Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Monthly Archives: December 2013

Great Little One

dadd

No apologies for reposting the wonderful Mother and Child, 1860, by the mad, bad Richard Dadd. (Nor for showing a golden haired Madonna and Christ child. It’s good to inculturate holy images; the only problem is when we try to impose ours as a universal.) I particularly like the red socks and sandals.

Welcome, all wonders in one sight,
Eternity shut in a span,
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth and God in man,
Great little one whose all-embracing birth
Brings earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

Happy Christmas!

Some lost British surrealists

Browsing the BBC’s Your Paintings site (every oil painting in UK public collections) is one of life’s greater pleasures. The search facility may be erratic and site navigation a tad clunky, but who cares? In among the tottering heaps of sodden landscapes, zooming Spitfires and portraits of bored vice-chancellors can be found all sorts of hidden nuggets.

Here, for instance, is my selection (click to enlarge) of “lost” British surrealists from the ‘thirties to the ‘fifties – and this is only from surnames A to C. More to come in later posts, perhaps. Surprising how many of these names are Scots. Surprising too, how little ready information there is on some of them – only two Wikipedia entries here.

To be fair, some of these painters were very much on the margins of British surrealism, or even on the margins of the margins. In some cases the vogue for surrealism seems to have offered itself to otherwise anti-modernist purveyors of illusionism as the only acceptable form of modernism. Which may be telling. What emerges here is mainly a style, characterised by a kind of cool Deco tonality.

Though John Selby Bigge exhibited at the 1936 London Surrealist exhibition, he is dismissed abruptly from Michel Remy’s rather doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain on the grounds of not being surrealist enough. (Having said that, Remy similarly dismisses John Armstrong, which is absurd.) Both Edward Baird and James Cowie usually ploughed more orthodox furrows, but were clearly seduced by the still-lives-in-low-horizon-seascapes of Edward Wadsworth. Margaret Barnard seems better known for her lino cuts, having trained under Claude Flight, while of Alexander Allan, William Baillie and William Cosnahan I can say nothing except that they were born in 1914, 1905 and 1930 respectively. The painting by Angela Baynes is certainly a portrait, but for me it shares enough of a surrealist sensibility to qualify. I know nothing of her, and this seems to be the sole painting by her in public ownership.

surrealism in birminghamSadly, it seems the latter can also be said of Emmy Bridgwater, who is the odd girl out here, by virtue both of her style – anything but cool Deco – and of her role in the Birmingham Surrealist group, usefully chronicled in the catalogue to the 2001 Surrealism in Birmingham show. I include her here as not so much lost as neglected. But her tense, quirky spikiness is worth a dozen of the dutiful pastiches churned out by her Birmingham collaborator, the hugely overrated Conroy Maddox.

Potteries primitivism: the paintings of C W Brown

c w brownAs good a time as any for a mention of C W (Charles William) Brown, labourer, miner (from the age of 12), pit manager and “primitive” painter.

After his death in 1962 aged 80, “tea chests full” of his paintings were bequeathed to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, where they were “discovered” by Potteries painter Arthur Berry, prompted by a sight of a Brown watercolour, whose intensity he much admired, in a local shop window. Berry recalled:

“I was astounded by the range of his subject matter. Everything was grist to his mill. He was never short of anything to paint. The match box on the table by his paint box would do for a subject, the paint box itself, even his fingers holding the paint brush. Every ornament in his little street house had been painted with great intensity of observation. Looking through the tea chest was a revelation. I knew that I was looking at the work of an unknown artist of very considerable power, in fact, a great naïve painter. As usual, when I came away from seeing work that had deeply impressed me, I was depressed … The way he drew the simplest domestic object revealed the essence of it. All his shortcomings as an academic painter made his work stronger. What he didn’t know had added to the power of his paintings.”

In 1981 the Museum put out a 24 page guide to “The Potteries Primitive”; I can’t pretend to have read it, nor for that matter have I ever seen a Brown painting in the flesh. But 38 of his oils are accessible on the BBC’s Your Paintings site, as well as in the Public Catalogue Foundation’s Staffordshire volume. In both, the reproductions seem extremely yellow; whether that’s down to the photography or to Brown’s varnish, I couldn’t say. Here are a few of my favourites (click to enlarge), but a browse through the whole 38 is well worth it.

In many of these, the intensity is created by an enormously rich luminosity of detail. In some, an abhorrence of vacuum is dominant, as found in many “outsider” painters. As Berry saw, Brown was clearly mesmerised by the sheer miraculous thingness of things, as revealed in their intricacy. Though he was also interested in the peopleness of people, as shown in the wonderful Woman and Child. Some local views are more prosaic and documentary, but they are offset by Brown’s versions of pleasure grounds such as Trentham Gardens and Alton Towers (in its pre-theme park days), which come across like the Plains of Heaven or the Hanging Gardens of Semiramis.