Anarchy in Coventry: George Shaw's greatest hits

Anarchy in Coventry: George Shaw's greatest hits

Tim Jonze for The Guardian - 13 february 2019

The Rembrandt of the housing estate found lyricism in Tile Hill, capturing a changing Britain. Now he’s celebrating the books, records and T-shirts that triggered his artistic awakening

There’s a photograph of George Shaw, taken in 2002, that shows the Coventry artist gamely attempting to relive his youth. Facing the camera, he’s squeezing himself into the tiny Joy Division T-shirt he bought back when he was a skinny 14 year old. It looks more like a crop-top in the picture, barely reaching his belly button and pulling at his broad shoulders. “I remember my wife saying, ‘Stop it, you’re going to tear it!’” Shaw, who would have been in his mid-30s when the shot was taken, laughs at the memory.

It’s a silly photograph, but also a moving one that explores – as most of Shaw’s work does – the passage of time, the roots of who we are and the melancholy of approaching middle age. The photo – and the T-shirt itself – are currently on display as part of a small exhibition at the Paul Mellon Centre in London revealing all his pop cultural influences: vinyl by the Fall and 2-Tone pin badges stand alongside pulpy skinhead novels and Ladybird books about trees.

“I’m always quite interested in the soil things grow from,” says Shaw, now 52, when we meet at the centre. “I thought showing people these influences might be more interesting than everyone thinking it all came from Constable or Turner. My entry level into Romanticism was [Factory Records designer] Peter Saville. It wasn’t the National Gallery.”

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‘My entry-level into Romanticism was Peter Saville’ … George Shaw with his old Joy Division T-shirt. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian