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)

Tag Archives: Leslie Hurry

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.

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“Weirdly overwrought and hysterical”: Leslie Hurry and other neo-romantics at Tate Britain

At Tate Britain the Clore Gallery has been rebranded till next June, putting Turner within the broader context of The Romantics. (Details on the Tate site via the Collection Displays pages.) The whole thing is well devised and curated, and it’s good to see the odd Blake, Palmer or Fuseli in there among the straighter stuff. And as a little bonus, it all signs off with a separately curated roomful of 20thc neo-romantics.

Which, naturally, includes a bunch of Sutherlands (always a pleasure, especially the rich early etchings) and the regulation nod to Piper and Nash. But it’s also a joy to be able to inspect a totally gonzoid Michael Ayrton, a brooding John Craxton, and Keith Vaughan’s Cain and Abel, in which Vaughan appears to have stretched the scriptural record by having Cain slay his brother, Samson-like, with the jawbone of an ass. (A weensie bit strained, and not one of his best, but what the heck? Any Vaughan on show is a gift these days, and we should be grateful for this one.)

The relevant Tate web page also appears to promise John Minton, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but no such luck. A pity. Though it’s only a small space and you can’t have everything, it is all rather Sutherland-heavy, and a sample from these three would have made things more considered. But in compensation for the omission, tucked in at the end, there is This Extraordinary Year, 1945 by Leslie Hurry.

Leslie Hurry, 'Conflict', 1944

Oo-er. Blimey! Leslie who? The name wasn’t too familiar, but on the strength of this painting it is clearly one to conjure with. It’s not possible to link to images of this or any other of his six pieces in the Tate collection, thanks to copyright restrictions (boo!), but This Extraordinary Year is an extraordinary painting, in which a glowing and naked Liberty raises the red flag among a writhing, apocalyptic mass of figures that includes a pope and a politician trampled under the revolutionary surge. Sound stuff!

Available information on Hurry seems limited, though a quick google will give an idea of his style. There is no mention of him in Remy’s irritatingly doctrinaire Surrealism in Britain, though he explored and exhibited automatic drawing, was tagged an “ultra-surrealist”, and was related to the painter John Armstrong (John Hurry Armstrong), whom for that matter Remy also writes off as less than surrealist. The last significant show of his work seems to have been in the ‘eighties. There is a nice self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery, but only one oil, Dialectic No 2, 1940, is to be found on the BBC Your Paintings site. In this the rather geometric figures look a bit Wyndham Lewis, even a bit Merlyn Evans. Most other pieces appear much more fluid. Many surviving works are designs for the theatre and ballet, though to my mind these are of lesser interest. He was also a friend of Mervyn Peake.

In The Spirit of Place, Malcolm Yorke quickly disposes of Hurry as “weirdly overwrought and hysterical”. What’s so wrong with that? Once could say the same of (for instance) the once derided but very wonderful Pailthorpe and Mednikoff, who these days have pukka status. And as British surrealists go, I’d rather take one Hurry than any number of those dry, clunky, repressed pastiches of Ernst by the amateurish and ludicrously over-rated Conroy Maddox.