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Artist Alexander Newley: 'Art has given me everything'

What was it like, growing up as the son of two huge stars, Joan Collins and Anthony Newley? Michelle Doughty met artist Alexander Newley to find out

    Joan Collins with her husband Anthony Newley and their new baby Alexander, pictured in 1965
    Joan Collins with her husband Anthony Newley and their new baby Alexander, pictured in 1965 Photo by Harry Benson/Express/Getty Images

    A few days after my interview with Alexander Newley, about his memoir Unaccompanied Minor, a media storm blows up, when the Sunday Times reports that he has called his late father, the actor and singer Anthony Newley, a paedophile. The paper adds that the book “paints a miserable picture — of his mismatched narcissistic and neglectful parents, a bullying nanny… and every childhood agony.”

    I’m startled (and so is Newley’s mother, the film star Joan Collins, who denies the claims) because Newley had discussed his father with me at length without making any such claim. I call him. He dismisses the ST story as “rubbish. I never said that. I was talking to the journalist about my father’s film Heironymous, which was a very sexually liberated film, shocking for its time. He asked me outright, was my father a paedophile? I said absolutely not. How that got twisted I do not know, but, hey.” I can almost see the shrug of his shoulders.

    At 52, Alexander Newley is a successful painter and portraitist, his art in demand from collectors and museums including the V&A and the Smithsonian.

    Over coffee in a café in Pimlico, he comes over as charming and intelligent.

    He tells me that when his father worked in Vegas, many Jewish comics befriended him. “He felt very at home in the Jewish community. The odd thing is that he’s Huguenot, French Protestant!”

    His eyes light up. “But he had a particularly Jewish outlook on life. He grew up in poverty, feeling like an outsider, and always maintained that comedy and art came from suffering. He became an honorary Jew.”

    Newley’s mother is Jewish, from an East End family called Assenheim. which changed to Collins because: “My mother’s grandfather fell in love with a music hall performer called Lettie Collins. He wanted to become a showbusiness agent and felt that Collins sounded better.”

    The memoir is a vivid, heartfelt account of a young boy trying to gain a sense of self whilst being passed from pillar to post. I ask if he sensed he wasn’t getting the total devotion of his parents? Newley shakes his head, “No, as a child you don’t know any better. You only begin to question it as you become an adult. At the age of eight I did eventually hit a wall and became very, very depressed.”

    He was taken to see Mrs Benet, a Jewish therapist, and loved their art therapy sessions. “I was obsessed with drawing and painting snakes so I effectively wallpapered her office with these drawings. She was incredibly supportive of my art-making. It allowed me to start having positive feelings about myself.” Nowadays, he teaches art to many children, wanting to hand on the feeling of “that fundamental connection between joy and creativity. That was the gift I was given by my enlightened teachers and therapist.”

    A huge fan of the “towering geniuses of the twentieth century, Mahler, Schoenberg and Stefan Zweig,” Newley says, “You get the sense from their art that they are saving their lives. If Mahler couldn’t have composed that music he would have off-ed himself. That would have been it. There is an intensity with Jewish artists that I think is unique.” Do you relate to that? “Yes, I respond to that, totally, yes.”

    He discovered Mahler through Georg Solti’s recording of the Ninth Symphony, “I was 19 and basically immersed myself in that one piece for the next three to four years. It was on my Walkman constantly whenever I was writing or painting. My earliest portrait was of Mahler.”

    Has art saved your life? “Totally. Without question. Art has given me everything, namely a sense of direction, an anchor in the world, a sense of meaning. If I hadn’t had painting and poetry I wouldn’t be here.”

    Interestingly, the memoir excuses Collins’ absences, by acknowledging that she had to wrestle with the insecurities of her career. So, I ask, how are things between you and your mother now?

    Newley pauses before answering, “I am very aware that we have a limited time together from this moment on. I want to make sure that it’s as valuable for both of us as it can be. I am concerned that we have a good relationship and that we both work on it. This book has actually had a positive effect. It’s forced us both to look at things in our shared history that are painful. There’s been a lot of healing and hugs and tears.

    “I have come to a positive place with my mother. She is an extraordinary woman with extraordinary qualities, which I, as an adult, really appreciate. So what I’ve done is a reset and built an adult relationship with her.” I very much hope that the Sunday Times row, has not affected this.

    He has a teenage daughter, Ava Grace, with his former wife, designer Angela Tassoni. Would he like more children? He’s hesitant. “There are things that need to be in the picture if you are going to build a family. As well as all the psychological things that have to be in place, it’s expensive. The whole thought of gearing my life around making enough money to support a family, I have a slight conflict with that. There’s a part of me that says, I need to follow my bliss. If I’m always thinking about the dollar it’s going to get in the way of being true to myself. But of course, having a child, it’s one of life’s great joys.”

    Entirely self-taught, Newley is modest about his talent, which he ascribes to “hard work, mostly. I have a basic aptitude, nothing special. When I started out, my draughtsmanship was shoddy, I was all over the place, really not a good artist at all. I simply doggedly worked through and painted a lot of awful work.

    “The thing I do have,” he adds, “is grit. The most important attribute you need as an artist is unyielding determination and belief in your own ability to improve. All artists are irrational in their self-belief.

    “I wish I had more Jewish blood because all the things that I value in life, in culture, all the artists that I truly love are Jewish.”

     

    Unaccompanied Minor is 
published by Quartet Books

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