Duggie Fields, hard-working painter at the heart of the 1970s fashion scene who shared a flat with Syd Barrett – obituary
Duggie Fields, who has died aged 75, was an artist known as much for his dandyish and eccentric sartorial style – and the fact that he once shared a flat with Syd Barrett, the troubled co-founder of Pink Floyd – as for his paintings.
Fields came to prominence in the early 1970s and his work – giant canvases featuring flat slabs of bright colours and sharp-edged black cartoonish drawings often featuring figures with lopped-off limbs and other body parts (the Statue of Liberty and Marilyn Monroe were both decapitated) and naked or semi-naked torsos – were instantly recognisable.
Like their creator, however, they resisted easy categorisation. Variously described as “postmodern” or “post-pop”, Fields drew on abstraction, surrealism, pop and conceptual art, incorporating elements of Mondrian, Dali and Miro – with dashes of Stan Lee. His approach to drawing allowed his images to be “read” while keeping the overall effect close to abstraction.
Though he featured in group and solo shows around Britain, the contemporary art world showed limited enthusiasm for Fields’s work, while critics such as Brian Sewell were predictably hostile.
Fields, Sewell wrote in 1987, was “a painter of whom no one should take the slightest notice … He paints images that have immediate appeal to the homosexual Mafia that is one of the least attractive subcultures of the art market, and trendy liberals feel compelled to bend over backwards to avoid seeming narrow-minded and illiberal.”
Fields worked hard, but made an adequate if uncertain living from his work in Britain. Zandra Rhodes bought a painting for £100 in the early 1970s (“I paid a deposit of £10. Duggie had to threaten to sue for the rest, but, later, we became great friends”).
Stanley Kubrick commissioned Fields to do a portrait of Malcolm McDowell for A Clockwork Orange. Fields’s portrait of his former flatmate Syd Barrett, semi-decapitated, was exhibited at the V&A, while in 2002 his painting Party On featured in London Underground stations as part of a Platform for Art series.
Fields was one of a loose group of artists, film-makers and designers, including Andrew Logan, Derek Jarman and Zandra Rhodes, christened “Them” by the cultural historian Peter York. In a 1976 article in Harpers & Queen York described Them as “a mysterious aesthetic conspiracy” prepared to sacrifice almost anything to “look interesting rather than sexy”.
So while Fields’s work featured in serious art magazines, it was more common to find him in the pages of Vogue, Harpers & Queen or Cosmopolitan – his brightly coloured, sharp-cut suits, cartoonish shades, Dracula eyebrows and elongated “kiss curl” suspended like an inverted question mark below a black quiff – exemplifying a knowing form of camp that influenced everything from the clothes sold in Biba to the “glam rock” phenomenon.
Nowhere was Field’s influence felt more strongly than in 1980s Japan, where the cosmetics firm Shiseido staged an exhibition of his work in 1983 and, as he put it, “Somehow I became a life-size cut-out in display departments, cosmetic adverts on Japanese television screens, billboards, and department stores throughout that land.”
While others moved on as fashions changed, however, by the mid-1970s the Fields look, like his art, was fully formed. As the wheel of fashion completed a full turn, however, in 2007 he was adopted as the unlikely muse of a Comme Des Garçons clothing collection.
Meanwhile, the rented Earls Court flat he had moved into in 1968, adorned with his paintings and filled with mannequins (to which he added nipples and pubic hair “to give them personality”), and 1950s-era furnishings and ephemera (cheap as chips when he bought them in the 1960s), became seen as an artwork in its own right and in 2018 was recreated for the Glasgow International art biennial.
Peter York wrote of “Them” that they “put the idea into their living; they are their rooms, eat their art.” If that was true of anybody it was true of Fields.
Douglas Fields was born in Tidworth, Wiltshire in the heart of an Army base on “the day that Hiroshima was bombed”, August 6 1945. His parents ran a chemist’s shop and he spent his early years in the back rooms playing among discarded advertising placards and display dummies from the cosmetics counter. In his teens the family moved to suburban Borehamwood in Hertfordshire, where he attended a local grammar school.
His parents hoped that he would go to Liverpool University to read Architecture, but by the time he left school a cousin had taken him to a London club rhythm and blues night featuring an “unsigned covers band called the Rolling Stones”, and he did not want to move north. Instead he rolled up at Regent Street Polytechnic – where, at the end of his first day as an architecture student, he was advised to go to art school.
From 1964 to 1968 he studied at Chelsea School of Art, then located off the King’s Road, and soon became part of the 1960s scene. He had, as he put it, already decided that he wanted to “self-identify” and took to wearing self-styled tailor-made suits, backcombing his hair into a quiff and wearing make-up.
At first he was into abstraction, painting hard-edged, geometrical, flat-coloured canvases until, one day, on the spur of the moment, he added a small image of Donald Duck into one of his paintings: “I got shouted at. The whole art department got brought to see this painting in horror and I thought I had obviously found a direction.”
He left with a scholarship that took him on his first visit to the United States, and on his return he moved, with two friends, one being Syd Barrett, into the flat in Earl’s Court that would remain his home.
The LSD-addled Barrett had just been turfed out of Pink Floyd, and when he launched his solo career with The Madcap Laughs, an album described by Melody Maker as “the mayhem and the madness of the Barrett mind unleashed”, the cover photograph was taken in his room in the Earls Court flat.
Fields recalled that Barrett was given to setting the flat on fire with cigarettes and chip pans and eventually trapped himself on his bed in a corner by painting all the floorboards, starting at the door: “His sense of purpose had gone. While he lay on his bed, he had the possibility of doing anything in the world that he chose, so he lay there as long as he could, with an unlimited future but a very limited present.”
By the time he had worked out an escape route, Barrett had decided to drop out on a permanent basis and by 1972 was living in the cellar of his mother’s home in Cambridge.
Fields never belonged to the psychedelic scene of which Barrett was such a prominent casualty: “It was always, ‘Duggie, loosen up, man.’ I would always have half what they did, but I certainly didn’t have less fun.”
Later on Fields regularly found tourists on his doorstep asking to see the Barrett shrine, which had become the artist’s studio, the floorboards repainted in a splatter reminiscent of Jackson Pollock.
Fields had his first one-man exhibition in 1971 at the Hamet Gallery. From the late 1990s he worked with digital media, describing his work, which included computer-generated collages and videos, as Maximalist. He could, he declared in 2018, lose himself at the end of a paint brush: “But I can lose myself at the end of a mouse these days, too.”
From 2013 to 2015 Fields campaigned unsuccessfully against plans for the redevelopment of the Earls Court Exhibition Centre and surrounding area. In 2019 he released a single to address “the divisive effect Brexit is having on British society”.
“I’ve lost a shocking number of my contemporaries,” he told an interviewer in 2007, “so I can’t help but think about mortality. One is very aware that it’s a privilege to be here still. And you’d better enjoy it now – it’s not forever.”
Duggie Fields, born August 6 1945, died March 7 2021