Barry Kirk was born in Kent in 1933. In the 1950s he headed to London to attend the Royal College of Art. This was the time of the so-called kitchen sink dramas – the books, films and art that reflected the tough domestic lives of British people at that time. John Osborne’s play Look Back in Anger, performed at the Royal Court Theatre in 1956, is now regarded as the pinnacle of this grey-world genre.
Kirk, perhaps unwittingly, was telling a similar story but with prints. He made etchings of men dressed in heavy overcoats and flat caps in the rain, of gas works and chilly tube stations, of kids on street corners and youths trying to look menacing. He continued to make the prints into the 1960s. One day he took a pile of them to a London framers. But he never went back to collect them – he realised that he couldn’t afford to get them framed.
If this was a film, kitchen sink or not, this is the point where the pages fly off the calendar as days, months, years and decades pass. Then the wind stops and some 50 years have been blown away. Emma Mason who runs a gallery selling British prints from a simple one-room shop in the English seaside town of Eastbourne (nice enough in the summer, a little bleak in the winter) is contacted by a man who is reorganising a framing shop that’s been in his family for years. He’s found a pile of prints – scenes mainly of London – that seem to be by a Barry Kirk and, he wonders, if she’d like them. And it turns out she would.
Mason looks through the pictures including a woman frying eggs and an old woman in a park and she wonders about this Barry. A few clicks and she has him: 79, he’s still painting, and well, but the pictures are now oils and the hunched figures have been replaced by hostas and meadow grasses.
A few weeks ago I went to Eastbourne for a show, delayed 50 years, of Kirk’s early work and I met the man – and his wife, the woman who had been frying those eggs back in the 1960s. Kirk was jolly and having the time of his life talking people through the pictures – he’d had another stash under the bed that added to the array. The works looked of their time and were great.
Yet what was so appealing was that something forgotten and lost was found and reunited with its maker. And it made me feel that losing things shouldn’t be a worry.
Recently I headed to the foreshore of the Thames for a Monocle story and as I crunched along the banks at low tide I realised that I was walking over everything from 17th century discarded oyster shells to 16th century roof tiles. All around me were metal detector folk looking for proper riches that had fallen out of boatmen’s pockets or been dropped by drunken bridge crossers. They were all delighted that people are so good at losing stuff.
We like the fact that people lose things. Just ask any archaeologist. It may be a rip-your-hair-out moment when you leave that heirloom in the back of a cab but, oh, when you are reunited it will be front-page news. And when your family stumbles across granny’s old photo album in a junk shop, they’ll be cock-a-hoop.
So next time when you lose something or forget for years about that suit in the dry cleaners, just smile and wish it a happy journey and wonder if one day it will come back to you without you having to do any more than answer the phone.