Hey teacher … how Syd Barrett’s artistic genius flowered at school

<span>Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage</span>
Photograph: Chris Walter/WireImage

Monet had his water lilies, Van Gogh his sunflowers, but for Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett it was orange dahlias. A vibrant still life painted by the late frontman of the British band when he was 15 will go under the hammer on 27 May as his childhood playmate puts it up for sale.

“I have lots of happy memories, including watching the first Dr Who series from behind the sofa together. But the Syd I remember is a different, younger person, and I know there are a lot of fans who feel even more about him who might give this painting a home,” said Phil Harden, who spent hours with Barrett as a boy in Cambridge and later visited him as an adult, when the former musician was struggling with mental illness in seclusion. “He was a funny and lively boy, but also very protective of me, as I was six years younger. It is rather amazing to me that he is still so highly regarded across the world.”

Barrett, whose real first name was Roger, was born in 1946 and displayed artistic gifts from a young age. Later immortalised as the lost “Crazy Diamond” of the Pink Floyd song, it was as a teenage artist-in-the-making that Harden knew him.

“Our mothers were friends, so we used to play together, but my father, who was the art teacher at Cambridgeshire High School for Boys, taught Roger. My father encouraged him, even allowing him to use his best oil paints. He’d trained at the Royal College of Art and he was only ever really positive about the ability of three or four pupils in his time there. One of them was Roger. He was a star pupil and his painting of dahlias went on the class wall. It was so much more advanced than what others were doing.”

Barrett went on to art college locally and then to study at Camberwell School of Art, before founding Pink Floyd with another childhood friend, Roger Waters. In 1972, Barrett left the world of music, returning both to his art and to Cambridgeshire, where, in solitude, he produced many new paintings, few of which survive.

Orange Dahlias in a Vase, 1961, is a rare work in pastels and watercolour. Signed R. Barrett, it is expected to fetch between £3,000 and £5,000 when it comes up at Cheffins, the auctioneers that sold nine of Barrett’s later works following his death in 2006 for £121,000. The proceeds went to fund art training in Cambridge.

“Syd Barrett remains one of the icons of the world of rock music,” said Brett Tryner, director of the auction house. “While he is known as the founder of Pink Floyd, he was also an accomplished artist. There are few original pictures in existence, especially as he later took to finishing a painting, photographing it and then burning the canvas.”

Harden rediscovered the painting in a portfolio of his father’s art. “I remember him bringing it home and I recognised it immediately.”

Both Barrett and Waters lived at either end of Harden’s street. “We all played cowboys and Indians together and I was always the one tied up against a tree. They also used to make go-karts and somehow, because I was smaller, I was always the test driver.” It was a while before they met again. “He had gone into music and changed his name to Syd, after an old Cambridge friend who spelled it differently,” recalls Harden. “Then, when I was in my early 20s, he came back home after his ‘breakdown’, which I always assumed was more to do with drugs. I visited him quite a lot. On some occasions it was like going back in time because he knew me. Other times he was more distant. He did keep painting and some of them were fantastic, although he used to destroy the work after he had done it.”

Harden, now retired, suspects these visits influenced his own decision to set up a care home for adults with learning difficulties in later life. “It was something to do with seeing how such a totally innocent person can find the world hard to understand.”