“The Grotty Hand of Wilf” opened at the Octagon Theatre in Yeovil (South West, England) in October 2011 to a great deal of interest. The show was part retrospective and part tribute to late local artist Stephen Wilmott, affectionately known as Wilf. His credits include illustration and design for a number of bands, including many associated with the anarcho-punk movement, such as The Mob and their own independent record label All The Madmen (ATM) which released material by Blyth Power, The Astronauts, DAN, Thatcher On Acid and many others.
From the very beginning, ATM’s existence as a record label and increasing involvement with local and national music scenes helped develop great opportunities for Wilf to collaborate closely with an associate named Steve Batty. During this time they worked under the pseudonym of Cracked Image Graffix to create unique, original and memorable designs using their skills to interpret visual identities for the gritty lyrical content emanating from this new crop of bands. Wilf was based in the sleepy market town of Yeovil in the South West of England. (The city of Bristol is located 45 miles north.) The town’s biggest exports are gloves and helicopters (you might notice these references in some of his artwork, especially if you are familiar with flyers and posters featuring The Mob). The very essence of the anarcho-punk movement was born out of the need to get up and make some changes, however small, like starting a band with a message or supplying informative flyers on a range of subjects relevant to the time period. It was a pocket of positivity that Wilf became part of, especially with his early roots in the hippie subculture, which had ethical values similar to this movement. In fact, Wilf played in the Psycho Daisies where he performed and wrote vocals, and he was part of an early incarnation of Bikini Mutants, which featured Debbie Googe who would later be a member of shoegaze pioneers My Bloody Valentine. As an artist it was a perfect creative outlet.
Curated by Graham Moores and Joanne Childs, the exhibition comprised of works from a number of sources, including band mates, friends and relatives. Initially acting on a suggestion that it would be an excellent idea to put together an art show as a celebration of the artist’s life, Joanne ultimately ended up spearheading the project. Much of this task was a daunting prospect as it was common knowledge that Wilf had a tendency to give away much of his work. But contacts on the internet and a general call for help spread within the community resulted in a number of leads and people offering to loan out their pieces for inclusion in the show. (Much of the material supplied was not even known to exist before this exhibit was put together.) As a result of their efforts, Graham and Joanne collected enough artwork to span the entire top floor of the Octagon Theatre. This unique exhibition will most likely be the biggest collection of Wilf’s work ever seen, totaling approximately 80 pieces, running the gamut of material documenting the early Yeovil punk rock scene right through to his time exploring experimental paint techniques and screen printing at Magick Eye.
The restaurant and bar hosted paintings, illustrations and screen printed T-shirts centered around Wilf’s activist work protecting his beloved Wyndham Hill (a recognized beauty spot located right next to the country park in Yeovil). This area has been marked for controversial supermarket expansion and road bypass projects a number of times throughout its history. To this day Wyndham Hill still stands, no doubt in part thanks to the hard work of Wilf and his associates in the Wyndham Hill Action Group. I’m sure he’d be glad to know that no developments have since infringed on this area.
Subsequent material contained in this room gave a glimpse into Wilf’s later practices, which focused on almost spiritual surrealism (possibly harkening back to his hippie roots). But that’s not so say at this point in his life Wilf didn’t try his hand at more traditional pieces, as was evident by his selection of beautiful watercolour landscapes and “old English” style cattle painting, the type of which can be seen in establishments in various villages throughout the UK. There’s also some superb stories transcribed in the form of A4 comic panels, which adorn the same wall.
A glass cabinet located in one of the theatre’s side rooms collected together examples of published work, the originals of which have unfortunately been destroyed, or their whereabouts are unknown. In the interest of consistency the actual final product appeared in place of original artwork, such as the case with many of the record covers on show. Other items like cassette tapes, zines, cards, pottery and other crafts filled the remaining shelves, showing the artist’s sheer diversity in range, and offering a wonderful insight into what was at the time a thriving underground “Do It Yourself” scene.
Particularly exciting was the inclusion of unreleased record cover artwork for the band The Mob from 1982/83. The art is extremely striking, with firm focus on characterization, and is typical of the artist’s early work as seen on the band’s “Crying Again” and “Witch Hunt” singles. Other notable works include the original cover art for the debut LP by The Mob (Let the Tribe Increase) which was sadly scrapped in favour of a linear, cost-friendly reproducible cover. As was the case with much of this material, it was fascinating to see the ideas and the end result for pieces that you’ve become so acquainted with over the years. Located in the same room was a series of gig and promotional posters for The Mob, which perfectly blends watercolours and traditional illustration. This was a visual feast for those interested in art or music.
The finale of the two-week show brought together friends from throughout Wilf’s history to celebrate his life. I was invited by Pauline Burr (arts development officer at South Somerset District Council) to take photos and converse with guests and friends at the end of show event. There were many anecdotes about the life and times of Wilf: inspiration, history and education of the artist as well as touching tributes to this well loved local character — a great footnote to an already excellent show.
On the same night, the recently regrouped Mob, with its original lineup of Mark Wilson (vocals/guitar), Graham Fallows (drums) and Curtis You’e (bass), arrived from South West England and Wales to play in the town where the band had originally formed. Throughout their performance they were flanked by projected visuals of Wilf’s artwork, photographs, and flyers associated with the band’s history, leading to some very atmospheric moments.
Wilf’s influence on contemporary illustration, especially within the DIY punk scene, is immeasurable, as the iconic style he created for groups such as The Mob amidst the Crass-spearheaded anarcho-punk movement continues to influence a whole new generation of bands with similar ethics and visual communication, such as Signal Lost (Texas), Witch Hunt (Philadelphia), Battle of Disarm (Japan), 1981 (Finland) and countless other acts, who use bold striking visual depiction to convey ideas and messages. Gone but not forgotten.
Photos by Adam Farrar.