Back to Firpo index


by Peter Brooke

I first met Walter Firpo in 1963 in the College Cévenol in France where I was attending a Summer school with a view to learning French. The format was French lessons in the morning and a wide choice of activities in the afternoon. These included painting, taught by Firpo. As I remember it, we started off with nine in the painting lessons and ended up with three. Firpo wasn't one of those teachers who believe in allowing his pupils to express themselves freely and who encourage them with compliments! His pedagogical method may not have been the best but I took to him. 

I was already interested in painting and in the arts in general through my involvement with the Lyric Players Theatre in Belfast, which specialised in Irish verse drama, in particular the plays of W.B.Yeats. My parents also ran a Picture Borrowing Group which enabled people who did not have the confidence to buy paintings to, so to speak, rent them from the artists for a limited period, a useful way of enabling them to get used to more 'modern' work. I had absorbed the idea of freedom in non-representational art - what I got from Firpo was a sense of discipline. I remember that we experimented with an Impressionist technique of juxtaposing small patches of colour and then with a Cubist technique of construction with the emphasis on the interaction of straight line and curve. Although I do remember all sorts of intriguing diagrams pinned to the wall I don't remember Firpo specifically talking about Gleizes or about the technique of 'translation-rotation.'

After this Summer I continued in correspondence with Firpo and he was enormously generous with me as I struggled between what I was learning from him and the more fashionable attractions of pop art, pop music, jazz and beat poetry. Our correspondence moved into the area of poetry and, in opposition to the chaotic emotional turbulence of the Beats, Firpo introduced me to a sparse poetry in which a few carefully chosen words resonate with each other in the manner of the colours in the painting of the school of Gleizes. The handful of poems he sent me in the 1960s still I think define my idea of what poetry ought to be (though given this critique of the 'beats' I should perhaps admit that the only contemporary poet who seemed to me, and maybe still seems to me, to embody similar values was the Bob Dylan of the album 'John Wesley Harding').

I broke contact with Firpo in the 1970s as the 'beat' side of my character got the upper hand, yielding in turn to Northern Ireland politics and my engagement with the group centred on Athol Street. But I resumed contact in the 1980s when I realised that the Gleizes adventure which he had introduced to me was something very precious and I had to pursue it. Firpo resumed his old generosity, sending me paintings and poems and introducing me to Genevieve Dalban in the little town of Ampuis in the Rhone Valley south of Lyon. She became my mentor in the Gleizes school. Eventually, however, we fell out, or rather, he broke contact with me about the time of the publication of my book on Gleizes in 2001. He was quarrelsome and I was proud of my ability to have maintained good relations with him for so long. By this time he was in his 90s and he died not long afterwards. Since my letters to him were being returned I was out of touch and didn't know. Some time later, I learned that the contents of his studio had been sold in a fire sale (his daughter, who looked after him in his old age, had obviously felt the need to protect herself against his relentless enthusiasm and so far as I know had no interest in his work).

I don't know what became of the poems other than the ones he sent to me. He was, I think, prolific. One time when I was visiting him in Paris he showed me a suitcase which had just been sent up from his old studio in Marseilles. He said it was full of poems. I don't know of his poems ever being published and I know no-one else who was in contact with him. He had good relations within the French Protestant community. He was highly regarded in the Communauté de Pomeyrol in the South of France, to me a strange phenomenon, a religious order of women formed under the auspices of the traditionally Calvinist Église Reformée. He was friendly with Henri Lindegaard a well-known Protestant pastor, himself an artist and, possibly through Firpo, friend of Gleizes. Within the Gleizes family, however, he was regarded with some suspicion as someone who championed Gleizes' principles aggressively without actually practising them in his own work. Genevieve, who also had reservations about his painting, nonetheless loved him for his command of language and his championing of Gleizes. But she died in 2002, the same year as he did.

I'm therefore posting these poems on my own initiative, hoping that Firpo, who was actually a very private man - he liked the private exchange of letters, one to one, or with small like-minded groups, and disliked any sort of self assertion in public - would approve.

                                                                                  To Poems in French

 A small selection of the sketches Firpo sent me can be seen here