Pulled in Opposite Directions: the Early War Journals of Keith Vaughan

Alex Belsey, King’s College London

Figure 1: 'Small Assembly of Figures', 1951, oil on canvas, 22''x24'' (559x610mm), Tate Collection

Figure 1: ‘Small Assembly of Figures’, 1951, oil on canvas, 22”x24” (559x610mm), Tate Collection

Throughout his career as a painter, Keith Vaughan (1912-77) experimented with compositions of figures set against abstracted, frequently featureless landscapes. Pictured above, ‘Small Assembly of Figures’ (1951) would be the first of a series of ‘assemblies’ painted at intervals over the next two decades. Yet the challenge of composing groups of figures had always been the artist’s primary endeavour, an ongoing attempt to work through the identity crises that besieged him. For Vaughan, art was the arena in which emotional and philosophical ideas were approached; Alan Ross recalls that ‘when he talked about painting it was as someone who thought long and hard, not only about technical problems but about the relevance of art to every aspect of living’.1 Vaughan found himself constantly revisiting the subject of assembled figures because he was perpetually troubled by feelings of isolation and disorientation, by the tension between the individual and the group, the outsider and normative society. In the prelapsarian perfection of the male nude, Vaughan found the image of the romantic idealist, struggling to find harmony with a distant, often ambivalent, world. Simon Oldfield notes the ‘contained’, almost solipsistic quality of the human forms in Vaughan’s ‘Second Assembly of Figures’ (1953);2 even in groups, his nudes appear sealed off from one another and their surroundings, cast adrift. Throughout his extraordinary journals, Vaughan explored and reinforced the idea of himself as a romantic outsider, riddled with insecurities and ‘fearful of an anchorless future’.3

The close study of Keith Vaughan’s journals must underpin the necessary critical re-appraisal of this singular figure in British post-war art. Often lumped in with the ‘Neo-Romantic’ painters of the mid-twentieth century, Vaughan remains an elusive, peripheral presence in art historical accounts due to his uneasy relationship with success. Yet his legacy of haunting images is matched in power and significance by his thirty-eight years of personal journals, a body of writing that stretches from his wartime period as a conscientious objector through his artistic career and into the poor health and discomfort of his final years. The journals give voice to Vaughan’s experiences of being a homosexual man at a time when such a way of life was still illegal, documenting his observations, interactions, and desires. Despite his admission into the society of such artistic and literary luminaries as W. H. Auden, David Hockney, and Christopher Isherwood, the self-doubting, self-deprecating nature of Vaughan’s journals provides a candid outsider perspective on this milieu from an artist who was forever unsure of his place. His earliest journals introduce the conflicts that would dominate his life and subsequent art practice – from his feelings of alienation to his inward-turning self-reliance. Ultimately, the writing of the journals themselves would prove to be a life-long project, a way of navigating the past and giving direction to the present.

As Europe steeled itself for the horrors of an inevitable war, Vaughan made his first ever journal entry, dated 25th August 1939, in a newly purchased exercise book. He had been living a relatively sheltered life, toying with dreams of becoming an artist, when suddenly the world seemed to be erupting around him. Vaughan’s first entry, for the most part, addresses his overwhelming despondency in the face of the impending world war. Being the romantic that he was, he believed this terrible prospect to be the most emphatic evidence yet that the modern world was an awful place beyond his or anyone else’s comprehension; on the very first page, Vaughan calls for ‘the abolition of war’, doubting it to be ‘a right or effective instrument of policy’.4 This first entry, written in an immaculate hand that was certainly not maintained throughout his journals and notably free of corrections, was undoubtedly well rehearsed and laboured over; Malcolm Yorke notes that Vaughan’s first entry ‘was an argument with himself, though it was more formally expressed than later entries – as if he were rehearsing his case before a tribunal’.5 Vaughan proceeds to make a carefully reasoned case as to why any involvement on his part will not influence the speed or success of the war, concluding that he can only – by not participating – ‘help to reduce its ill effects’.6 He attacks society’s veneration of ‘physical courage’ as a desirable male attribute, contrasting traditional visions of the ‘brave man’ (the fighting man) and the coward for reasons that soon become clear; Vaughan was a self-confessed coward, fearful of pain and injury, and therefore believed that war was just another means by which he would be ostracized, as ‘the coward is loathsome, despicable, and unfit for human society’.7 He wonders why it is not nobler to possess ‘moral and spiritual courage, the capacity to maintain and carry out what you believe to be right and worthwhile, in the face of all opposition, and at the cost of complete ostracism and loneliness’.8 Vaughan gradually reveals a self-created picture of himself as a wronged man, with the promise of war being the final means by which society will abandon him to pursue its vulgar agenda.

Significantly, on the eighth page of this first journal entry, the following statement stands alone in its own paragraph: ‘I think I can claim to possess a degree of moral courage superior to the average man’.9 This statement acts as a bridge to the journal’s autobiographical subject after the preceding discourse on grander, more abstract ideas. As he was often writing in expectation of an imagined future reader, this statement also provides the perfect introduction to its author; Vaughan is presented as a principled outsider who has only experienced a lack of success or direction in life because he refuses to play by the rules of normative society. He continues by describing his desire to pursue higher, nobler truths ‘in spite of the prevailing standards and values of the society in which I find myself’.10 From the beginning, Vaughan sets the tone for the tension between self-pity and self-justification that would come to characterize his journals. Always fearful that introspection was an over-indulgence, he believed the spectre of war to be a justifiable catalyst for his own search for purpose. Six months later, he confesses to being ‘less and less convinced’ by his stand as a pacifist and he would continue to waver with varying degrees of intensity for the duration of the war;11 nevertheless, the moral posturing of his first entry bestowed a certain authority upon his decision to begin a journal. On the ninth page, Vaughan feels that he has laid sufficient groundwork to finally make the kind of admission that one would expect to open a private journal: ‘I find myself now in my twenty-seventh year, quite alone, with no very great liking for life’.12

  1. Alan Ross, ‘Introduction’, in Keith Vaughan, Journals, 1939 – 1977 (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), pp.vii-xv []
  2. Simon Oldfield, ‘Comparative Strangers’, in Francis Bacon, ed. Matthew Gale and Chris Stephens (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), pp.64-73 (p.70). []
  3. London, Tate Archive, Keith Vaughan Journals, Box 1, Folder 2, Journal 2, entry dated 23rd Nov 1939 [pp.21-2; p.21]; all subsequent citations are from material contained in Box 1. I have attributed page numbers for ease of reference as neither the original journals nor Tate’s surrogate copies provide page numbers. Henceforth, all citations from the original journals will be in the following format: ‘Date of entry [Folder no., Journal no., Page no.]. []
  4. 25th Aug 1939 [Folder 1, Journal 1, pp.1-13; p.1]. []
  5. Malcolm Yorke, Keith Vaughan: His Life and Work (London: Constable, 1990), p.53. []
  6. 25th Aug 1939 [Folder 1, Journal 1, p.2]. []
  7. Ibid. [pp.5-6]. []
  8. Ibid. [pp.7-8]. []
  9. Ibid. [p.8]. []
  10. Ibid. []
  11. 21st Feb 1940 [Folder 2, Journal 2, pp.94-101; p.96]. []
  12. 25th Aug 1939 [Folder 1, Journal 1, p.9]. []

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