Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: primitive painting

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.