Pop Culture
Aug 28, 2023, 06:27AM

Art Rebel

Jamie Reid on art and rebellion and his great uncle George.

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Jamie Reid has passed away. I don’t normally employ euphemisms, but in the case of an artist of Reid’s renown it’s appropriate. His frail, human body may have stopped working, but his spirit lives on in the body of work that survives him, and which he still animates with his indelible presence.

He was born in 1947, and died on August 8th. His full name was Jamie MacGregor Reid. He’s most famous for the record covers he created for the Sex Pistols in the early years of British punk: particularly the cover to God Save the Queen, described by Sean O’Hagan in the Observer as "the single most iconic image of the punk era." Q magazine called it "the greatest record cover of all time". The original print is now held in the National Portrait Gallery as part of their collection.

The middle name “MacGregor” was adopted. It came from his great uncle, George Watson MacGregor Reid, a significant figure in early-20th century Druidry. George was Scottish, though not a MacGregor. He was following a trend at the time of claiming Highland descent. Another well-known person who did this was Samuel Liddell MacGregor Mathers, a founder of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. George claimed to have been initiated by him.

MacGregor’s a rebel name. It was so potent that in 1603 James VI of Scotland officially banned it. He issued an edict which stated that the name of MacGregor was "altogidder abolished." Anyone who bore the name had to renounce it or die. It wasn’t until 1774 that the laws were repealed. Hidden behind this is a land dispute, and behind this, differing ideas of the notion of private property. Parts of what were traditionally considered McGregor lands were given to the chief of Clan Campbell by Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots from 1306 to 1329. There were ongoing battles between the two clans lasting many centuries, with the MacGregors ultimately losing.

It’s the difference between the exclusive ownership of private property and clan or tribal ownership. The McGregor lands were held in common by the clan as a whole, while the chief of the Campbells was sole inheritor by primogeniture. Later the role of the Campbell chief was replaced by the inherited title, the Duke of Argyll, which shows the shift toward the way the English aristocracy passed on their wealth.

The MacGregors were dispossessed of their lands and their identity, hounded out of their homes, driven into exile and into hiding. They became outlaws, poachers, cattle raiders, plunderers. There were times when they could raise armies, and other times when they were chased through the glens like beasts. This is undoubtedly how the Campbells saw them: as inferior creatures only good for the hunt. You can picture the aristocratic Campbells on horseback with hounds and beaters, hunting them down like prey through the heather.

To take on the name “MacGregor” was to wear the rebel mantle. George was the first, but the whole family has adopted it since.

George was a Trade Unionist and a Socialist. He helped organize a strike in Clydeside in 1888, campaigned for the National Amalgamated Sailors' and Firemen's Union in Hull in 1889, went to America, became an American citizen, and stood for the 10th Congressional District of New York as a candidate for the People's Party in 1890. He got 287 votes. In 1893 he published a pamphlet, The Natural Basis of Civilization.

It called for the abolition of government and the implementation of "a state of voluntary or Anarchist Communism."

There’s a gap in the record at this point, but by 1906 he’d returned to the UK as a wealthy man. He became a health food promoter and a publisher, eventually a spiritual leader. He was head of the Church of the Universal Bond, a branch of the Universalist church, a faith he'd picked up in the United States. Later, his spiritual identity shifted, and he became a Druid.

Where his wealth came from no one knows. The family rumor was that he invented either Marmite or Ovaltine. That’s almost certainly false. You can take much of what George said about himself with a pinch of salt. He made many claims which were either completely false or exaggerated. Nevertheless his shadow looms large over the Reid family.

Jamie Reid was extremely proud of his family connection with great uncle George. It bolstered his own rebel image. It was in my pursuit of information about George that I interviewed him in July 2020. We met in the cafe in The Florence Institute in Toxteth, Liverpool. Known as The Florrie, it’s an impressive 19th-century building in the Gothic style. Originally a boy’s club, it fell into disrepair but was restored and reopened in 2013. Reid was effectively the artist in residence. His archive is held there.

Reid was 73 at the time. He’d been seriously ill, in hospital, and looked like a fairly typical frail old man, with wispy, gray hair and a tired face. It wasn’t until he stood up to greet me that his hidden identity was revealed. There was a single dreadlock that dangled from the crown of his head, almost reaching to the floor. He’d been sitting on it when I first walked in.

I asked about his relationship with George:

My real grandfather, he was a sea captain and he actually died of wounds, so my dad was brought up by my great uncle George. They were initially in Scotland but they moved down to Brighton, but then he moved to South London. He was brought up in the Church of the Universal Bond in Clapham. I wish I had asked him more about it, there is such a gap because George Watson died the year I was born.

He said his dad often reminisced about his childhood days growing up in the Universal Bond. There were pictures of him in George’s New Life magazine at summer camp. That was part of George’s ethos, open-air camping for the masses. The camping took place on land owned by Lord Glenconner, a mile or so south of Stonehenge. There was a double Bronze Age burial mound which became known as the “Double Circle.” which George used for his rituals when he was either boycotting Stonehenge or had been banned (usually both).

It was George who sealed the association of Druids with Stonehenge in the public imagination. There had been running battles with the police over access to the monument after the owner, Sir Edmund Antrobus, banned political and religious meetings in the circle in 1913. The ban was aimed at George. Antrobus was offended the previous year when the Universal Bond (all 10 of them) had turned up with press and photographers and George had strode about the monument intoning prayers and railing against the injustices of capitalism. Despite his new-found spiritual calling, he was as political as he’d ever been, combining the rites and rituals of his evolving religion with diatribes about war, class and imperialism. After the police threw him out he stood at the gate and cursed them, calling upon “Almighty God and his angels” to send “pestilence and affliction” upon them.

There are photos of my dad sitting at the camp and he is only about eight. Probably just before the outbreak of the First World War, but my dad in his old age—and you know how, I’m noticing it now, your memory is great of the past—he was just telling me what it was like, the Summer Solstice, and he was saying Jamie you wouldn’t believe it. And I said why? And when you think about it, the First World War actually changed it forever. It was all small farms, and there were still a lot of folk beliefs amongst those farmers, and all the local farmers were involved and came from all directions with torch-lights. And there was a massive fair in Salisbury at the same time, and it was a completely different vibe. But then all things changed after the First World War and Stonehenge was being sold off and eventually basically the whole of Salisbury plain, it all became the Ministry of bloody Defence.

As well as founding the Universal Bond, later to morph into the Druid Order, George was also instrumental in setting up the Clapham Labour Party. There were meetings on Clapham Common. Thousands would attend and a variety of speakers would address the crowd. Jamie’s dad met Conan Doyle, HG Wells and Lenin, among others. Things were much more fluid back then.

It’s very relevant to what I am as an artist really, because at that time with the Druid Order they were totally immersed in the birth of the Trade Union movement, Socialism. It wasn’t seen as separate being political and spiritual at all. That whole period—I mean, the First World War would be considered a massacre now, wouldn’t it? It was basically a sort of ritualistic, fucking sacrifice. That period up to it I think was incredible, there was so much happening. The Suffragettes, Trade Unionism, amazing stuff happening in the arts and the culture. I think they actually thought in a way it was possibly going to be the equivalent of the 1960s Age of Aquarius.

The Clapham house where Reid’s dad was brought up, also served as a Druid temple. There was an old table George acquired, with the date 1643 on it. George claimed that the date represented the foundation of the order. He also said that a number of prominent historical figures had preceded him as chiefs, including Francis Bacon, John Lilburne, Gerard Winstanley, William Stukeley, John Aubrey and John Toland. As Ronald Hutton says in his masterful history of the Druids in Britain, Blood and Mistletoe: “What Reid was clearly doing was making a list of historical figures whom he personally admired, and co-opting them, posthumously, as members of his organisation.”

Lilburne and Winstanley are particularly significant. They were prominent figures in the English Civil War. They represented the radical wing of the Parliamentary side, revolutionaries. Lilburne, known as “Freeborn John,” was a Leveller who originated the idea of freeborn rights, rights that people are born with as opposed to those bestowed upon them by the government. He called for universal male suffrage and annual elections and often ended up in prison for his beliefs. Winstanley referred to his group as True Levellers, though they were more commonly known as Diggers. He believed the land should be held in common, and that all men and women were equal. As he said in his pamphlet, The New Law of Righteousness:

In the beginning of Time, the great Creator Reason, made the Earth to be a Common Treasury, to preserve Beasts, Birds, Fishes, and Man, the lord that was to govern this Creation; for Man had Domination given to him, over the Beasts, Birds, and Fishes; but not one word was spoken in the beginning, That one branch of mankind should rule over another. And the Reason is this, Every single man, Male and Female, is a perfect Creature of himself; and the same Spirit that made the Globe, dwels in man to govern the Globe.

Lilburne and Winstanley were mainly forgotten figures by George’s time. It’s likely he heard about them through his family. By asserting them as his spiritual ancestors he was also laying claim to their lineage. He was declaring himself a True Leveller in the dissenting tradition. It’s a legacy he passed on to his great nephew Jamie Reid, and through him to the world.

—You can see the Jamie Reid archive here.


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