Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

The worrying kitsch of W F Colley

Of the smattering of prints and drawings that grace our staircase, one of my favourites is this pencil sketch by the Birmingham artist and lithographer William Frederick Colley, which I found going for a small song in a Leominster antique shop:

I know nothing of Colley except that he was born in 1907, died in 1957, and was a member of the RBSA (Royal Birmingham Society of Artists), though that wasn’t necessarily a big deal, to be frank. He was also an artist member of the Senefelder Club, a lithograph subscription scheme. His surviving prints seem mostly to date from the 1930’s, though the styling of the faces in this drawing suggests the ‘forties or ‘fifties to me. I imagine that this montage of panto scenes was a design for a lithograph. It’s signed with his monogram on the leg of the cat (a bit Louis Wain) at lower left. The drawing has something of an expressionist feel, and features such as the up-lit shadows on the audience faces, and the way that the witch’s head jigsaws exactly into the space over the main character’s shoulder,  give it a bit of a sinister edge, which seems calculated.

Dancer c1930

Workmen c1930

Cart Horse 1933

Spring 1935

A comparable spookiness in some of his earlier work seems to be less than calculated, judging by this selection of prints culled from auction sites etc. His style and content were vernacular and must have been aimed at the popular end of the market. What effect there is of modernism can be seen mainly in the heavy, gradated sweeps of the lithographic crayon across the stone, laying down strong sub-cubist tonal forms, which have led to his work sometimes being tagged as “Art Deco”. But at times this tonality is so strong that the effect is predominantly dark and rigid – and inadvertently so, we suspect. The bleating lamb in Spring ends up as anything but innocent, while his Gazelle, which seems to have attempted a heraldic decorativeness, has taken on a distinctly demonic air. In fact, all Colley’s muscular animals are a little worrying …

Lilies c1935

The Farmer 1935

The Bull 1936


This gap between intent and effect takes some of his work into the category of kitsch, but a kitsch of accidental malevolence, rather than one of sentimental melancholy, of nostalgia or of totalitarian wholesomeness. Having said that, Moonlight achieves petit-bourgeois sentiment nicely, and is entirely successful in its polite nods to Frances Hodgkins et al. And Colley has a nice line in chunky, Paul Nash-like trees.

Gypsies in Autumn 1939

Young Colt 1941



It would be good to find out more about him, but I doubt that I will be visiting the RBSA, given the £20 per enquiry that they ask. I wonder what might be in the vaults at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery? Comments and any further info welcome.

3 responses to “The worrying kitsch of W F Colley

  1. Robin Small April 3, 2012 at 2:38 pm

    Dear Richard-The World of W F Colley is indeed odd-I have a bit of info about him: There was something of a major exhibition back in 1997 of 25 works-Mainly Lithographs. I have one of these called The Ruin. The figures look disturbingly like the “Homepride men” I wonder?
    Anyway contact me if you need more. Kind Regards Robin Small-Director-William Gibbons Fine Art Ltd;

    • J.HADEN September 25, 2012 at 4:33 pm

      I am looking for information about W.F.Colley, as I have a pencil sketch of the torso of a nude female.
      regard Mrs Haden.

  2. Brendan Flynn June 3, 2013 at 1:22 pm

    You are right about your pencil drawing being a study for a lithograph. I have seen the finished work which, in spite of its theme, has a rather sinister vibe. There is definitely some German Expressionist influence. His work has a dynamic energy and dramatic tension which is very un-British.


    Brendan Flynn

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