Graham Knuttell was born in Dublin, in March 1954. His parents came to Ireland in 1947 from Bedford, England where his father had served with the R.A.F. Graham was the youngest child of three, and a gap of ten years between his siblings meant that he was largely left to his own devises. He would spend hours sprawled on the floor drawing and colouring and even at this young age displayed a great talent and interest in art.
His father was a strange eccentric man, but had nothing on his grandmother. Graham met his grandmother only once when he was four or five but the memory will never leave him. She was very tall and thin with a hook like nose not dissimilar to his own. Her cheeks were hollow, whitened with powder and highlighted with rouge. She was dressed all in black, except for a white lace frill at her neck. The sight of her beside his father's huge dark wardrobe sent him into a state of total hysteria. No one else was in the room and she tried to lock him in the wardrobe. He can still hear her cackling and feel her long white claws at the back of his neck. He often looks at his drawings of birds, with which he has had a long obsession, and wonders. He is glad that he managed to find some sort of humour in what he firmly believes was a very close call. He thought she might easily have strangled him and possibly eaten him had not his cries been heard. She was returned that same day to Margate where she lived in a guest house surrounded by her collection of stuffed animals until her death in 1962.
Graham’s mother’s family were more normal. Many of his summer holidays were spent at their house in Northampton, then a small market town. His grandfather had been shell-shocked in Flanders during the First World War but the only manifestations of this that he could discern were a tendency to shout in his sleep all night and to cross roads as if he were in a trench, holding his hat, knees bent, gripping the wall firmly on the other side. He would take Graham to see his uncle Freddie who was a municipal painter. Part of his brief was to maintain the various coats of arms and painted war memorials throughout the town. They would sit in the sun for hours watching him paint his bright rich reds and blues and his fine gold leaf highlights.
“I had a happy childhood I did all the things horrid boys do. My brother and sister were ten years older than me so I was left very much to follow my own destiny. I suppose my parents realised that children never turn out to be anything other than what they want to be. My earliest memories of my own work are of battle scenes: columns of soldiers advancing and retreating by the use of my rubber, explosions caused by splashes of red ink, generals promoted and demoted by addition and subtraction of medals.”
It became apparent that his school days were not those of a model student In fact, few of them were spent at school at all. With his schoolbag safely hidden in a neighbour's hedge, many mornings and afternoons were spent sampling the café society and pubs of Dublin and exploring the rocky coastline of Dublin Bay.
As his interest in formal education waned, his absorption in drawing and painting grew. When he was eighteen, he began studying at art school. His years of training had given him an insight into the temptations of bohemian life and art school suited him very well. He had always had an interest in figurative work, in the portrayal of the human condition, and from an early age he was familiar with the work of Van Gogh, Cezanne and Picasso. In art school he was attracted to the life drawing room where he was determined to develop his skills as a figurative painter. He found myself to be an intuitive painter. He had little patience with the intellectual processes and conclusions, which were involved with abstract and conceptual art. For him, to paint what one saw or felt or imagined around one’s self should be a simple affair, painted from the gut.
In his last year of study, some new tutors arrived, fresh from post-graduate studies in America, and proved to be a dangerous lot altogether. They were rabid abstract expressionists to whom artists such as Barnet Newman assumed god-like status. Grahams’ isolation as a figurative painter became a difficulty for him and should he decline to imitate a transatlantic culture, he would certainly be doomed to failure. He found it pragmatic therefore to stop painting temporarily and adjourn to the sculpture department for his final year. His tutor there was an elderly sculptor who had seen trends come and go over the years and who emphasised to him the qualities of the older painters Cezanne, Goya, Rembandt et al. From his lifetime of carving wood and stone he conveyed to Graham the way that light reveals form and how paint can break the light into colours. It was a valuable year's study.
In 1976 he received his diploma for his exhibition of sinister moving wood constructions - a wooden bird, a portcullis, a shield, wooden machines reminiscent of medieval times - just as solidly built as his father's wardrobe. He developed a love for sculpture at this time and for some years worked hard in carving and construction. However through drawing and using colour in his sculpture, he gradually found himself returning to painting. Nowadays he work’s as both a painter and a sculptor.
For a young artist, the initial years are extremely tough and hazardous. The bohemian life can often be dangerous. His observations of humanity led him down some very dark alleys indeed during his wilderness years and, like his grandfather, he is also prone to shout in his sleep at his memories. At the beginning of 1987 he realised that he must mend his ways. He had a serious drink problem and 10 years of his work was now in the hands of irate publicans and landlords.
Graham changed from being an alcoholic to a workaholic overnight with sensational results. Nowadays painting is an obsession for him. He has a strict work ethos, working from first light every morning until darkness, and beyond. As he works, he uses as source matter his experiences as a younger man. He likes to paint the human predicament as he sees it. His figures appear in an urban landscape of which he is a part. He tries to use colour and form to express the emotion of his figures. He has recently developed this to include portraiture, which he finds exhilarating. He prefers a nightmare world full of shadows where danger and savagery is always close to hand. Graham’s own doubts and fears and hopes are expressed on the faces that appear in the bars and backrooms in his work. Mr. Punch is his alter ego. He reflects his moods. They fight the same battles from the same cupboards. Graham and his family went to England two or three times a year and he recalls the atmosphere of those journeys very well. They took The Princess Maud, a steam-ship notorious for its creaking and rolling, packed as it was in those days too, with emigrant faces. They made the journey at night with a three-hour wait at dawn in Crewe Station for a connection. Under the grime and soot it was a magnificent building with its ornate brickwork and cast and wrought iron. In many ways the scenes were reminiscent of the air raid drawings of Henry Moore. Today when Graham draws people, he draws caricatures of railway porters he has seen asleep on mail bags, weary, worried men and women busy and intent on survival. He returns in his work constantly to still life as a source of inspiration. Its potential for simplicity and invention and its deep roots in tradition bring him back to his student studies of Cézanne and Picasso. Birds in particular have held a life long fascination for him.
Graham tries not to concern myself overly with intellectual reasoning or planning in his work. As a hard-working painter, his concerns are mainly technical, practical and immediate. His concern is to paint the picture first and think about it afterwards. That way he can progress in a proper manner. Above all he tries to speak with his own voice and see with his own eyes.