There’s a fight going on in the public gallery, one of the defendants is shouting from the dock, the prosecuting counsel is trying to catch the judge’s eye, a sawn-off shotgun and a pistol lie on a table as evidence and one of the jurors has fallen asleep. This is The Trial, one of the many paintings capturing real events created by armed robber turned artist, Jack Murton, as part of an exhibition in east London in July.
Murton was involved in some of the stories told. One canvas, Death of a Friend, is set in a cell block in Maidstone prison where an inmate has just hanged himself. On the Pavement and A Picture of Crime both show robberies in progress. Shoot to Kill records a fatal shooting by a police marksman. Every picture tells a true crime story.
Murton, now 63, was convicted of an armed robbery of a Securicor van in 1984 and jailed for 12 years. He had already served time in borstal and prison for offences ranging from grievous bodily harm to arson. “I was a failure as a criminal,” he says, sitting surrounded by canvases in his west London flat, near Portobello Road. “Crime brought me lots of prison time and no riches.”
He had little interest in art until he was jailed in Maidstone. “I was sitting in a cell with two drug dealers,” says Murton. “I was not interested in art, but these guys had catalogues that they got sent to them from Sotheby’s. We were puffing joints one day – it was a sort of hippie porridge in there – and my mate, who was a friend of Lucian Freud, was flicking through them. Something caught my eye and I said, ‘Can I have a look at that?’ He said, ‘Course you can, Jack.’ He was posh, well-educated, a drug dealer who had been born on the right side of the tracks, a middle-class guy who wanted to be a criminal – his siblings were doctors and so on.”
The photograph in the catalogue was of Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire. “It reminded me of the colours – golds and mauves – that I saw when I took LSD when I was 13. My friend must have seen there was a spark of interest and he encouraged it.”
Murton started to investigate art styles. “I looked at the fauvists and I saw naive paintings which I didn’t know existed. I came across Rousseau and then I saw Beryl Cook. What that showed me was that there was a style and my painting could perhaps just come under that umbrella. There’s still a lot of snobbery about naive art – some people look at it and say ‘my kid could do that.’”
It was not until he was moved to Blantyre House prison in Kent, which had a record of working with serious offenders, that he actually started to paint. “I was never going to paint in Maidstone because I was too busy keeping fit to keep safe – punch-bags and weight-training and stuff. Blantyre House was different.”
Indeed it was. Blantyre was a brave experiment in detention, its aim to rehabilitate prisoners by giving them trust and responsibility, much as Barlinnie prison in Glasgow had done in the 1970s, which led to the emergence of the artist, Jimmy Boyle. The strategy paid dividends and Blantyre House acquired the lowest re-offending rates – 8% – in the system.
“The beauty of that place under the governor, Jim Semple, was self-determination. The ethos was ‘do something but don’t do nothing’. The fact that they allowed a person to find within themselves what they really wanted to do was the magic ingredient that no other prison could emulate. I started off doing marbling, which was all the rage at the time, and then I went on to painting. I loved it. I wouldn’t leave the art room!”
Blantyre is closed now, one of the victims of a criminal justice policy accused of being more concerned with retribution than rehabilitation, a world portrayed in the recent BBC series, Time, written by Jimmy McGovern, which Murton felt created an all-too-accurate impression of prison life: “I’ve seen all that in the big prisons – throwing boiling water and sugar at people, the psychological pressure inmates try to put on one another, the bullying.”
While in Blantyre, he made a video diary for the BBC about life inside, and on release he worked on Prison Weekly for BBC2, which looked at all aspects of incarceration. Since then he has made a living with his painting – albeit some of it the more traditional kind: decorating people’s houses.
As for those events in the paintings, “some of the things in The Trial happened during my own case. The leaflets and the fight in the gallery were during someone’s murder trial. And the juror sleeping kept occurring during a south London armed robber’s trial. I’ve merged them into one painting.” The friend who hanged himself in Maidstone in 1987 was a man called Paul Forte. “He was in for drugs and got seven years. A very sensitive guy. Prison was just too harsh for him.”
Murton’s paintings will be on display in east London, just around the corner from Vallance Road, once the headquarters of the Kray twins but now a neighbourhood rather more likely to have a gallery opening than a gangland shootout.
Thirty Years by Jack Murton is at The Brick Lane Gallery, 14-18 July