Early years

Born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1932, Joseph Laoutaris, my grandfather, grew up in Heliopolis, where he was educated at an English-speaking school for expats. By blood he is English and Greek, but in heritage he considers himself an Egyptian, where he lived for 21 years.

He started painting as a teenager, having seen a book on Vincent Van Gogh that had been given to his brother, George. George was an avid reader and talented illustrator, with a strong interest in creative pursuits from a young age. Joseph, however, had previously hated art, and yet he was captivated by this book. This was a moment that would shape the rest of his life, as what began as a passion quickly grew into an obsession.

He arrived in England in 1952, with the intention of studying architecture. But decided to follow his passion for painting instead. Content with an assetic lifestyle, in his early years he would often make moonlight flits; leaving artwork behind to cover the rent he could not afford. Eventually he was offered a place at the Slade School of art but did not attend. He was then accepted at Chelsea and the Central School, but felt temperamentally unsuited to group learning, so again he left. He had always been uncomfortable in the company of other people, and so instead he opted to teach himself by copying old master prints at the National Gallery and VA. Indeed, with a love of poetry and classical music, he always felt he had a duty of appreciation to the arts.

In 1953 his artwork attracted the attention of Lilian Browse, whereupon he was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Rowland Browse and Delbanco Gallery, but he refused. In 1955 Victor Musgrave invited him to exhibit at Gallery One, but again he declined. He recalls how Michael Chase of Zwemmer Gallery bought an unfinished painting that was still on his easel, and remarked “now that I've found you, for god’s sake don't just disappear again”, but he promptly disappeared.

As the years passed he became ever more insular, obsessive and neurotic. This culminated in a series of breakdowns, the first of which saw him washing the skin off his hands, and then becoming ‘blinded’ because of his inability to afford the materials he needed. However, the most significant breakdown was spurred by an act of vandalism, which saw 10 years of his work slashed and destroyed by a jilted love interest. This he still talks bitterly about to this day.

Indeed, my grandfather’s artistic development is a story of numerous setbacks and obstacles- some internal, others external- but both beyond his control. For whilst he battled his own aversion to self-promotion and social interaction, he has also been a victim of circumstance. During his early years in London, he became fixated with developing and refining an artistic concept, which in the end bore too many similarities to an emergent Rothko. The next setback came after many years of working with sand and glue when the company which produced the necessary adhesive went bankrupt, and he was forced to re-evaluate his methods.