CHARLES WILLIAMS ‘The Death of Joe Skipping’

4 – 28 July

 

In 2008, Charles Williams accidentally recorded a conversation with his friend the art-ist Joe Skipping, whose later suicide caused a brief media sensation in the early part of 2009. In the conversation, Skipping appeared to be confessing to the murder of his part- ner, Camilla Kendall, who had up till then been thought to have slipped on a cliff top walk near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire and fallen to her death, in 2001. Skipping’s elliptical confession was undiscovered on Williams’ phone until quite recently; the police, after be- ing apprised of the content of the recording, have decided that as both parties are now dead and their daughter has now achieved majority no action should be taken, but Wil- liams has been left to make his own sense of the situation, which he has with this group of paintings.
Charles Williams and Joe Skipping, March 2008 Charles: Go on then. Recite your story.
Joe: Okay, okay. Is it working? Reader, I murdered her. The cliff-edge, a metaphor and a literal reality, the stumble, the little laugh, the grasping hands and then my reluctance, only slight at first and then, as its inevitability clarified, I committed myself complete-
ly. I pulled back. A seagull screamed as she did, her mouth square and her eyes filled with knowledge. She fell. It’s a long way down and there are many rocks before you get to the sea. You have to really leap out if you want to be a proper tombstoner. Camilla didn’t have the courage.
You might ask me why. She wasn’t happy. There wasn’t much chance of her becoming happier, either, and she was making a lot of other people unhappy, including me, but it wasn’t a plan. We went for a walk; the Pembrokeshire Coastal walk is well-signposted, it was, for once, a clear blue March day, and the ferry wasn’t setting out for three hours, so we decided to kill some time, or rather, Cam suggested we do and I acquiesced. I had been doing a lot of acquiescing.
It’s hard to talk with her, sometimes. I mean, it was hard to talk with her. Her powers of concentration are not, were not, world-beating, and the conversation goes all over the place, and somehow whatever you suggest, it circles, circled, back to her mother. Eri- ca always says this, Erica makes it difficult to do that, Erica, Erica. Actually we were in Fishguard to catch the ferry to Rosslare to stay at Erica’s house in order to develop a touring exhibition in some Irish galleries, but the accommodation did not come without strings. I tried to get her to think about, talk about anything else, but it just came back, again and again, to Erica’s perfidy.
We were never an actual couple. I know people thought we were, or thought there was something going on between us. We had a lot in common; my Dad was quite big in the art world, her mother was Erica Kendall, you know; the writer of books on the A level
list. The FRGB is one of those expressions that people use in conversation. So we were both the not so bright children of very bright stars. It makes you feel a little defensive, but we were able to understand each other’s anxieties. Of course I am a little older than her, than she was.
I know, I am not much of a catch now. I am quite frightened, secretly, I don’t tell anyone this, but I am quite frightened that I am going to end up an old bloke on my own. Old and alone.
Charles: What was Camilla doing in the art business?
Joe: One of the reasons she was interested in the art world was that it could be hers, not Erica’s. Like most of the British intelligentsia, Erica is a Francophile in the sense that she will always disparage British culture against French in any comparative discussion, but also like most British intellectuals the world of the Visual Arts is more or less a closed book. Art History is what posh girls and gay men did at Oxbridge, not a serious course of study, and of course you can fiddle about with paint and watercolours and drawing and so on – everyone needs a hobby and it looks very relaxing – but proper British culture is literary. Unlike the French, unless it’s houses or gardens we don’t get involved in material culture, in stuff. It’s like the nursery food you used to get in Clubs in London. Plum Duff, Roast Beef. It’s all comfort, no sophistication or interest in food in itself.
That’s how it was for Erica growing up, and obviously it’s changed now, but she never re- ally ‘got’ painting or art. Apart from sympathising with Howard Hodgkin when she bumped into him, she really did not know what to make of it all, and her own collection veered in focus from Abstract Formalism to English genre depending on who she was with when she wanted to buy. “I buy what I like, not what someone tells me is good” is all very well, but how do you know what you like? It is a small collection. Angela Flowers sells most of it to her. I love Angela. She’s so funny.
Camilla did Art History at Durham, then at the Courtauld and then she started working in a series of little galleries. That’s when we met. I was trying to get a gallery called ‘Re- visionism’, in Charlotte Street, what they call Fitzrovia, to look at my work. I was doing small sculpture, Jesus, how fucking terrible. It makes me shudder to think. I’d done all that amazing stuff with sugar and paint, those disgusting, overwrought doughnuts, huge paintings, and done so well and then just…fucked it up…just not pushed when I should. Or maybe I pushed too hard. You know, there was that story about Karsten, who’d tak- en on Damien and Angus and all of them, and he’d been completely cut out of things because he’d go to the parties or private views and leave at 10 – he was a family man in his fifties, he just wanted to go home – but of course the parties went on till three
or four, that’s when deals were made. When we’d all had enough coke up our noses to think bigger than normal. Well, I wasn’t going home at four either. Maybe that was it.
They’d never believed the bloke who sold them their coke was a serious artist. Charles: I thought Damien loved your work?
Joe: He did. He fucking did. He said he did. Anyway. Then it was those portraits. Jesus. How could I have thought a twelve foot high painting of Chris fucking Langham, in oil and sugar, was going to make my career? He was a fucking paedophile! How could I not know? And anyway, what about Marcus fucking Harvey and his fucking Myra thing? Christ I hate that fat bastard. Fucking Turps Banana. You know they got some little wanker to do an article on my Freeze paintings for that magazine, and then fucking pulled it. Probably something to do with Chris Langham.
Anyway, then I had to take that break at Dad’s in the Cotswolds. It was all too much and I thought, what’s the opposite of what I’ve been doing? I stopped all the partying. And you know, small sculpture. They were like the Romanesque figures. I loved them.
I loved doing them, making them and firing them and then painting them up like what are they called, Santon figures. There was something just right about them. No one else thought so though, and I was hawking them around town like a tinker or something. Wanna buy my little men? No one said yes, until I walked into Revisionism and there was old Camilla.
Charles: And you lived happily ever after?
Joe: Ha ha. Yes, after I sold her enough coke to cloud her judgement.
Charles: I thought you’d given that up? I thought you’d given all that life up, after your… time at your Dad’s.
Joe: Some of it. But I have to make a living. Contrary to what that little shit Nichols puts about, I don’t have any other way of earning except the art. I can’t teach can I? Not after prison. And I can’t do anything like scene painting, I mean what the fuck is that? Or painting and decorating. Christ. Or being someone’s assistant.
Charles: No that really is shit. I mean, unless you’re prepared to…perform certain acts.. Joe: Literally or metaphorically?
Charles: Well, both really. You work out what your limits are pretty quickly.
Joe: Didn’t she, you know, expect it?
Charles: Well. I think so. I think Alois and Robby were both employed that way, and I think that, had I been able to stand it longer than I did, and had Robby finally got too
petulant or realised that it was never going to a happen for him, I would have been… pressed into service. I am not a natural gigolo type though, am I? More a character ac- tor than a leading man. Jim Broadbent rather than Pierce Brosnan.
Joe: I don’t know, Charles. In the right light. If you worked out. Charles: Fuck off. I was a lot thinner when I was young.
Joe: That could have been a hell of a break, though.
Charles: Not really. It was doomed from the start. You have to love these people, you have to worship them as much as, if not more, than they worship themselves. Having to do with them is like being a member of the priesthood, the belief itself is what needs to be sustained, not the work or the conceptual framework or any of the stuff Josh writes about, it’s just simple belief. When that goes you are left with a mad, rich old bag do- ing paintings and sculptures that no one would look at twice if they weren’t working in Occupational Therapy. I am not saying the work is shit, I am just saying it’s not, of itself, as valuable as people like Josh might say it is. How could it be? How could a splurge
of red ink on a piece of paper that looks like a pair of dribbling tits be that valuable? I mean, a million pounds valuable, priceless valuable? How is the drawing of an old lady in an intensive care home not worth anything at all, and hers is worth a million pounds?
Joe: Because we believe her story?
Charles: Yes, exactly.
Joe: You’re right. Do you believe mine? I mean, do you believe I killed Camilla?
Charles: Of course I fucking don’t. You’re my chum. I like you. I liked Camilla, and I knew there was something not right going on. But you wouldn’t kill her. Fuck sake. It’s what a sociopath might do.
Joe: Maybe I am a sociopath. I did deal in cocaine after all. And other stuff.
Charles: You never really talk about prison, do you?
Joe: Well, it was a bit embarrassing, actually. Obviously, but also, it just wasn’t that diffi- cult. I mean, after public school, you know? Public school is the best preparation for the armed forces and prison? They used to tell me that at my school a lot, anyway. But it wasn’t that bad in the nineties, and I was only in for a while. They hadn’t started doing that holding to ransom thing, and not many people had mobiles in there, so there wasn’t much opportunity for stuff like in Scum.
I never became the Daddy either. Just kept my head down, and got parole and got out. The thing I really hated was the smell and not knowing what I was eating, what they’d put in the food.
Charles: What, like peed in it?
Joe: Yeah, or bromide or something, to quieten us down. Anyway, look, I am a bit posh and I wasn’t in there for GBH or murder. Of course, if you blab, I could be, couldn’t I? A life stretch. I’d be going down, son. Don’t tell no one I done it, Charlie, mate. I couldn’t stand another stretch in chokey. I’d kill me self first.
Charles: What was that Viz comic thing, what was he called? Vince, was it? Referred to people as ‘Sam Kant’. I loved that. Sam Kant.