This blog highlights my initial PhD research constructing a brief biography of Jeff Nuttall. Poet, artist, musician and the author of Bomb Culture (MacGibbon & Kee, 1968), the first attempt to contextualise the British counterculture, his archive resides at The John Rylands Library. Loughborough University academic Gillian Whiteley developed an enormous amount of background research for the last major retrospective of Nuttall’s art, an exhibition organised by the Mid Pennine Arts Association in 2005. I’ll list resources and references at the end of the blog but without Dr Whiteley’s previous study my research would have been much more difficult and time-consuming so it’s important to acknowledge her investigation. Although my doctorate now focuses on one particular element of Dave Cunliffe and Nuttall’s activities, my intention is to use a short series of blogs to detail my findings which might prove helpful to readers of the Rylands collection or those researching the same area.
Jeffrey Addison Nuttall was born in the Lancashire town of Clitheroe in the Ribble Valley on the 8th of July 1933. Census records confirm that his mother Hilda Mary Addison originated from over the Yorkshire border, in 1931 marrying his father Kenneth Nuttall who had previously lived in Rochdale. The family moved south to the Herefordshire village of Orcop where Kenneth became head of Holmer School and during the Second World War the local Air Raid Warden. In 1937 Jeffrey’s brother Anthony David Nuttall arrived, later becoming the respected critic, academic and author A D Nuttall. Although probably not wealthy, Nuttall grew up in comfortable circumstances, able to study at Hereford Art School from 1949 to 1951 in a period when many young people left education at 15, often going straight into employment in order to support their family.
After two more years’ tuition at Bath Academy in Corsham, Nuttall took teacher training at the London Institute; his thesis on the medieval Church of St. Mary and St. David in Kilpeck included pen and ink drawings and watercolours of the building. Nuttall returned to Hereford Art School as a lecturer and in July 1954 he married fellow tutor and painter Jane (born Janet in 1922) Louch with whom he later had daughter Sara and three sons Daniel, Toby and Timothy. Nuttall’s paintings were shown as part of two group exhibitions in 1953 and 1954 at the Parson’s Lane Gallery in London as he developed his art alongside teaching.
According to his chapter in All Bull: The National Servicemen (Allison & Busby, 1973) he joined the army just a few weeks after marrying (so probably in September 1954), first hitchhiking to the South of France with Jane for their honeymoon. Nuttall went to Catterick in North Yorkshire for his initial training, spent a period at the Cavalry Barracks in Colchester, then Weedon Royal Ordnance Depot in Northamptonshire and the rest of his service as Unit Education Sergeant in what had been a palatial country house at Wilton Park in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. In All Bull Nuttall describes a violent, rumbustious service in which weaker men were often bullied by those in authority. As sergeant he was able to bend the rules a little but he was often in trouble for ‘over-identification’ (i.e. mixing socially with lower ranks). He did eventually enjoy his army period as it allowed time to continue his painting, teach himself to play jazz cornet and, for the first time, consider the broader meaning of life and in particular the imminent threat of cold war nuclear annihilation. Leaving service just before the Suez crisis in October 1956, he waited expectantly to be recalled (as many then were) but he was grateful that his papers never arrived.
Nuttall returned to Hereford, teaching at Leominster School, but he is best remembered in the area as part of the then increasingly popular traditional jazz scene. He played cornet with both the Easy Rider Jazz Band with vocalist Jean Warnes (now Rees), Lennie Thwaites on double bass and clarinettist Eddie Falconer and with Warnes in the Butchers Row Jazz Band. Both acts performed regularly in and around Hereford at the Racehorse pub, the Booth Hall and the Mecca in Malvern occasionally travelling further afield to play support slots at more prestigious venues. Nuttall’s love of jazz and his adept musicianship (he also played piano and sang) often took him to London where he attended gigs, sat-in at various jam nights, and became a regular in Soho’s Cottage Club.
The brutal crushing of the 1956 Hungarian uprising which began with student protests and finished when Soviet tanks rolled into Budapest was the last straw for British radicals, many of whom had considered themselves socialists but were now left searching for a new political direction. The development of the hydrogen bomb which Britain tested in the Pacific Ocean, the location of US nuclear weapons in East Anglia and the growing cold war tensions between East and West meant that the youngsters who attended the trad-jazz haunts of Soho, like Nuttall, lived under the threat of global obliteration in a conflict between the US and the USSR. Consequently the campaign against nuclear weapons picked up momentum in the late 1950s, and CND, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, formed in 1957. In the same year the pacifist (but more militant) Direct Action Committee began its struggle, instigating the first march to Aldermaston in 1958 which CND were eventually forced to support. We know from interviews and photographs showing Nuttall and Humphrey Lyttelton playing their instruments on the marches with Barnet CND that he was part of the increasing numbers who walked to the base of the British nuclear research facility and, in following years, from there to Trafalgar Square.
In 1957 Nuttall’s paintings were part of another group exhibition, this time at Victor Musgrave’s Gallery One which specialised in more avant-garde contemporary work which probably indicates the direction in which his art was developing. The artist Islwyn Watkins met Nuttall at a jazz session in the Railway Tavern in Barnet in 1959 and, on later seeing his paintings, he described them as ‘vigorous expressionism’. In an extract from Nuttall’s previously unpublished memoir in Better Books/Better Bookz (Koening, 2019) he describes his work as: ‘becoming loaded, brutalistic plaster reliefs… that attempted the vigorous crudity of iron age fertility figures, the Venus of Willendorf and the Cerne Abbas Giant… I had made a vocabulary of sexual protrusion, a quality which besides being present in the glistening, erect and intrusive penis, I found in sap-dribbling trees, in strange overnight mushroom shapes and in the nauseous profligacy of nature.’ In the same passage he explains how his feelings of sexual frustration and his burning desire to escape the constriction of British cultural taboos combined to develop a new artistic language and aesthetic. Nuttall’s art divined paganism, ritual and the occult which, mixed with a growing knowledge of the avant-garde, took him down strange new creative avenues.
Nuttall was a habitué of Soho, often in the French pub and the unlicensed coffee houses of Sam Widges, the Nucleus and the Gyre and Gimble where folk, early British rock and roll and jazz was played, and art and politics discussed late into the night. When the young Dave Cunliffe moved to London in 1957 he initially stopped with the poet Lee Harwood in Brick Lane, Cunliffe describing Harwood as a central hub in an underground poetry scene and introducing him to Nuttall, Adrian Mitchell and Michael Horovitz who together encouraged the young Cunliffe to write his own verse. All influenced by the literary scene surrounding Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights press and bookshop in San Francisco (some would call the Beats), this group were also devotees of British and European experimentalism – William Blake, Kurt Schwitters, Tristan Tzara and the Letterists of Paris. Verse was becoming another art form through which Nuttall expressed his increasingly avant-garde approach – Dada and experimentalism a strange mirror image of the jazz he played. Returning to his memoir, he reflected that: ‘I had begun to sense at that time that art and the anti-bomb movement, two activities I had previously placed in separate compartments of my life, were beginning to fuse in their concerns’.
Although neither signed the original 1960 declaration, both Nuttall and Cunliffe supported the more militant anti-nuclear Committee of 100, a direct action group designed to cause maximum mayhem by forcing the authorities to arrest all its members as the organisers of each demonstration. Legal briefing papers (handed out to arrested activists) in the Dave Cunliffe Archive and Nuttall’s tales of arrest at C100 actions in Bomb Culture confirm their attendance. These demonstrations forced the police to arrest hundreds of protesters but according to Cunliffe in those pre-computer days it was easy to give false details so the police were often unable to add each arrest to an individual’s records.
As yet, it is still unclear exactly when Nuttall and his family moved from Hereford to Barnet in North London where he then taught at Alder Secondary Modern School in East Finchley. Although there are numerous tales of Nuttall in London in the late-1950s, it’s possible that he was travelling there from Hereford as he was often seen in the border town playing jazz gigs during the same period. Little (if any) Nuttall archival correspondence seems to exist from before he moved to Barnet where we know he lived in Salisbury Road from address details on later publications and letters. Although circumstantial we can presume that Nuttall was resident in Barnet by 1959 as Watkins first met him in a local pub in that district.
Digitised copies of Jazz News within the National Jazz Archive confirm that by March 1961 Jeff Nuttall’s Jazzers had their own residency in Chelsea’s Wheatsheaf Pub and an advert in the October edition of the same periodical for a club in Great Windmill Street near Soho confirms that the Jeff Nuttall Jazz Band performed there too. So we know that Nuttall had progressed from sitting-in at pub jam sessions in London hostelries to leading his own outfit with gigs at recognised venues around the capital. It may seem an anachronism that as Nuttall explored the avant-garde he was attracted to a form of music which preserved the sound of 1920s and ’30s New Orleans. But for Nuttall traditional jazz wasn’t the strictly structured music ironically reviewed in The Daily Telegraph by arch conservative (and later bête noire of the poetry Movement) Phillip Larkin but something much darker, dangerous, filthy and experimental. Originally the soundtrack of the brothel and speakeasy, jazz was a music with its own style, subculture and language (jazz, like rock and roll, being a slang term for sex) and with a sound which allowed space for improvisation.
The artist and poet Bob Cobbing was brought up in a religious family (Christian Brethren or Methodist according to different sources) in Enfield, Middlesex. Registered as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, this limited his employment options so he trained as a school teacher. In an interview conducted by Austrian academic Wolfgang Görtschacher, Cobbing relates how he moved around the country in the 1940s arriving in Hendon in 1949 where he found surprisingly little culture. Cobbing became a human arts generator instigating numerous groups using his own flat and rooms in the public library and local college to host meetings. Under the Arts Together banner he ran a camera club, film, jazz and poetry societies, the Hendon Arts Theatre, the Hendon Experimental Art Club which became the Hendon Group of Painters and Sculptors and then simply Group H, the visual arm of Arts Together with the Hendon Writer’s Circle which transformed into the Writers Forum workshops alongside And magazine.
At school lunch Nuttall often browsed the bookshelves of East Finchley Library. During one break he wandered upstairs where he found an Arts Together exhibition and soon afterwards he contacted Cobbing and joined Writers Forum in 1962. It was Nuttall who suggested that they should publish material from the workshops and the Writers Forum press began to put out roughly produced pamphlets, the first Limbless Virtuoso being verse from Nuttall and Keith Musgrove. In the early 1960s it was the British Museum which collected legal deposits of all publications (as the British Library does now) and it rejected the first few Writers Forum publications on the grounds that they were illegible as the covers and type within were often extremely avant-garde and sometimes difficult to read.
So Arts Together offered Nuttall the opportunity to experiment with poetry and publishing alongside a new group of collaborators while he injected fresh artistic approaches into Group H, in particular the concept that art need not be static but could be a living performance. When Nuttall responded to a letter from Peter Currell-Brown in Peace News asking for artists to ‘join together to form an explosive power for peace, love and individualism’ he connected with another collective of even more experimental artists which included Criton Tomazos and Dave Trace. In the same month (August 1962) he travelled to the Edinburgh Writers’ Conference where he saw William S Burroughs explain the fold-in, cut-up method, offering Nuttall a way of combining new literary and artistic approaches.
Between August 19th and September 15th Nuttall attended Salzburg Global Seminar: Session 82: ‘The Arts in America’ and, on the long train journey home, he decided that the anti-nuclear campaigns had failed and threw away his CND badge. Not long after Nuttall burnt all his paintings and writings (in his garden or behind the library, in 1962 or January 1963 depending on which source you believe) with a vow that he would: ‘stop producing art that dulls the sensibilities’. It is obvious from these dramatic actions that both his life and approach to art were going through an enormous transformation and in the next blog we’ll see where this takes him.
Nuttall family history researched through the Ancestry website
Nuttall, J., 1968. Bomb Culture. London: MacGibbon & Kee.
Dr Gillian Whiteley’s research and collected writings about Nuttall can be seen here:
Details about Nuttall’s thesis from its sale on the ABE Books website:
Johnson, B.S., 1973. All Bull: The National Servicemen. London: Allison & Busby.
Details about Nuttall’s part in the jazz scene and related photographs come from Bill Law’s interview with Jean Rees in local history magazine Herefordshire Lore:
The relationship between Dave Cunliffe, Jeff Nuttall and the London poetry scene is from correspondence and interviews I conducted with Cunliffe between 2014-2016. The scene is also mentioned by Nuttall in Bomb Culture.
Professor George McKay’s essay ‘Trad Jazz in 1950s Britain – Protest, Pleasure, Politics,’ is from a research project entitled: American Pleasures, Anti-American Protest: 1950s traditional jazz in Britain. The images of Nuttall marching with CND were first used alongside this text.
Keshvani, R., Heil, A. & Weibel, P. (eds.), 2019. Better Books/Better Bookz. London: Koenig.
Carrol, S., J., 2010. ‘Fill The Jails’: Identity, Structure and Method in the Committee of 100, 1960-1968. DPhil Thesis, University of Sussex.
National Jazz Archive: https://nationaljazzarchive.org.uk/
‘From the Bombast of Vachel Lindsay to the Compass of Noise: The Papers of Bob Cobbing at the British Library’ – Online essay by Chris Beckett
Görtschacher, W., 2000. Contemporary Views on the Little Magazine Scene. Salzburg: University of Salzburg.
Salzburg Global Seminars confirmed Nuttall’s attendance and that photographs exist of the sessions.