Syd Barrett

Known as Pink Floyd’s “crazy diamond” and its tragic frontman, Syd Barrett considered himself an artist first and only secondly a musician. But discussions of Barrett never occur without allusions to his mental illness and abrupt departure from the band, and throughout his career in the music industry, people rarely engaged with Barrett as an artist post-Pink Floyd, his two significant yet underrated solo albums, and his output as a painter—the art form in which he began his career and to which he returned to for the last thirty years of his life.

Syd, originally named Roger, was fascinated by visual art and painted during his school days. He attended Cambridge Art College before studying at the Camberwell School of Art in London where he produced and exhibited mature student work. For Barrett, art was not just a hobby and it called to him before music. While his work shows some advantages of art school training, he showed himself as a delicate handler of oil paint who optimized his palette for richness and density. Barrett’s training in art school gave him the confidence to explore his own process away from formal exercises and he took advantage of this by experimenting with different styles and subjects from watercolor still life flowers to disturbing, primitivist beasts, to Munch-like portraits. In the mid-sixties, as Pink Floyd began to take off, Barrett then turned into a songwriter, which, according to their former manager, seemed like overnight.

In 1972, after his spell with Pink Floyd as well as the end of his brief solo career, Barrett moved back to Cambridge and eventually lived with his mother. He dropped the name Syd and began painting again using his birth name Roger Barrett. He avoided any mention of his life as a musician and quietly painted, using several styles and various media and would produce striking abstractions and landscapes. He also made his own furniture designs, took up photography, and dedicated himself to gardening. He spent some of his days taking a train to London to look at major art collections and would visit the Botanical Gardens as he loved flowers. Praised by his own band and audience as a maverick writer and leader, Barrett was very bright yet tragically lost his mind and during his later years as a solitary painter, he burned and destroyed many of his canvases as if to end the sad poem that is his life.

Sources: Syd Barrett website, Jenny Spires