sculpture was too painterly.’
Visits Venice where his grandfather Major Patrick Meade is Vice Consul. ‘He and his wife would do drinks after Sunday service at the English church – their house was on the Grand Canal and full of eccentrics and misfits and grand visitors, who never wanted to leave. My grandmother would eventually take off her dress and sit in her slip and rolled-down stockings to signal that it was time to go.’
Moves to Italy; spends three months in Venzone in northern Italy painting and drawing; ‘I went there to learn Italian; I survived by drawing the officers from the local barracks in the bars in the evening. I painted skeletons and mummified figures which were kept in the baptistery – the climate would season and preserve them. A strange anatomical lesson but a good one.’ Arrives in Venice; lives briefly near the Accademia in the ex-studio of Mario Fortuny; moves to a room in a large studio on the Giudecca Canal with other art students. ‘It was a huge old factory which had no heat or hot water; we used the communal showers; but it was a fantastic place to paint, have parties, and play music. It still is.’
Enrols in Accademia di Belle Arti in Venice, where he studies with Director Bruno Saetti; meets Dutch painter Ysbrant van Wijngaarden. ‘Ysbrant is a Dutch painter of chaotic aestheticism and rigid superstition; he and I became fellow travellers in pursuit of the decadent and arcane; and exchanged studios in Antwerp and Venice for many years.’ Makes frequent trips to Amsterdam and Antwerp where he develops his lifelong appreciation of Félicien Rops and Max Beckmann, Georg Grosz and James Ensor. ‘These painters were a revelation for me – they led me into a fourth dimension, with their depraved chaos and the excitement of nightmare; I discovered another world of theatrical fantasy, some of which was lived out on Giudecca, some of it got painted.’
Awarded Bevilacqua La Masa Prize, Venice; wins Premio Alberoni, Venice; first one-man show at Galleria d’Arte 33, Lucca, Tuscany
Visits northern Tuscany with Accademia students and the Director of the Accademia di Belle Arti of Venice, Bruno Saetti; plans to form an art colony in Montepiano, Vernio; Saetti and Geoffrey are the only artists to buy farmhouses and create studios; has shows in Lucca, Pistoia and Prato (at the renowned Galleria d’Arte Metastasio).
Beginning of the years at Ca’ Dario. Befriends Kit Lambert, son of Constant Lambert and manager of The Who, is in the process of buying Palazzo Dario. This is to become a meeting place for musicians, composers, dancers, writers and collectors, presided over by Anya Hillman, Lambert’s palace manager and ex-wife of Chris Hillman of The Byrds. Lindsay Kemp, Quentin Crisp, Ginger Gilmour, Kiki Kogelnik, Judi Harvest, Barry Flanagan, James Farrell and David Bowie visit Giudecca 600/A and become friends. Meets Peggy Guggenheim and begins to frequent Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. ‘When I first got to Venice, I arrived with a trunk of LPs and my paints. I was skinny, had only a panino and a beer a day and was in bed by nine. After I met Rose [Lady Rose Keppel, now Lauritzen] I never got to bed before three.’ Travels in Germany and Austria; the work of Klimt becomes influential.
Buys large mountaintop farmhouse in Montepiano; begins long period of restoration to create studio. Exhibition at the Galleria d’Arte Metastasio, Prato
Graduates with highest honours from the Accademia di Belle Arti, Venice. Befriends Giudecca resident Ilse Bernheimer, the Austrian painter and theatre designer, ex-student of Oskar Kokoschka, friend of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele
Begins a forty-year collaboration with John Hall of the John Hall Course; teaches life drawing to young English students for the next 40 years. ‘In the early days, we would paint and draw by day, put on theatre at night in my studio – I had a purpose-built stage – the students were great, full of imagination and ambition and beautiful to paint. I was practically their age and many of them went into careers in the arts and are still friends today.’
Initiates series of theatre pieces; increases commissions for portraits of European clients and friends, as well as large-scale nudes; mounts plays, tableaux and concerts at 600/A.
Meets Joseph Heller, who was to become a lifelong friend; encounters Lucien Freud and John Hoyland during an exhibition at the Zanzibar Club in London. ‘I did two shows in Zanzibar, which was the ‘in’ drinking club before they moved on to the Groucho – it was fun to show there as it was such a mix of drink and music and painting; a procession of mad characters and evenings that never ended.’
Paints and draws in studios in Venice, Tuscany and Antwerp; exhibits in London, northern Italy, Antwerp, Kloppenburg and Rottach-Egern, Germany; partner Holly Snapp, a writer and lecturer at the University of Venice, opens first of three galleries in Venice (Holly Snapp Gallery, Calle delle Botteghe 3133, San Marco).
Invited to paint one of a series of murals (Murales) in Cibiana di Cadore, Veneto
Exhibits in London and Venice; guest lecturer at the Royal College of Art. ‘Life drawing had just been reinstated at the RCA, and Bryan Kneale of the Royal Academy invited me to teach; he’d just moved from professor of sculpture to painting. He said that since drawing hadn’t been taught for 25 years, most of the teachers were more frightened of the model than the students. I didn’t have that problem’. Begins to visit New Orleans annually; ‘It was seedy, decadent, with incredible texture and colour, of buildings, people, light, sound, and full of the best music ever. I love it still – it’s my antidote to Venice.’
Daughter, Lucy Mae Bean, born to Geoffrey and Holly Snapp. ‘Lucy Mae is turning out to be a pretty ferocious rival – she’s a fantastic illustrator, paints very well, and was selling pieces at 14. Is she teaching me things? We will see.’
Commissioned to portray actors in six-hour perfomance piece of the life of Alma Mahler, written and directed by Paulus Manker and Joshua Sobol (see pp. 130–31); the works were exhibited in Ca’ Zenobio throughout the performance. ‘I’d always loved Mahler and listened to him for weeks on end when I painted, Mahler’s Fourth for breakfast; this was an ideal opportunity to live his life and portray his world again. It was a crazy undertaking – there were scenes going on in every room of the palazzo, with a huge banquet served in the hall of mirrors at the interval; models stripping, music booming, creatures looming in a candlelit wreck of a place. It was great.’
Marries Holly Snapp. ‘My wife says this was really just an excuse to have a party – we did it in tandem with our great friends the German actor and musician Ulrich Tukur and photographer Katharina John; he’d been avoiding marriage for twelve years too. But in the end, we had a three-day marathon of parties – at the British Consulate, the Monaco, the Cipriani, Harry’s Dolci – some people still have hangovers 15 years later.’
Exhibits in Germany; increases portrait work in United States and Germany; shows annually in Venice at Holly Snapp Gallery, San Marco
Commissioned to paint a series of theatrical pieces for Borgata Casino, Atlantic City. ‘The chef of this huge new casino wanted a triptych for his Venetian restaurant; I got back to my theatre pieces that I’d neglected for a few years and found that more colour and Venetian fantasy had found their way in.’
Establishes third studio in large country house in Herefordshire. ‘I’m finding that the extreme peace and beauty of the countryside is a perfect foil to the constant social and painting pressure of Venice; while the light is completely different, and I’m indifferent to landscape painting, I’m discovering that working in an 800-year-old building lets me be freer to work on still life, theatrical compositions, portraits, and there’s going to be another big studio there soon. I can feel it.’
WE ARE IN VENICE
Founded in 1996, Holly Snapp Gallery has established itself as the leading figurative art gallery in Venice. From oils, watercolours, and drawings, to sculpture, art glass, and portraiture, this gallery has set a standard for eclectic excellence, with a special focus on the theme of Venice.VIEW