PICTURE THIS: Leslie Primo next to The Judgment of Paris by Peter Paul Rubens. (Photo: Bart Chan)
THERE IS a common assumption that the art world is the domain of an elite few – those who have enjoyed a privileged and cultured upbringing or an expensive education. Art historian Leslie Primo is different.
“My mother didn’t even know what an art gallery was,” says Primo, who grew up in south London. He does concede, however, that the majority of his peers do fit the stereotype.
Yet despite humble beginnings, Primo has spent the past 12 years immersed in this world of art, working his way up from a cashier in the National Gallery’s gift shop, to his current position as a lecturer specialising in early Renaissance and medieval art. It was a journey he started as a young boy and the road has not been without its challenges.
The young man of Guyanese heritage left school with no formal qualifications. He spent many years flirting with professions that included music production and photography.
Primo even spent a year in Japan where he studied the language.
As he sits beneath Peter Paul Rubens’ The Judgment of Paris in Room 29 at central London’s National Gallery, Primo explains how a hobby turned into a career.
“Going into galleries was something I did in my spare time, after work or at weekends,” he says.
As his knowledge grew, he started taking friends on informal tours in exchange for a lunch. Making the transition from amateur to professional seemed a natural step. “The art world is all about knowledge,” Primo points out. “The more you know, the more respected you are.”
Considering where the 46 year-old began, it is remarkable where he is now, especially when you see him in action. Like any good storyteller, he pulls his audience in and guides them through the paintings as if they were real characters. “What we can see in the paintings are the things that people really do,” Primo explains. “People get sad; people die; people deceive each other. That whole gamut of human emotion is in paintings, and those emotions have not changed over the centuries.”
Primo could be describing his own experience from his paintings, given what he says was a difficult childhood which earned him the label ‘the problem child’.
Excluded from primary school, and enrolled in a correctional school as a teenager, Primo admits to being a disruptive influence.
He recalls one particular fight with a fellow pupil. “I tore a large clump of hair from his head, which was then put into an envelope by the boy’s mother and sent with a letter to my mother,” he remembers with a shake of his head.
There are two major reasons why Primo became disenfranchised with the education system: domestic violence and dyslexia. “I had a violent step-father and the violence did happen quite a lot,” he says. “It was mostly my mother who was attacked, but sometimes it was me as well.”
MEMORABLE: Allegory of Venus and Cupid by Bronzino was the painting that attracted Primo to the art world as a boy
It was a school trip to the National Gallery that opened his eyes to the possibilities of the art world. “I saw a picture that I liked. I didn’t know who the artist was, and I had no idea what the picture was of, but I liked the colours. When I came back years later as an adult, I was looking for that picture and eventually I found it.” The painting was Allegory of Venus and Cupid by Bronzino. It took Primo at least 20 visits to find, but he never gave up.
Primo is not a man who is easily deterred. After deciding to study art history, he won a place at Birkbeck University without any of the prerequisite qualifications. He supported himself through part-time work at the National Gallery’s gift shop to cover the fees. “It was convenient”, says Primo. “I didn’t need qualifications in art history – I just needed to be able to work a cash register.”
The hard work paid off. Primo was offered a lecturing position at the gallery before he had even officially graduated.
When Primo talks about his profession his words are imbued with a sense of destiny, as though he is fulfilling a calling. And he is a rather distinctive figure: a black man from a non-privileged background, excelling in a world seemingly controlled by rich white men.
“For a very long time, there were no other lecturers who looked like me,” Primo reveals. On one occasion he was recognised by a man whose daughter had been lectured by a black art historian. Primo told him: “It must be me, because there are no other lecturers in the National Gallery who are black.”
But Primo prefers to concentrate on intrinsic merits. “For me it’s not about being black, it’s about being able to be good at what you do.”
However, there is a small part of him that is proud of his position: “There is a uniqueness about it, obviously and one can say, you feel somewhat special. You do feel you’re doing something that’s going to make a difference. I hope it will encourage other people from my sort of background or ethnicity to come to the gallery.
“I get very rare opportunities to do that, because it is not often you see faces like mine as visitors. When they are here, I do my utmost to make them feel they should be here.”
Primo attributes the lack of interest to the absence of black representations in art.
“I think many in the black community have a problem with that. They come in and think, ‘there are no black faces, it’s all about white people, why should I go there?’”
Without doubt, Primo believes this attitude is wrong and argues that there is something for anyone in the human stories that art conveys: “Those emotions apply to anybody, be they black or white.”
Primo has not forgotten his distressing childhood memories, but has managed to mould a career worthy of acclaim, one that bears no reflection of his troubled past. Only the dyslexia, diagnosed in 2003 while he was at university, lingers.
In art, Primo has found somewhere he feels he belongs. “I’m perfectly at home and comfortable in galleries wherever they are in the world.”
Unsurprising for one who believes art and life are one and the same.
The Renaissance expert comes to a conclusion: “Art tends to not pay any heed to transient things. Somehow good art rises above the here and now, and has a resonance that continues throughout the centuries.”
The large paintings in room 29 seem to stir in the fading light.
“Art is a mirror of our society at whichever point in time that mirror is set up.”
As a boy he may have once pulled out a few strands of hair.
As a man, Primo helps pull back the curtains over these mirrors offering people a glimpse of past stories in all their splendour.