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Music

The story of Syd Barrett's unpublished book chronicling the history of art

Syd Barrett, the late former frontman and guitarist of Pink Floyd, is perhaps the most highly mythologised character in the whole of rock music. An early casualty of excessive LSD use and unresolved mental health issues, Barrett’s post-Floyd life is one of great mystery. It is one that was mainly led behind closed doors.

After leaving the Floyd, he moved between various swanky hotels in London before assuming a brief residency at the very glamorous Chelsea Cloisters apartment in London’s most affluent borough. Then, he retreated to the comfort of his mother’s home in his native Cambridge, where he would mainly reside until his passing in 2006.

In Pink Floyd, his whimsical take on psychedelia was both pioneering and iconic. Known for the ample literary influences utilised and his stream-of-consciousness writing style, Barrett was possibly the most unique musical artist Britain had to offer in the 1960s.

Aside from his lyrics, his guitar playing was also iconoclastic. His free-form playing employed effects such as dissonance, distortion, echo and feedback to produce an otherworldly sound that augmented the surreal, narcotic dreamlands his lyrics created. 

After he left Pink Floyd, he released two strange but coveted records in 1970, The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. These would be the last musical offerings he made. When he retreated into his fully-fledged life as a hermit, he became devoted to other disciplines, including art, photography and gardening. It is said that he created large, abstract canvases and enjoyed pottering about the house. 

His main point of contact with the outside world was his sister, Rosemary, who lived close by. In the wake of his death, she said that “his passion was his painting”. This was true, even Barrett himself once said: Well, I think of me being a painter eventually”.

A bounteous artist in his post-Floyd years, Barrett was producing art right up until his death. His brother Ian said, “He’s been interested in geometric patterns and repeated shapes you might see on tiles or weaving. I’ve seen abstracts in oils, naturalistic watercolours, and woodblock work.”

In his typically madcap way, Barrett burned many of the canvases after completing them. For what reason, it is unclear. However, he did manage to photograph his complete works before he died. Ian also maintains that he wasn’t as much of a recluse as everyone claims: He used to take himself up to London on the train and visit art galleries, so this whole recluse thing is inaccurate.

In the mountains of belongings found in the wake of his passing, a pile of manuscripts were found. It contained more than a hundred pages detailing the chronology of art history, ranging from cave paintings moving through each century all the way up until contemporary times. 

Frustratingly for us, the project was only intended for his own enjoyment, which is totally cool. It’s a shame it never was planned to be published, but that wouldn’t have been very Syd Barrett. A man unto his own will, he lives on forever through stories such as this.