OF INNOCENCE






Of Innocence: Scenes from the Passion was showing at the Anthony Wilkinson Gallery in March and April of 1999. Fourteen paintings of the Tile Hill estate. I saw the work and loved it. But seeing the work spread out over the three immaculate spaces of the white cube must have been a huge thrill for the artist himself. How had he and his work got there? Had it been as easy as popping down to the shops when he was a lad growing up on the estate?

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The South, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

After secondary school, George did his art foundation at Lanchester Polytechnic. This is in Coventry, and so, I guess, wouldn’t have involved him leaving home. He then studied fine art at Sheffield Polytechnic for three years (1986-89) and that would have involved him making a break from number 57. After that he had a job as a medical photographer at Charing Cross Medical School in London. He then did a PGCE back at Sheffield Poly, which led to him working as a teacher in Nottingham for several years. Eventually he realised that he’d like to get back into art. While studying for his MA at the Royal College in London, he began revisiting his home town, taking photographs of the sites familiar to him from when he’d lived on the estate over ten years before. In a sense, the education and the work experience had been less important to his development than the exile from home. And once the separation from what he held dearest had gone on for a certain length of time - lo and behold! - George had a subject.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Gap, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

The MA show at Royal College would have been in the summer of 1998. And judging by one of the two postcards George sent me, Tile Hill paintings were part of that show. I imagine the pictures caught the eye of Anthony Wilkinson who already represented such avant garde talents as Bob and Roberta Smith. In any case, Wilkinson wasted no time in slotting a solo show of the work into his gallery’s no doubt busy schedule.

AW: “How does spring of next year sound, George?”
GS: “Sounds great to me, Anthony. The blossom will be back on the trees around the estate.”

Much of the above summary is cobbled together from material that’s available on the web. But I met George Shaw in July of 1999, when he would have been 33 years old, and I wrote an article based on my impressions of the exhibition and on what he told me that day in his Cable Street studio. This is what appeared in issue 26 of
contemporary visual arts under the headline: ‘Coming Up For Air’.

In the afternoon I meet George Shaw at his East End studio. His completed application form for the John Moores competition rests on the table. The relevant painting – a landscape showing a line of decrepit and vandalised garages at the back of a just-glimpsed row of houses – is wall-mounted and awaits finishing touches. The artist uses Humbrol enamel (Airfix model paint) which is excellent for rendering white window trims, and for suggesting thin branches on winter trees, but not so good for conjuring up piles of fallen leaves. The oily paint is too thin to build up any real depth, so an illusion of depth has to be achieved by colour variation. The painting drips with nostalgia.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Hometime, 1999: Humbrol enamel on board. 77x100cm

George Shaw was brought up on a post-war council estate in Coventry. His many paintings of Tile Hill record sites that are within a short distance of what is still his family’s home: houses, grassy areas between houses, a pub which fascinated the artist as a child but which he’s never been inside, a chip shop, a row of shops, a police station. The woods skirting the estate, paths through the woods, ponds in the woods, and so on. No people of cars though: the paintings leave space for the viewer. In my case to recall the estate where I lived in Hamilton; in George’s (the artist looks at his own pictures, after all) to recall the various incidents – no one more important than the others – that took place in these exact spots.

The walls of the studio are covered with paintings-in-progress, photos of finished paintings which have gone out of the studio, and snaps taken recently in Coventry, from which the artist will work. Usually he takes a primed MDF board, props it up against the toolbox on his table, Blu Tacks a photo of the site he’s painting onto the surface, and copies from photo to painting. As well as omitting vehicles and people, he has other adjustments to make: out with the new (a mini recycling centre, an external lift shaft on a block of flats, a pair of concrete bollards) and in with the old (a heap of solidified tar handy for mounting a fence, a PUKKA pie sign which has gone now but which the artist managed to photograph in replica in present-day London). It is Tile Hill circa 1978-1985 that is being meticulously recorded – George’s secondary school years when he listened to the likes of the Smiths and Joy Division, groups which are still amongst his preferred listening.

When he gets bored with rendering detailed brickwork, he’ll swop the picture for another which needs, say, a grassy foreground that can be applied with a bigger brush. But, basically, he doesn’t stop painting from one week to the next, both here and in his rented room in Deptford. He shows me a drawing he’s making, a plan of Tile Hill showing every street and a 3-D representation of each building. The project – with its attention to detail, its obsessiveness – reminds me of Paul Noble’s map and drawings of Nobson Newtown, although an important difference is that Tile Hill was – and is – a real place. Shaw’s father came from the north-west of England in the Fifties, from a community given a cultural identity through the novels, films and plays of that period. The son picked up on this and, on moving to London, he became aware of the capital’s psycho-geography through the writing of Iain Sinclair and the work of many artists in various media. At some stage he realised his home community lacked such a recorded identity, and that he wanted to contribute to such a thing.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Black Prince, 1999: Humbrol enamel on board. 75x100cm

There’s an evangelical side to the project. The show of his work at Anthony Wilkinson’s gallery this spring was called ‘Scenes from the Passion’, and the fourteen paintings originally conceived for that show obliquely referred to the Stations of the Cross. But there is no overt symbolism in these landscapes of Coventry – this is not the equivalent of Stanley Spencer’s ‘Christ Preaching at Cookham Regatta’ or ‘Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard’. Actually, but for the absence of figures, Shaw similarly expresses his unconditional love for the place he was brought up, his gratitude for the life he’s been given.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Sunday Evening, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

In the picture I’m looking at, there is a row of two-storey houses, semi-detached, with a small gap between each pair. The white window trims are prominent on the gable end, but don’t stand out much where lace curtains are in use – as they are all along the frontage. The roof tiles are depicted as a single dull purple plane – perhaps differentiating each tile would have been too fussy. Apparently the telephone box in front of the houses was used by Shaw as a child since his family didn’t have a phone at home. (We did. Our first family phone. Hamilton 2240.)

The artist remembers the grassy area beside the telephone box being cordoned off one day. A girl had been sexually assaulted there, and all the men in the vicinity were to be interviewed by the police. When the policeman knocked on the Shaw front door, the son watched in terror as his innocent father went to the door in his dressing gown. George’s imagination raced: the house would be searched, his pile of pornography would be found and attributed to his father who would be arrested as a sex fiend!

Thanking his lucky stars when a search did not take place, the boy buried his porn in the woods. Late, he dug it up again (for some urgent reason), and after he’d finished with the filthy stuff he threw it into the water of ‘The Pond I could Never Find’, a painting recently retitled (determinedly) ‘The Forgotten Pond’.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Forgotten Pond, 1998-99: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

People back in Coventry are beginning to learn about the project. The artist’s immediate family are given pictures of places that have some particular resonance for them. In addition, his brother is given a photograph of each finished painting which is then displayed in his workplace – the local Massey-Ferguson factory – to a mixed reaction of mockery (anybody could paint these!), outrage (there’s a market for them?!), recognition and reminiscence.

George was informed by his father recently that the row of old garages had been demolished and the ground turfed over. But that’s all right, the garages have been recorded for posterity in at least five paintings. Let the kids play football there, let them inherit a new and improved Tile Hill. But let them also see how their own everyday world emerged.

contemporary visual arts, issue 26


So that’s what I made of ‘Scenes from the Passion’ back in 1999.

When I met George at an opening after the feature came out, he told me that he’d given the journal to his father to read. Alas, I cannot remember what George’s father’s response to the article was, though George did tell me. It may have been something to do with the police calling round. Yes, I suspect George’s father could not remember anything about the incident that had meant so much to his son. If so, maybe George should consider re-titling the painting yet again:
The Porn Dad Could Never Find. Or, most decisively of all: The Forgotten Porn.

I should say that the 2000-word feature in the journal discussed the work of Geraint Evans as well. His depictions of suburban interiors had also struck a chord with me.
‘Duncan McLaren looks at two artists whose approach to the present is to rediscover a nostalgia for a childhood past’, is how Keith Patrick put it in his editorial. Subsequent to the issue appearing, Geraint Evans was taken on by Anthony Wilkinson. I like to think my feature helped establish that bond, though I’ve no idea if that was the case. I note that, thirteen years later, Geraint is no longer represented by the Wilkinson Gallery.

I did have one quibble about the appearance of the piece. The journal had chosen to reproduce this George Shaw image of decrepit garages on Tile Hill Estate:

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Fall, 1999: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

These are the garages that George’s father told him had been demolished and turfed-over. The ones that George had painted at least five times already. The ones that George has painted - in their turfed-over state - several times since. Whereas the equally superb image of garages that was on the wall of the artist’s studio awaiting finishing touches before being sent off to the John Moores competition, which I mentioned at the beginning of my article, was not reproduced.

Happily, as I’ve been able to buy a copy of
John Moores 21 from abebooks, I’ve been able to scan and include the reproduction at the relevant part of the text on this site. I’ve also noted that the Shaw painting was one of the 10 prizewinners from the 2000-odd entries, though it was a Michael Raedecker painting that scooped the first prize.

What more would I say about ‘Scenes from the Passion’ thirteen years after the exhibition? Quite a lot, actually. First, I would say that the advent of Google means that much more information is publicly available about the geographical context and specific sites of George Shaw’s pictures. The satellite view below shows the approximate location of the Shaw house (marked with the yellow symbol) on Tile Hill estate. Nearby are three woods, Limbrick to the east, Tilehill to the north and west, Pig to the south and west. Surely these green spaces would have amounted to a Garden of Eden for George to grow up in. Oh, what a paradise it seems!

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Imagery ©2013 DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

Page 73 of the book Estates by Lynsey Hanley tells us that Tile Hill was a post-War ‘Bevan estate’ conceived and built by the first fully realised Labour government. Aneurin Bevin’s main job following the end of the war was to introduce a National Health Service, but he was also the minister responsible for housing. Bevan was a powerful advocate for the right of working-class people to live in comfortable and socially integrated surroundings. So although Labour had been thrown out of office by the time Tile Hill was actually built in 1952, that Labour government - and Bevan in particular - had done its bit for the people.

Of course, post-War optimism didn’t last, as the sexual assault and buried porn anecdote might suggest. Are the woods fringing the estate tainted with the sordid activities so often associated with green spaces in Western cities nowadays? I hope to explore that in pages to come. But the following image doesn’t look too promising, does it? What dark thoughts are lurking in the bushes? What scoundrel goes there? Could it be Harold MacMillan, Housing Minister from 1951-1954, whose Conservative government continued to provide council housing, but with more emphasis on quantity than quality? A policy that would lead to tower blocks and social problems in the sky.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Dark Path, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

There is another perspective on the Tile Hill woods that needs to be articulated. If the woods are no Garden of Eden, they are remnants of something just as glorious: the Forest of Arden. What do I mean? Stratford-on-Avon is only 15 miles away, which makes this Shakespeare’s territory. The bard drew on his experience of the Forest of Arden when he wrote As You Like It. And although A Midsummer Night’s Dream is ostensibly set in a wood near Athens, Shakespeare was never in a wood outside England in his puff. The Forest of Arden will be where Shakespeare had his formative experiences of love and rivalry, where he observed ‘rude mechanicals’ going about their lives in normal times and during festivities. Scenes from the Passion - of the second most famous person in history!

I suspect that such a perspective
has influenced George Shaw’s vision of Tile Hill. Shaw quotes lines from Cymbeline in material promoting his 2005 show, Ash Wednesday. And ‘Hold Your Hour’, one of the pamphlets sent to me by the artist in ’99, ends intriguingly: ‘ROSEBUD. FALSTAFF. HOW DO YOU MAKE AUTOBIOGRAPHY WORK FOR A LIVING?’

I don’t have a convincing answer to that question. (George seems to have worked one out for himself given his Turner Prize nomination in 2011.) Instead, in response to the question, I’d like, if I may, to quote the first meeting of a group of tradesmen who are to put on a play for the entertainment of the local elite:

QUINCE:
“Masters, here are your parts, and I am to entreat you, request you, and desire you to con them by tomorrow night, and meet me in the palace wood a mile without the town by moonlight. There will we rehearse, for if we meet in the city we shall be dogged with company, and our devices known. In the meantime, I will draw a bill of properties such as our play wants. I pray you fail me not.”

BOTTOM:
“We will meet, and there we may rehearse most obscenely and courageously. Take pains; be perfect. Adieu.”

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Way Home, 1999: Humbrol enamel on board. 75x100cm

Above is a clearing where Peter Quince, Nick Bottom and the rest of the Dream cast might profitably have rehearsed. Hang on a minute, I can put it more poetically than that, surely:

BOTTOM: “Are we all met?”

QUINCE: “Pat, pat; and here’s a marvellous convenient place for our rehearsal. This green plot shall be our stage, this hawthorn brake our tiring-house, and we will do it in action as we will do it before the Duke.”


Unfortunately, it’s more of an orange plot than a green one. And the only specific tree I can identify is a silver birch. Perhaps this is the place where Oberon, king of the fairies, instructed Puck to go in search of the purple flower - love-in-idleness - the juice of which he intended to squeeze into the eyes of Titania, his unfaithful queen. And Puck responded to his master with the unforgettable line: “I’ll put a girdle round about the earth in forty minutes.”

Which is a prompt for me to revert to Google Earth’s aerial perspective. On this image I’ve marked where George Shaw was standing when he took photographs that were the basis for six of the fourteen paintings that made up the exhibition, ‘Scenes from the Passion’. (Whose passion? Shaw’s passion!)

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Imagery ©2013 DigitalGlobe, GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

Let’s take them one at a time, from north to south. Below is a painting of The Black Prince, though George has omitted the sign as he omits all modern signage. Perhaps it’s the pub that George told me during the interview back in 1999 that he’d never entered. In fact, I suspect it is, since two of the fourteen paintings in the original exhibition were of this pub, and I don’t think any of the other pictures were of pubs. The second picture of the Black Prince is the fourth painting that appears on this page; scroll up to remind yourself of its wet streets and the tower blocks on the horizon that are seemingly dwarfed by the bare branches of a tree in winter. That same winter tree that can be glimpsed at the extreme left of the picture I’m talking about now:

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Christmas Eve, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

The photo below, is as close as Google Street View camera got in 2008 to giving the same view as George had back in the late nineties. The foreshortening of the foreground in the painting disguises the fact that the grey and black patterning of tar patches in front of the pub is much the same.

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©2013 Google

The aerial view below shows where George Shaw stood when taking the photos of the pub. On the pavement looking south for the painting called Christmas Eve. On the pavement looking broadly east for the more distant view of the pub with tower blocks in the background, the one that’s titled The Black Prince.

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Imagery ©2013 GeoEye, Getmapping plc, Infoterra Ltd & Bluesky, The Geoinformation Group, , Map data ©2013 Google

I wonder why George didn’t go in to the Black Prince (if I’m right in that inference). Well, in his teenage years, perhaps because, standing outside, he could hear the sounds that emanated from the juke-box, and they didn’t include The Smiths or Joy Division or any of his other post-punk favourites! And in his maturity? Perhaps because by then he had developed his loyalties to other pubs in the area, which is something that I’ll come back to in subsequent pages.

Walking south from the Black Prince one soon comes to the ‘banana flats’ which have been recorded for posterity by the artist looking north. This unusual terrace (the rest of the estate runs on fairly straight lines) seems pretty much unchanged from1978-85 (The George Shaw years) to the present (the Google era).

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Scenes from the Passion: The Banana Flats, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

From the banana flats, navigating towards the Shaw house and going past it, one comes across the next site. (See the 5th image on this page. Sunday Evening.) Actually, I’m not sure that the telephone box used to be located on the patch of grass bottom left of the picture below, but I think it did.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Sunday Evening, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm. ©2013 Google

The thin-poled porch area over the front door is distinctive and is not common on the estate. Perhaps the owners of the gable-end house have painted it white in an effort to make it Humbrol proof. If so I fear they are deceiving themselves. George Shaw’s ability to use the enamel paint has only grown defter over the years, though it’s true that he has gravitated towards darker scenes.


If the online visitor doesn’t turn up Empire Road (which is what’s printed on both the road signs in the above photo), but goes a little further along Roosevelt Drive, one gets to Hawthorne Lane, the probable site of the painting below.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Hawthorne Lane, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

I can’t get a convincing photo of this site as Google Street View doesn’t extend to paths. And as the road extends northwards from the point where the Google van took the following photo, it becomes an unmade-up track the sight of which is blocked by three solid bushes.

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©2013 Google

The row of shops in the painting called The South, which is found towards the south edge of the estate, provides a more convincing geographical match. Even the shadows accord. Good of Google to take their photo at the exact same time of day as George Shaw must have taken his.

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The South, 1998: Humbrol enamel on board. 43x53cm

What does all this matching of actual sites to buildings in paintings prove? It’s just another path into the work; it’s not a necessary way in. After all, this geographical perspective wasn’t available to the art lovers who’ve been snapping up George Shaw’s work over the years. Anthony Wilkinson has not, as far as I know, been providing a map of Tile Hill free with each purchase.

Before I leave ‘Scenes from the Passion’, I need to clear something up once and for all. Why has George Shaw painted these scenes rather than photographed them? Well, as I was told back in 1999, the artist doesn’t want vehicles or people in the images, and as he began this project before Photoshop became widely available, he didn’t have much choice but to paint them. But in any case, the scenes of a council estate are - by educated middle class standards - mundane, so why not record them with the most mundane of materials: enamel paint on MDF boards. Just George’s good luck (his acute instinct more like) that mundane squared turns out to be sublime.

I’ve been in touch with the Wilkinson Gallery who have kindly provided me with high resolution images of The Black Prince, full face and in profile, as it were. That means I’ll be able to zoom-in on different parts of the pictures and use them on this page without losing painterly detail.

I’ve also printed off the two pictures on Pro Platinum Photo Paper, mounted the 30x42cm prints on foam-boards and installed the prints in my study. One to the left of me as I look up from the keyboard, on a gloss painted shelf above a radiator. And one to the right, on top of a grey, unused computer table. A very promising set up I have to say. Here is the gist of it:

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Christmas Eve, 1998, 43x53cm The Black Prince, 1999, 75x100cm

Both paintings are grey on grey. That is, shining monochrome skies over streets and pavements full of tone and texture: stretches of dark tar and an intricate network of cracks between paving stones. Trapped between the greys is some maroon red, in the lefthand picture, and some near-turquoise green in the right. I feel I could live with these pictures. I feel I have lived with them as I’ve moved from place to place while growing up. From Hamilton to Cambridge. From Hemel Hempstead to Finchley.

Which brings me to something I need to say. I can’t help feeling George was wrong in not entering this pub. When I get up close using Street View I may not be able to see what’s going on inside but thanks to these high resolution images I can imagine what’s playing on the juke-box.
Bingo-Master’s Breakout by The Fall:

“Two swans, in front of his eyes,
Coloured balls, in front of his eyes,
It's number one, for his Kelly's eye,
Treble six, right over his eye.”


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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Christmas Eve (detail), 1998.

Let’s listen to these ‘Scenes of the Passion’ (the bingo-master’s passion) courtesy of Mark E Smith and his band. After all, Smith is a fan of Shaw’s work and used the Tile Hill painter’s images for the inner sleeve of the Fall’s 2007 album
Reformation:

“A big shot's voice, in his ears,
Worlds of silence, in his ears,
All the numbers, count for years,
Checks the cards, through eyes of tears:
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!”

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Black Prince (detail), 1999.

“All he sees is, the back of chairs,
In the mirror, a lack of hairs.
A lighted room, which he fills out,
Here the players, all shout:
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!”

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: Christmas Eve (detail), 1999.

“A glass of lager, in his hand,
Silver microphone, in his hand,
Wasting time, in numbers and rhymes,
One hundred blank faces cry:
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!”

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George Shaw. Scenes from the Passion: The Black Prince (detail), 1999.

“Came the time, he flipped his lid,
Came the time, he flipped his lid.
Holiday in Spain fell through,
Players put it down to...
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!
Bingo-Master's Breakout!”


“A hall full of cards, left unfilled.
Ended his life, with wine and pills.
There's a grave somewhere, only partly filled.
A sign in graveyard, on a hill reads:
Bingo-Master's Breakout!”


So what am I saying through the ballsy lyric of Mark E Smith? That George Shaw isn’t the first man of passion to leave a council estate? (He lives in Ilfracombe, Devon, these days.) That you can take the maestro out of Tile Hill but you can’t take Tile Hill out of the maestro?

Funny that line in the song about there being a grave somewhere only partly filled. Reminds me of the fate of Thomas Hardy’s earthly remains. But I’ll come back to those at a more suitable opportunity. And I’ll leave it there for now.




Acknowledgment: The images of George Shaw’s works on this site are copyright the artist. Many of them appear courtesy of Wilkinson Gallery, photography by Peter White. In particular, Wilkinson Gallery provided high resolution scans of The Black Prince and Christmas Eve.

The lyrics to ‘Bingo Master’s Breakout’ are the copyright of Mark E Smith/The Fall, as far as I know. If he, or any copyright holder, wishes a more formal credit, or for an image, or words, to be removed from this page, then they should contact me and I will adjust things accordingly.