Richard Warren

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

Leslie Hurry’s palace of wisdom

In 2011 I posted here on a first, rather breathless, encounter with the ‘forties paintings of Leslie Hurry. He was clearly still working well into the 1970’s (he died in 1978); I may be missing something, but I still can’t see any recent monograph – is there really no big, glossy volume on this extraordinary artist?

coverThis lack makes Paintings and Drawings by Leslie Hurry (Grey Walls Press, 1950) still a useful source, at least, up to that point. The book’s intro is by the “prolific and proletarian” Jack Lindsay; this is sympathetic but none too informative. Lindsay wastes several pages trying to set Hurry into some sort of mega history-of-art context, but then fails to locate him as a painter within the movements and networks of his own times, as if his development were some purely personal, hermetic affair. But the book does have 38 plates, though only two are in colour; despite the black and white, it seems worthwhile to scan a few here below. (Click to enlarge.)

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

Sketch for Self-portrait, drawing, 1945

The paintings give out all sorts of echoes. Hurry may have opted to work in detachment from organised surrealism, but his relations in that respect are obvious. Absent from much of the imagery is the standard post-cubist scaffolding, so that his figures often have a ghostly flaccidity, as if their bones had been carefully extracted. They swell, contract and flop like jellyfish. This watery, or airy, looseness is reminiscent of David Jones, and the earliest image in the book, a watercolour of a Breton mass from 1939, is strongly Jones-like, both in style and content. While some later figures show rather more structure, a constant Picasso borrowing throughout is the familiar multi-angled face, though in Hurry’s hands this becomes more an image of simultaneous ambivalence than a trick of animation across adjacent moments.

To my mind, his allegorical images of famine and so forth are the least successful. When Hurry does Agony it veers into cartoony; a 1945 watercolour titled Atom Bomb is awkwardly sub-Guernica. To compensate, the scenery designs are a pleasure; they are richly fantastic, and relate closely to the baroque obsessiveness of Robin Ironside.

Jack Lindsay’s introduction to the book rounds off with his own poem, “The Bough of Sweetness,” dedicated to Hurry:

O difficult regeneration of suffering men
on the star-anvils in Stepney and Glasgow clanging
Mass meeting Strike Prague Five-Years-Plan Shanghai
also the slight chime of a flower perfected
and the livid eyes of fear caught in a word
Steadily the hills close round
with the doves of dawn and the nearing annunciation …

Personally, I find Lindsay’s poetry more interestingly symptomatic than successful, though this does at least represent a clumsy attempt at a verbal equivalent of Hurry’s violent conjunction of the visionary and the political – all very ‘forties, very apocalypse.

In his introduction to the book, Lindsay gives us little by way of Hurry’s biography. Born in 1909, trained at St John’s Wood and the RA School of Painting, emerging in 1931, murals, landscapes, a loss of purpose followed by a “desperate retreat into his lonely self” at a cottage in Thaxted, a spell in Brittany and Montmartre in 1938, from these periods of crisis a move into his mature work, beginning with more geometric configurations but soon evolving into more organic forms, theatre work starting with Hamlet at Sadlers Wells in 1941 – and that’s about as factual as it gets. His Wikipedia page adds not a lot more beyond the interesting detail that his father had been a funeral director, a career path the son rejected.

At the time of my previous post there didn’t seem to be much of Hurry online, but matters have since improved. Copyright restrictions at the Tate site have been lifted, so his artist page there now shows six works, including  This Extraordinary Year, 1945, which called to me when it was on the wall at Tate Britain. Much of Hurry’s work was watercolours; these don’t qualify for the Art UK site, which now offers six paintings, of which four are portraits including two variants of himself, though not the self-portrait shown in this post. Beyond these sources, a Google image search will throw up a couple of dozen additional items from galleries and so on, not counting costume or set designs. Enough to go at.

I find it hard to account for the relatively low profile of such a remarkable British painter, particularly given recent stirrings of interest in the neo-romantic phase. Hurry’s tense, highly strung images layer up beyond exhaustion those twitchy, compulsive marks and fragments until they hiss and sing in a sort of maximalist coherence, hard won against the odds by forcing overwroughtness through to a point of virtue. For once here, the road of excess does lead to the palace of wisdom.

9 responses to “Leslie Hurry’s palace of wisdom

  1. John Sims September 29, 2016 at 3:39 pm

    I think one problem in investigating Hurry as an easel painter is that his chief fame is that of a long and successful career as a theatre designer. In a previous life as a bookseller I had found the Lyndsay book and thought it would be a ready seller, either off the shelf or on line – it was in stock for years.
    His nephew John Hurry Armstrong published a book or pamphlet on his uncle which I have never seen. John seems to have acted as an agent for him.
    Later in his career Hurry did a lot of work for the Stratford Ontario Shakespeare Festival who mounted a substantial exhibition of his work accompanied by a useful, well-illustrated catalogue (1982) – Leslie Hurry: A Painter for the Stage (in English and French). It includes an essay and two poems (including the one you quoted from) by Lyndsay, a biographical essay, short pieces by Lilian Browse, John Hurry Armstrong, Gillian Raffles (of the Mercury Gallery – perhaps his agent), Tanya Moiseiwitsch, Desmond Heelyey, Peter Hall and others, a catalogue of the paintings and drawings in the exhibition. At the back is a portfolio of 10 loose colour plates.
    The Folio Society Richard III is illustrated by Hurry.

    • richardawarren September 29, 2016 at 3:57 pm

      Many thanks for this, John. Very helpful and much appreciated. I would think that your judgement here is very sound. Though for me, it’s the non-theatre stuff that does the business!

      • John Sims September 29, 2016 at 5:04 pm

        A few of the loose colour prints at the back are non- theatre work – Palace Dream, 1942 watercolour (Middlesborough Art Gallery), Egypt/Israel War, 1973(Artist’s estate) and one or two others. And a colour self portrait on the front cover (not the one you illustrate). Texts include a poem by Hurry, The Journey. >

  2. keith chapman August 21, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    The theatre work was just a job which he preferred to teaching, the trouble is he was one of the greatest theatre designers, so people now ignore his best body of work, the non-theatre paintings. I have enough for a good museum exhibition, but I am struggling to talk anyone into it – I also tried to get interest from publishers in a monograph, without success – one day……….

  3. Paul Edwards August 15, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    Sorry to be so late …. Hurry featured quite prominently in the 1987 exhibition (at the Barbican), ‘Paradise Lost: The Neo-Romantics in Britain 1935-55′, and there’s a section on him in David Mellors’ catalogue for the show (Lund Humphries), where ‘This Extraordinary Year 1945’ is illustrated in colour, along with other works of his.

  4. richardawarren August 15, 2018 at 7:39 pm

    Thank you, Paul. I didn’t know that, and it’s really very useful – appreciated. No “late” on this blog! Stuff keeps coming round, again and again …. And gradually we get a fuller picture.

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