Kyffin reassured my parents that being an artist didn't mean I was going to end up with syphilis and dying of TB in a garret in Paris

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Four teachers were key to my development, beginning with the man who pointed me in the right direction.

Sir Kyffin Williams, OBE, RA, was head of art at Highgate school in the London borough of Haringey, and I met him when I was 12. All I'd ever done was copy Walt Disney out of a comic, and he politely suggested that perhaps a little more originality was in order.

I quickly realised that he wasn't just a schoolmaster - he was a real artist, who even painted with a palette knife. And he taught me all sorts of wonderful things, like how to stretch and prime canvases, how to mix paint, and how to lay out my colours on a palette (I still use the same arrangement).

I was using poster paints, and he got me to get my first box of oils. Then he told my parents: "The boy is talented and wants to be an artist. I would recommend that he try to get into art school."

My dad had trained as an aeronautical engineer and hoped I'd do something like that. But Kyffin reassured my parents that being an artist didn't mean I was going to end up with syphilis and dying of TB in a garret in Paris.

He said I'd be able to get a job teaching, and that it would all be nice and respectable and safe.

It was 1956 when I went for my interview at the Slade School of Fine Art. I wore my school uniform and cap (nowadays, it would be hipsters and skewers through your navel). I was only 16, but I got in. Kyffin did that for me.

He set me on the road, and I shall be forever grateful to him.

A lot of my attitudes I got from AH Parker. He was the French teacher at Highgate, and he was the bloke who civilised me. I was a fluent French speaker, so he didn't waste his time or mine, but got me reading French classics - de Maupassant, Balzac, Flaubert, the whole works - and it had a tremendous civilising effect on me. Mr Parker taught me that education is about asking the right questions. He was cynical and harsh, and he used to deride you. But you could take it because at the same time he was building you up to do something rather well.

When I arrived at the Slade, I joined a drawing class run by Patrick George. "Draw this piece of white paper," he would tell us. "Paint this white brick and look for the local colour in the shadow." We would quarrel with him. I told him a white brick was a white brick and only some poxy French impressionist would give you a purple side to it. But he was a very good teacher, and he could cajole a bunch of tough-minded students into shape.

Rubbing against this discipline produced singularity in us. I sure as hell was taught how to draw at the Slade, then had to unlearn it all to become Anthony Green. But had it not been for the way they trained me, I would never have been able to question this excellence and to come up with an alternative. Anybody can slosh paint around, but to see a cup in space and be able to make an informed comment about it takes intellectual rigour. And I got that from Patrick.

Finally, there is Professor Sir Ernst Gombrich, by whom I had the very good fortune to be taught the history of art at the Slade. Every opinion I've got I owe to Gombrich. We used to go to his lectures on a Friday evening, not realising we were in the presence of greatness. It was just fantastic.

He illuminated the whole history of European painting. As a result of Gombrich, I've always seen myself as being an extension of European civilisation - one small foot-soldier in that grand procession.

So Gombrich was part of the mixture that allowed me to become a tough-minded, academic artist. I can paint with my belly, and I often do.

But you need academic rigour to hold you up - the rigour of knowledge and precedent and craft.

Artist Anthony Green RA was talking to David Newnham

The story so far

1939 Born in Luton

1956-60 Studies at the Slade School of Fine Art, University College London

1960-61 Awarded French government scholarship to Paris

1963 Wins Gulbenkian Purchase award

1967-69 Awarded Harkness Fellowship to the United States

1977 Elected to the Royal Academy of Arts; Exhibit of the Year at RASummer Exhibition

1991 Elected fellow of University College London

1996 Shortlisted for Jerwood painting prize

2000 Appointed a trustee of the Royal Academy of Arts

2002 Elected to the New English Art Club

2004 Has six works in the RA Summer Exhibition, until August 16

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