From the archive
His sitters found Carr just as fascinating as he found them. Tall and painfully thin, despite an addiction to Cadbury’s Dairy Milk (economy size), his enormous eyes and shaggy hair made him look, according to a friend, “like a chewed toy lion”. The whole effect was rendered more extraordinary still by an eclectic wardrobe which might team harem pants and bright yellow vests with fox fur stoles and tiny sporrans — all carried off with raffish swagger.
Carr’s character, too, was a tangle of contradictions. He was, by turns, loyal and conspiratorial; tolerant and disapproving; emotional and impervious. He was once seen crying as he took his seat at a large sit-down dinner — because he had just read the name cards to either side of him. But on another occasion, when he was grossly insulted at a dinner party, prompting his friends to walk out in protest, they were somewhat taken aback to see, through a window from the street outside, Carr pouring a drink for his detractor and cackling with cheerful laughter.
As an artist, Carr’s standards were uncompromising, which was why he rejected oil paint as a distraction and concentrated on perfecting his drawings. He was always dissatisfied with what he had achieved, and perhaps it was the strain of not matching up to his own impossible perfectionism that contributed, during the middle part of his career, to a downward spiral of alcohol and drug addiction.
When he emerged into sobriety in the late 1990s, it was with a clear sense of what he had lost but also a determination to work on his own terms. He declined commissions in favour of choosing his own sitters, who included contemporary English writers and the semi-preserved dead in the catacombs at Palermo. These corpses, which Carr drew in 120 degree heat, were incorporated as individual drawings grouped within one large frame — a technique he applied to other subjects, including the stuffed monkeys and male genitalia.
The effect was to demonstrate that things which appear at first glance to be similar are in fact almost infinite in their variety. As Richard Dorment observed: “Once you overcome your initial hesitation, what is so striking is their curious humanity. It is the pathos of the monkeys’ existence and the indignity of their fate that we end up seeing. Long eyelashes, a soft moustache, and an open mouth make a desiccated corpse look as though it is asleep. And there is something sad and vulnerable about these clinical rows of blubbery paunches, flaccid penises and fat thighs, absolutely devoid of any sexual or procreative connotations.”