What is DOOLEYDAY?
Put simply, it’s a celebration of Liverpool-born sculptor ARTHUR DOOLEY held annually on his birthday, 17th January. That’s all.
But looked at again, it’s more than that: it’s an example of how so-called ‘ordinary’ people (no such thing, by the way) can create our own myths, honour our own heroes and sheroes, and by doing so, shine a light to illuminate a possible path ahead for the rest of us, in the darkest of times.
Arthur was a true original, a working class hero and self-taught artist who shook the city. At the height of his fame in the 1970s, he appeared on This Is Your Life, had exhibitions in Windsor Castle (the Queen Mum was a big fan), and his work singularly studs Liverpool like a trail of sacred diamonds. Given the dramatic nature of his life and times, I wonder why on earth there hasn’t been a film or TV series made about him, or even a definitive biography written.
Maybe it’s because he absolutely refused to play the art game, kissing precisely no arses along the way.
Maybe it’s because he was a ‘worker artist’ who never took a lesson, and so found himself outside the scope of the ‘serious’ critics who just couldn’t get to grips with this man beyond their easy, lazy frames of reference.
Maybe its something to do with how unfashionably radical he was: politically, he was a revolutionary Communist; religiously, he was a devout Catholic. His work reflected these abiding concerns, marrying the two and seeing no contradiction between them. He viewed Christianity as a revolutionary doctrine, with Christ a radical whose goal was to upend the social order and show how we can all win, here, in this world, with a revolution of mind that can transcend all things, even death. If you want to see and feel a visceral interpretation of that ethos, feel right in your gut, go see his ‘Black Christ’ statue in Toxteth. This piece fascinated and horrified me as a child growing up in the area, and partially led to me founding Dooleyday. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, here. Let’s go back to where it all began.
Born in Liverpool in 1929, he went on to become a deckhand on the Mersey tugboats, a welder in Cammel Lairds shipyard, before joining the Irish Guards as a boy soldier. He was in Palestine when Britain had the mandate, and was appalled at the treatment of the people there. Reputedly handing over a tank to the pre-terrorist PLO led him to be made a colonel in that organisation, a 3-year stint in the glass house in Colchester, and an end to his military career. He began idly sculpting with materials found lying around….
Coming home, he found work at St Martins School of Art as a caretaker. Looking at the work of the students gave him confidence that he could do a much better job, and using the excess bits they dropped on the floor, he proceeded to do just that. He worked as a sculptor for the rest of his life, always working in found materials or bronze. His subject matter was predominantly religious, as a walk along the ‘Dooley Trail’ in Liverpool will testify. Although here is where the majority of his work can be seen, the work he did further afield is nothing short of extraordinary.
The great artists tackle the great themes, and Arthur was no exception. His revolutionary ‘Stations of the Cross’ in Leyland, with its extra ‘Resurrection’ station gave the Passion a twist; his ‘Dachau Christ’ in Oldham takes on the Holocaust, and was memorably described as ‘dripping with pain’; ‘La Passionara’ in Glasgow honours the Scottish volunteers who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and ‘The Splitting of the Atom’ in Daresbury is a monumental piece on the nuclear age, which references the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In both thought and form, his work is first class, humane and radical.
He died in 1994. And that would seem to have been that. His studio on Seel Street was kept as though he’d only just stepped out, for years, held in time. Outside his family and friends, and those in the know in Liverpool, his fame faded.
The Liverpool Academy of Arts, which Arthur helped revive, organised one of the few genuine examples of, erm, actual Liverpool culture during our year as European Capital of Culture in 2008, when they put on a retrospective. They also created the Dooley Archive with John Moores University, to publicise and gain recognition for him. Really, it’s the efforts of June Lornie and her team that should be celebrated, as they’ve done more to safeguard and burnish his reputation than anyone else.
Fast forward to 2014, and that’s where I came in.
I was working with the sculptor Andy Edwards and Castle Fine Arts on the Beatles statue (which now sits proudly on the Waterfront, the number one tourist attraction in the city, but at that time was just us being speculative). Looking at the other Beatles statues in the city – from the sublime to the ridiculous – I came to properly appreciate Arthur (his ‘Four Lads Who Shook The World’ in Mathew St is yet another controversial work by him, mixing as it does the sacred and – in some people’s eyes – the profane). And Black Jesus is my homeboy, after all. So, drunk one night, bemoaning the fact that he seemed to be forgotten, I wrote a press release about a fictional event and sent it to the Echo. It said I thought the city should have a day for him. We’d call it ‘Dooleyday’, and pay visits to his work all around the town. And we’d do it every year on his birthday, 17th January.
(Inspiration check: We’d just had Bloomsday, the day for fans of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’; I looked into it, and the very first one in 1924 only had 5 people, and the day ‘descended into drunkenness and rancour’. In other words, they basically got bevvied and had a fight. I read that and thought: “We could do that!”).
To my delight, on the day itself – 17th January 2015 – the Echo ran a full colour page, with some great pictures of Arthur and his work, and a top report from Catherine Jones.
We’d manifested Dooleyday!
It was a real, actual thing: the Echo said so.
And so armed with a copy of said periodical, an overly-optimistic itinerary and an A0 framed print we’d designed, we made our way around the streets of the city Arthur had loved so very much. That first one managed 6 of us, or 20% more people than the first Bloomsday if you like. It was little more than a glorified pub crawl around some of his favourite boozers (somehow I think he’d have approved), but it led to something magical. The minister of the Methodist Church on Princes Avenue, Alan Fretwell, saw us in the paper and got in touch, asking for our help in saving the Black Jesus statue. It had been put up in 1969, two weeks after I was born. Caused murder, naturally (the statue, not me), but had since become a beloved feature of the area. Alan was concerned that the statue was in such bad nick it was in danger of falling off the wall. He wasn’t wrong. It was the 89th minute of the game all right. So we worked with the church and congregation to take the old fella down, and the remarkable Chris Butler of Castle Fine Arts restored him. I produced a magazine commemorating the project, telling the story of the statue in pictures, newspaper cuttings, poetry and sermons. You can still get a copy in News From Nowhere.
And that’s the story of how a silly little idea changed the world, just a little bit, by directly saving a masterpiece. Looking after his work, shining a light on it, is a big part of what we’re doing. Last year, we installed the Hillsborough maquette in The Florrie. This is the working model for one of the most important works of art the city has seen, and is yet another reason to come to the remarkable and multi-award winning Florrie, if you haven’t already.
This year, Arthur would have been 90. We’re again showcasing the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s personal collection of Dooleys, as well as much more from our crowd-sourced exhibition. We’ll also be showing films, unseen photographs and there’ll be talks and presentations about his life and work. We’ll be sharing our plans for future Dooleydays and what we can be doing in the meantime to honour the great man. So do please come along if you can.
There might even be tea and cake.
Arthur once said “we’re coming into our own”.
It’s finally time. Are you ready…?
Dooleyday @ The Florrie, 17th January, 10am-6pm, £3
Call the Florrie on: 0151 728 2323