Saturday, 26 August 2017

JAGO STONE AND THE BAR STOOL FANTASIES

I have been writing hard and I think well throughout the summer. 'Jago' - the biography of James Henry Stone - is taking firm shape. Chapters 1and 2 have now been written and join the drafts of the already completed Chapters 4, 5 and 6. The completion of Chapter 3 - centred on the autobiography: 'The Burglar's Bedside Companion' -  remains my aim over this next week before we take our break on the Aegean island of Patmos. This post is designed to provide a taste of the biography by sharing with you the opening of Chapter 2: THE  BAR STOOL FANTASIES OF A CAD'.

Before I turn to these pages, I should explain that there has been a fresh discovery in my online detective story - the search for information about the artist. The new find has prompted this particular focus on 1983. Readers familiar with these blogs will recall my post telling the story of the visit to Aberystwyth at the end of June this year and the wonder of viewing and transcribing 23 minutes of Jago being interviewed in 1969. Here's the link if you missed it first time or would like to revisit. A week or so ago, I received an email from Owain Meredith, archivist at ITV Wales. Owain had already been very helpful and now he was telling me that he had discovered another piece of film that featured Jago - only three minutes or so but an interview nevertheless and this time from 1983. That was the same year as the Bar Stool interview with the Sunday Express journalist - have I been blessed!

'Untitled' - Jago Stone - Bardon, 1968


More on that 1983 film interview another time. Here for your interest is the beginning of my second chapter from the biography. The paintings that accompany the text are a selection from Jago Stone's extraordinarily large 'catalogue'.


Chapter 2

THE BAR STOOL FANTASIES OF A CAD

There is no doubt that Denis Pitts’ take on Jago in 1983 and Jago’s own testimony from the bar in the ‘Up the Garden Path Inn’ in Manton, near Marlborough in Wiltshire shape any reader’s initial sense of the character of Mr Stone. Effortlessly, it seems, Jago holds court from his bar stool throne and unfolds the stories of his misdeeds. The Sunday Express writer records the flow of

autobiography and passes a measure of moral judgement sufficient to satisfy the scruples of his Sabbath-day readership. The man is a cad, a bit of a rogue but affable enough –an English eccentric in this village pub setting. Try this headline for size:

YOU MEET THE ODDEST PEOPLE IN THE LOCAL BUT IT’S NOT EVERY DAY A BLACK SHEEP ENTERTAINS YOU WITH TALES OF HIS MISDEEDS – AND HAS THE EVIDENCE TO PROVE THEM.    By Denis Pitts



However, Denis Pitts was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill hack. Jago deserved the best. Fourteen years earlier, in 1969, Harlech TV had brought Kenneth Griffith from London to interview the gaol-bird-turned-artist (see Chapter 6). Now Denis Pitts was summoned. The seasoned writer had already made his journalistic mark at the time of the Suez Crisis in 1956 at the age of 26. In 1970, he had been making a film for the BBC on the anti-war movement and was there in Ohio to record the events at Kent State University in 1970 when the National Guard shot dead four students. During his career, he had interviewed both Clement Attlee and Gracie Fields to such effect they authorised only posthumous publication. The best interviewers have a way of bringing out confidences. With Jago, Denis was gifted a subject who specialised in revelation. There was no need to wait until Jago had died before the Sunday morning nation got their fill of the life of Mr Stone. But Denis – who died in 1994, aged 64 – was never to know the other matters, the confidences Jago chose not to tell in his orchestrated monologues.

'The Fancy Dress Party' - Jago Stone (1969)


Nevertheless, sit back and enjoy as fine a piece of middle-England journalism as you are likely to find from that decade. The media-man has been inspired by the artist.

‘There was a stranger in the local. He was perched on a barstool, a broody goshawk in gold-rimmed glasses, intense brown eyes fixed angrily on the optics. A bit of a card, a character in a floppy straw hat and scarlet cravat who drew attention in a country pub just by sitting still.

His reputation had preceded him. He was the chap who did water-colours of your own home, stately, detached, semi-detached, country cottage or council house for a fixed fee of £15 and he had just finished the old post office.

The landlord introduced him. There was a sudden flutter of head and eyes, an extended hand.

“Jago Stone,” he said. He said it “Jageoh Steohne.” The voice was sub-Wodehouse, minor-public-school (expelled); a 30s voice.

Thinking about it later, it was a voice from one of the early Evelyn Waugh novels: Philbrick the butler, perhaps: or Captain Grimes. And when he started talking in earnest, which was almost immediately on receipt of a fresh bottle of barley wine, there was little for the listener to do except allow himself to be transfixed by those powerful eyes and let the story unfold.

“Painted three houses today, a bit tired, knackered you might say. I did the local MP’s house, a nice little cottage in the next village and the old post office down there. At £15 a shot, not bad eh … that’s 93 barley wines in real currency.


The Old Rectory, Edgcot House, Northamptonshire - Jago Stone (1974) - (with thanks to Nick Michas for whom this was painted as a birthday gift and who has sent me this image) 


“I wasn’t always an artist you know … oh no no. I was a thief. I did 14 years and eight months inside for nicking silver. Why are you smiling? It’s true. I dressed up as a Franciscan monk and nicked the Archbishop of York’s silver. Wrote a book about it called The Burglar’s Bedside Companion”. Sold 30,000 copies.

“I’ve had three wives, love the ladies, painted 40,000 houses and I’m putting up my prices next week to 25 quid a time in line with the brewers. Working on a new book at the moment. Don’t know whether to call it ‘Painter on the Green’ or ‘Painter with his Pants Down’. There’s a lot more to the story, you know. 

There was, indeed. And it was all there in the newspaper cuttings to prove it.


This exquisite miniature Jago painted in 1986, three years after this Denis Pitts interview and two years before his own death in 1988. It is 2.5 inches square and is one of a pair - Jessica Raber sent me this image from Indiana in the United States - a fuller story is to be found in my American Connection blogs. 


Jago Stone was born illegitimate in 1928 and brought up by a wealthy, left-wing family of Quakers in the North of England. He was backward at most things, dabbled a little in poetry and painting and was content to live in the belief that he was a genius until he stole £2,000 worth of his grand-mother’s silver at the age of 18. “I was the last person they suspected,” he said. “It seemed jolly easy to nick it and flog it.”     

He was obviously a golden-tongued youngster. “I found that I could con people – I still do, I suppose, in a different kind of way – by using charm and sweet talk. It was my great gift.” He was conscripted and escaped after six months of national service by feigning insanity. He was attracted by the Church and confirmed. It was the real beginning of a short, but immensely profitable, truly criminal career.

“I thought what a jolly good scheme it would be to dress up as a monk and nick silver. I did some study on the Franciscans. I really liked St Francis of Asissi, all the vows of poverty, chastity and the talking to the birds and bees and things and getting other people to support me.

“I got hold of the habit, a girdle, sandals, tonsure and whatever and started nicking. By chance – and this happens in life – I met this chap who had a market for the stuff in America.

“It had to be virtually pure silver – pre-16th-century – and the only place you could get this kind of stuff was in churches. I went about systematically committing sacrilege dressed as a monk. I was at it for about three years before I was caught. What happened was the man who was involved in the selling was caught in America. It came back to this country and I was nicked.

“I think there were 48 warrants out for my arrest. And I think there were 96, I think it was, counts of sacrilege. Yes, 96 – for stealing from churches and other religious institutions dressed as Father Andrew of the Senality of St Pauls.”


Detail from 'The English Village' - Jago Stone (1986) - (my thanks to Jessica Raber and her parents for sending me this image from Missouri in the U.S.A.)


The briefest of pauses for a gulp of barley wine. The normally loquacious farmworkers in the pub look around at each other in disbelief and gaze in wonderment at the odd man on the bar stool. There has been no-one quite like this in Up the Garden Path (the name of the pub) for many a long year.
                                                                ----------------------------

At this point, I will end the extract - that's enough for one post in the blog-sphere. However, if you would like to read to the end of Denis Pitts' article and get a taste for how my Chapter 2 develops, then simply open this link here and sign up - it's free - to my Jago Stone Newsletter. The September edition will bring you more of Chapter 2 and a fuller Jago story!