Journal

Roast Haunch of Tofu: The Food-Obsessed Art of Glen Baxter

9th November 2017

Interview: Jenny Linford
Photographs: Sophie Davidson
Illustrations: Glen Baxter

Food features often in the distinctive, absurdist world created by artist Glen Baxter. In one of his pictures resembling a scene from a Ladybird book of Science, school boys, conducting an experiment with a mysterious gadget, peer anxiously at its results: “It was a device for turning school meals back into food”.

In another, two serious-looking cowboys sit on their horses, accompanying a large tank of fish. “Big city demand for sushi brings about one or two changes along the old Chisholm trail,” reads the caption. Evoking comic books from the 1950s, his skillfully drawn images freeze-frame moments from intriguing tales. It is a mysterious world filled with clean-cut scouts, cowboys and policemen – its neatness and normality subversively undercut by his witty, laconic captions.

I’ve come to interview Glen Baxter about the role that food plays in his art and his life. “I love food and anything to do with food, and I love cowboys – and anything that I love I just bring together, like a pot-pourri,” Glen tells me. “I do a lot of tofu pictures, because tofu is such a bland white cube that it’s great to draw. And also, the word looks odd – tofu. It resonates in a sentence. Some foods lend themselves – polenta is inherently funny.”

 

I meet him at his south London home, a large house tucked away in a peaceful side street. It is a characterful place, filled with diverse works of art and objects, as befits a man whose work contains so many varied, wide-ranging references. We sit and talk over coffee in the honeysuckle-scented garden. In person, Glen is down-to-earth and an entertaining conversationalist, with a wry, mischievous sense of the absurd and a dry, deadpan delivery that sets me laughing through the interview. Given the narrative element to his work, I am not surprised to find that he is an excellent storyteller.

I do a lot of tofu pictures, because tofu is such a bland white cube that it’s great to draw. And also, the word looks odd – tofu. It resonates in a sentence

I show Glen a card of one of his drawings which I was sent several years ago by the great British chef Simon Hopkinson and have kept ever since. It depicts a figure with a snorkel mask and flippers standing in a doorway, with the caption “Asking Simon to lend a hand in the kitchen was always a big mistake…” “Simon Hopkinson – yes, Julian Barnes was always sending him my cards,” says Glen cheerfully. “We had lunch with Simon at Bibendum. He’s a great writer; he has a great hake recipe.” As we talk, it becomes clear that Glen knows many people in the world of food. He talks with affection of his friend, the late, great Alan Davidson, author of the seminal Oxford Companion to Food. Glen’s interest in the world of food runs deep and has long roots.

He grew up in Leeds and the realities of rationing were part of his childhood. “We had one toffee bar a week and one bottle of lemonade a week. We used our ration book stamps to get them – in the Yorkshire gulag!” he adds. Those one weekly treats were “phenomenal” – enjoyed all the more for being so occasional. Glen recalls the glamour that treats possessed in his childhood: ‘I remember when Seven-Up came along. Anything from America was like something from another planet. The comics were brightly coloured, the production values were great and they smelled incredible.”

He left school at 16 with a scholarship to attend Leeds College of Art, which he did in the early 60s. “I was desperate to escape the planet basically. Art school was the best I could get.” While it was a good school, its focus on American abstract art wasn’t for him. “I drifted into Dada and Surrealism – loved the madness. I went that way and started making odd things that I got into trouble for,” he says, beginning to laugh at the memory. “They thought being funny is not being serious, which is not the case. You can be seriously funny.”

It was leaving home that opened Glen’s eyes to the potential of food as a source of pleasure. “My mother cooked roast beef, but I didn’t know what roast beef was until I went to Whitelock’s in Leeds and they had a big slab of pinkish-tinged meat on the counter. I thought, no, roast beef looks like leather and tastes like leather. I tried a slice and thought, This is great. That was a revelation.”

I drifted into Dada and Surrealism – loved the madness. I started making odd things that I got into trouble for. They thought being funny is not being serious, which is not the case. You can be seriously funny

After art school, Glen moved to London. “I got a job teaching football and pottery in a junior school – not simultaneously. It was in Leytonstone, which appealed to me as Alfred Hitchcock was born there.” He got work as an art teacher and began writing poetry, setting out to become an artist who uses pictures and words to create his own surrealist universe. It was as a “hungry football and pottery teacher” in London, that Glen began to cook. “I lived in a flat in Kensington, which you couldn’t do now, of course. Shared it with four or five other northerners. I got fed up with eating rubbish and started cooking. I began buying ingredients and preparing it and liked it. I wasn’t very good, but I was engaged with it.”

His “first real food revelation” in London was at an Indian restaurant in Whitfield Street. “Tandoori chicken was like something from another planet – really got my taste buds going.” Travelling to America for work also broadened his horizons, giving him a chance to experience American cuisine. “The idea that you could go to a delicatessen and ask for a ham sandwich, but be asked what type of ham, on what type of bread, with what relish… that was mind blowing.”

The French particularly responded to the theme of food in Glen’s art. “It was in 1990 that a French guy got in touch with me about having an exhibition of all my food drawings. I’d never really thought about it, but he said he’d counted 40 drawings, so I realised maybe I do like food!” With the exhibition came a five day visit to Bourg-en-Bresse, on which he first met Davidson. “It was five days of gourmet cuisine,” says Glen, showing me menus he’s saved from the lavish meals. “Every dish was announced by a chef with a poetic commentary. It became a running gag that you were going to get a 24-minute announcement, then eat a lamb chop. Mind you, the French can make even a lamb chop sound interesting.”

He tells me with relish of how a single day on the trip began with champagne and canapes in the morning, moved on to an elaborate crayfish lunch at a house which had belonged to Gertrude Stein, followed by a Calvados tasting, a visit to Belley, birthplace of Brillat-Savarin, a chocolate festival, more champagne, then an evening meal back at Bourg-en-Bresse. “It was unbelievable. People were knocking back Gaviscon between meals. By the fifth day we were begging for just a simple steak frites.”

Every dish was announced by a chef with a poetic commentary. It became a running gag that you were going to get a 24-minute announcement, then eat a lamb chop

Glen’s relationship with the food of France continues to this day, with his work published regularly in the magazine L’Actualite Poiteau Charente. 2010 saw the publication of Le Safari Historique et Gastronomique de Glen Baxter, a collection of his drawings based on French foods, with a foreword by Alberto Manguel. “We had lunch with him. He wore a Stetson hat and I wore a Chinese opera hat. I don’t know why, just mucking about!”

As with any true food lover, meals are memorable experiences for Glen. He shares memories of those he’s enjoyed, from “fabulous” clams in holy basil in a shack in Thailand and the “perfect” rice box from Filishack in Peckham to a meal – “poetry in motion” – at Sketch at the invitation of chef Pierre Gagnaire, who had bought one his drawings. Given his love of food and enjoyment of eating, what would Glen’s desert island meal be? “I’d keep it really simple. One of my favourite experiences was in Lucca in Italy. A friend took us to a restaurant and said ‘Sit down’. There was no menu. The owner just put what he had on the table. Local wine, no decisions to be made, everything simple, but cooked brilliantly. That would suit me down to the ground.”

It’s not just meals out that Glen enjoys, but also food shopping for home cooking. “We used to go to I Camisa as a pilgrimage. I took my son there when he was about five to buy some finocchiona salami. All the staff came out from behind the counter and said ‘Ciao, Harry’ and gave him a bun. You don’t get that in Sainsbury’s!” He and his wife do a weekly food shop at Borough Market. “We always go early. I went back there at noon one Saturday to pick up something we’d forgotten and you couldn’t move it was so busy.” He has a regular pattern to his shopping there: coffee from Monmouth, bread from Bread Ahead, apples from Chegworth, cider from Mary Topp and oysters from Richard Haward. He enjoys chatting to the stall holders, the sociable interactions markets offer.

It strikes me that Glen has gone on a quite a food journey in his life: from the frugality of rationing during his boyhood, to the discovery of new gastronomic pleasures offered by cosmopolitan London and his travels in France, America and Thailand. That tangible, affectionate relish with which he talks of encountering new foods comes across in his work, as does the ability to look with fresh, humorous eyes at an ingredient. I am reminded of one of my favourite Glen Baxter pictures in which a dashing Robin Hood, seated on a log in a woodland glen, looks down at what resembles a thick yellow blanket being spread before him: “’Tis polenta, Robin, and as a floor covering it has no equal,’ explained the salesman.”

Posted 9th November 2017

In Journal

 

Interview: Jenny Linford
Photographs: Sophie Davidson
Illustrations: Glen Baxter

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