JOHN LATHAM – A eulogy at his funeral*


Given at his funeral at Honor Oak Crematorium, Forest Hill, South London, on Saturday the 7th of January 2006

Serota et al at the crematorium

We call them shale bings in Scotland.  There’s something inherently beautiful about the term ‘shale bing’.  For one thing they are not slag heaps.  I believe John was attracted to the shale bings for, among other things, the beauty of these warm, red hills of waste.

Years after he had declared one group of them a work of art a contractor applied for planning permission to extract some of the material for road building.  In reviewing the application, West Lothian District Council refused permission on the grounds that, ‘it was a work of art.’

John changed the way we think – what more could be said about an artist.

John and Barbara invited me to attend the key meeting at the Scottish Office in 1974 when Derek Lyddon, a senior civil servant, agreed to John’s placement there to work as an artist at the centre of government.  No artist in the UK has before or since worked so close to government in such a position.

I met John in the early seventies.  He and the work of APG offered me a philosophical and intellectual basis for my work at that time.  When later I began to teach, first at Dartington College of Arts and then at Glasgow School of Art, his axiom that ‘the context is half the work’ became the major influence of my teaching.  At Glasgow it became the basic focus of the new department I headed called Environmental Art.  This attitude to making art informed the practice of my students.  It will be for others to judge what effect this had on their work, but numerous graduates from that small department have featured in Turner Prize, Beck’s Futures and Hugo Boss short lists, British Art Shows and Venice Bienale exhibitions.

John has many admirers in Scotland.  One of these, Ross Birrell, who had never met John before, came with me to the reception for John at the Tate last September.  He wrote to me when he heard of John’s death saying, ‘John Latham was one of the great British artists of the 20th century and the coolest dressed dude in the Tate that night.’

In 1974 John came to dinner at my house in Edinburgh.  With other friends of mine the conversation was bantering and lighthearted.  John seemed out of it until a gap appeared in the chatter.  Seeing his chance John leapt in and said to one of the guests, ‘But what do you mean by the word THE!’  I believe the dinner began to break up after that.

We will not forget John but we will miss him being there.

David Harding – Jan 2006

Scattering John Latham;s ashes in the 'Heart' of 'Niddry Woman' nr. Pumpherston, West Lothian, Scotland