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The punchy paintings of Peter Sellers

16 May 2020

Introducing Rakewell, Apollo’s wandering eye on the art world. Look out for regular posts taking a rakish perspective on art and museum stories

Rakewell enjoyed Peter Sellers: A State of Comic Ecstasy, a new BBC documentary about the life of the comic actor. The film is a bittersweet effort, which sews together archive footage from the actor’s films and his own home videos with new interviews, including with Sellers’ second wife (of four), Britt Ekland.

Your correspondent was particularly tickled to see a clip of a sketch from Not Only But Also from 1965, in which Sellers plays a ‘boxer-cum-painter’ called Danny, accompanied by his cornerman (or perhaps studio assistant, played by Dudley Moore). In a chat-show format, Peter Cook’s interviewer explores Danny’s decision ‘to leave the ring and enter the highly competitive world of portrait painting’. It was when he was knocked down in a bout, Danny says, and ‘I’ve been on the canvas ever since.’

The thing with Danny is that he can’t give up boxing – or, at least, his modus operandi, as Moore mutters, is ‘action painting’, taking a swipe at the drippy strong men of Abstract Expressionism. Sellers’ character has a unique approach to the medium: slathering paint on to his boxing glove and clouting the canvas. One pounded painting depicts ‘the Archbishop of bleeding Canterbury’, of course.

The art of boxing cropped up elsewhere in Sellers’ work. The actor was a descendent of the prizefighter Daniel Mendoza, the first Jewish fighter to become an English boxing champion – and the author, in 1789, of the pugilist primer The Art of Boxing. One of Sellers’ greatest creations, Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther films, has a print showing Mendoza in his bedroom.

Inspector Clouseau flanked by Daniel Mendoza in A Shot in the Dark (1964)

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