David Storey is best known for This Sportling Life, but now his art is taking centre stage

The daughters of Yorkshire playwright David Storey tell Julian Cole why he was just as passionate about his art.

David Storey has been many things, novelist, playwright and poet. Playing rugby for Leeds, he moved between the muddied rough and tumble of the field and the more rarefied business of brushes, pens and palettes.

One day he was amid the sweaty hurly-burly of the changing room; the next he was studying at the Slade School of Fine art in London, mixing with the painter Stanley Spencer and the sculptor Henry Moore, and being taught life drawing by Lucian Freud.

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“When he was playing rugby up in Yorkshire for Leeds, they considered him a Londoner and an artist and not one of us, and when he was at the Slade they thought he was a gruff northerner,” says his daughter, the scientist Kate Storey.

His time on the rugby field inspired the writing of the landmark 1960 novel This Sporting Life, a book which saw this working-class boy from Wakefield become a leading literary figure.

Although he studied art, his work has not been much seen in public over the years. Now some of his pictures have been selected for an exhibition at the Hepworth Gallery called A Tender Tumult. There are 400 drawings and paintings, many around the size of a page torn from a paperback book, fittingly enough.

The small drawings are displayed with winning simplicity. No frames, just thin shelves, hardly more than a ledge. These miniatures are propped there without distraction, abstract and intricate patterns, with one or two clear figures appearing, before the complicated swirls take over again.

The pieces were chosen from among thousands by his grandson, Alexander Storey, an artist, curator and filmmaker from Glasgow.

David, now 83, was not well enough to attend the opening in Wakefield, so the job of talking about his art fell to his daughters, Helen Storey, fashion designer, artist and academic, and Kate Storey, a professor of neural development, with input too from Alexander, who is Kate’s son.

Helen and Kate make for bright and interesting company, and there is a sisterly spark between them. Helen has long and dramatic grey hair which is a statement in itself, while Kate seems happier to be less flamboyant in her appearance, instead coming alive with the brightness of her talk. There were four Storey children and Helen and Kate shared a bedroom, although it wasn’t really a bedroom, as Kate explains: “Helen and I as the eldest ended up sleeping in Dad’s study, and we were only able to go in there to sleep. So we heard a lot of typing.”

As a child Helen was more aware of the pinging bell on a typewriter than of what her father’s work represented.

“It was only maybe in our teens that we started to realise what our Dad actually did. But I think the thing that always struck me was how important it was for him. I wouldn’t go as far as to say we were in competition, but it clearly mattered to him as much as we did. There was an absolute dedication to his writing.”

Kate adds: “It was graft. He did himself liken it to his father working at the coalface. There was a sense that he had to put in the same amount of effort his father was doing. I guess it was a puritanical work ethic.”

Storey wrote by hand using a Parker pen filled with black ink. He used the same pen to draw some of the pictures on show here, all produced between 2006 and 2013. I ask if the sisters have read their father’s books. Here are their replies…

Helen: “Well, Kate’s read more than I have, so it turns out.”

Kate: “When I left home Dad used to send me manuscripts to read. And amazingly I was asked to comment on them and send them back, which I did do.”

“Could try harder…” Helen says, smiling at a family joke. “Which he used to write on my essays!” adds Kate. After writing his novels or plays by hand, Storey would type them up and share the manuscripts among friends and family. “Then he would start and type them again,” says Kate. “It was a physical act”.

Helen adds that her father’s writing came in sudden outpourings, a play written in two or 
three days. And a similar bursting forth 
produced the pictures.

“As well as the graft and doing his eight hours, a form of outpouring happens and he is there to reveal himself.”

The pictures are abstract, strange and compelling, and Storey has always said they draw themselves, or as Kate puts it: “He describes it as a mysterious process that needs to be expressed.”

Helen sees her father’s pictures as a lesson in trusting your creative instincts. “If you can find a way into that space, or allow yourself to be in that space, that’s probably where you’re going to find you in a creative sense.”

Alexander points out that although his grandfather’s art has not been seen in exhibitions, it has appeared on the covers of his novels and on posters, and in theatre productions as a backdrop. He sees no divide between the art and the written word. “They’re produced by an artistic sensibility. It’s not a case that he’s a writer who draws. He is an artist and he is a writer.”

Kate says that a surgeon looked at the drawings before the opening and was fascinated. Not by their possibly scientific nature, as she thought, but because of the fine skills of the penmanship. Young surgeons today are not dextrous enough, apparently, something that is linked to drawing rarely being taught at school. “So when they take new surgeons on they send them to drawing classes because they want that dexterity that drawing frees up,” Kate says.

Although Storey left the county, Yorkshire kept hold of him and exerts a grip on his daughters, too. Helen says: “I think that in terms of grit, there’s definitely some Yorkshire in us.”

Kate adds: “And I think that work ethic was instilled in us, and a sense that we had to account for our day in some way.”

There is a lot of leaving in Storey’s written work, a sense of being neither here nor there, and this suggests a theme to Helen.

“Leaving Yorkshire seems to be something that has to be monumental. And that leaving and coming back is difficult. But I think whatever drive or passion enabled him to leave and try and do this thing called writing, for which there was not much support for back at the home base, I think one of the things we might have inherited is an ability to take risks in different ways in our own lives.”

Kate has a more personal memory, culled from her days as a bolshie teenager when she decided to explore her roots. “Dad was busy in the house working and I said, ‘Right I’m off to go and see Yorkshire then.’ I packed my bag and set off and when I got to the end of the road, there was my father in the car, saying: ‘Do you want a lift?’ I said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said: ‘Yorkshire.’ So I got in and he showed me where he grew up.”

A Tender Tumult: The Art of David Storey runs at the Hepworth Gallery, Wakefield, until October 5. A video installation by Stephen Sutcliffe, called Twixt Cup And Lip, runs in the adjacent Calder space, inspired by David Storey’s 1969 play The Contractor (well worth seeing, especially for some hilarious footage of Russell Harty).