Just by way of a bit of fun, I’ve put together a list of four under-rated British realist painters from the last century. They aren’t ranked in any particular order – and, whilst none of them could fairly be described as ‘unknown’, where possible I have gone for less famous options – hence the absence of perennial favourites like Lucian Freud, Stanley Spencer and LS Lowry.
1. Henry Tonks
Tonks was an unusual painter – trained as a surgeon and for some time a practising doctor at the Royal Free in London. He gained a reputation as a painter of rather twee, chocolate-box scenes influenced by Impressionism. As Professor of Fine Art at the Slade he taught and inspired a future generation of great British artists.
His place on my list, though, is based on a remarkable body of drawings he produced during the First World War. During that period he worked for the pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies, recording the facial injuries of soldiers. His pastel sketches document the horrendous results of modern warfare – whilst retaining a lightness of touch and a sense of compassion.
Here’s a clip of Andrew Graham-Dixon introducing the drawings on The Culture Show.
Are they beautiful, and can they be fairly described as art? Yes to both, in my opinion. Though Tonks himself balked at the idea that any spectator would be morbid enough to view these sketches from an aesthetic viewpoint, it’s tough to avoid doing so. Pastel, a soft sketching medium forever associated with polite 18th century society portraits, and the elegantly posed ballet dancers of Degas, seems a significant choice of tool – almost ironic. The rich pigments in his hands easily lend themselves to rendering the glimmers of light on recent scar tissue, his reds and pinks allowing us to really feel the angry absences of destroyed sections of face. The beauty of his handling of the colours and forms can only serve to make us feel more sickened by what we’re witnessing.
In the 1940s Francis Bacon imagined faces twisting, melting and blowing apart in a nightmare of violence – but twenty years previously Tonks had actually seen it. It was no mere dream to him, he’d stared it in the face.
2. Alan Lowndes
A gear shift from Tonks, no sign of violence in the gentle domestic work of Alan Lowndes – often unfairly dismissed as a ‘naïve artist’. Lowndes was an untrained painter whose career had two distinct phases – an early period from the late 40s through to the 60s observing the comings and goings in his native Stockport (a period of relative success, when he was collected by the Tate Gallery and other major public collections). Then a complete change, when he joined the artistic community at St. Ives in Cornwall.
His work seems at its best to mix painterly expressionism, more akin to European painters like Munch, with a quaint and eccentric viewpoint that is wholly English. Melancholy tolls like a bell through the pictures.
I discovered Lowndes’ work by chance as a young teenager – during a trip to see my great aunt in Bedford we wandered into the local art gallery and got chatting with an extraordinarily posh lady - who turned out to be the curator, Lady Halina Graham. Lady Graham was intrigued by the fervency of my devotion to art – and sent me away with two shopping bags full of old art catalogues she happened to have lying round in her office.
One of these was a 1975 Crane Kalman gallery catalogue for a small Lowndes retrospective. He didn’t immediately hit me as the most sophisticated (or good) painter I’d ever come across, but as time passed that catalogue became one of my favourite possessions (and still is). I found the pictures incredibly human and evocative, transporting me to the street corners of a very recent past, forever lost.
In the early days of my interest in Lowndes (pre-internet) there was absolutely no other information to be found about him, which made it all the more fascinating. What became of him, was he still alive? I travelled to London aged 16 (sad teen that I was) to seek out some answers.
I found that the Crane Kalman gallery still existed and managed to grab a quick chat with Andras Kalman, the ageing owner. He told me that Lowndes had died in 1978. Affected by a stammer that seriously affected his communication, he had succumbed to alcoholism. I wasn’t surprised. I had always sensed the sadness and awkward isolation of a man who’d devoted his life to those strange, clunky observations.
3. David Bomberg
David Bomberg was a great British pioneer whose work didn’t start off particularly figurative. He got on at the ground floor of Modernism – painting in a Cubist idiom just a few years after Picasso and Braque had minted the style. He and his fellow ‘Vorticists’ celebrated the dynamism and promise of the mechanised age – and rebelled against the old conventions of representation. Indeed, it’s worth pointing out that Bomberg’s Cubist leanings got him expelled from the Slade by none other than Professor Henry Tonks, the first name on this list.
Bomberg’s famous canvas ‘The Mud Bath’ is a classic of early British Modernism – perennially on display at Tate Britain, and always a favourite in reproduction at the gift shop.
Just a few years later, though, anguished by his experiences in World War I, Bomberg turned his back on those radical machine-age Modernist leanings and retreated to Spain, where he led a rural existence and fell in love with the rocky, arid landscapes of Ronda. In his earlier works, figurative elements had been streamlined and reduced – their colours flattened and separated. Now they came back to the fore, bleeding into one another in a celebration of a far more direct experience of beauty, free from any doctrine. A raw delight and excitement pumped through them like blood.
Upon returning to the UK, Bomberg was bitter to discover that he had been somewhat disregarded as an artist – a large 1950s Tate retrospective on Vorticism displayed only one of his pictures. Unable to get teaching work at any major London art school (he made three hundred unsuccessful applications) he was forced to teach drawing classes at Borough Polytechnic – where his unorthodox approach helped to inspire a new movement of great British figurative artists, including Auerbach and Kossoff.
4. Joan Eardley
Joan Eardley was an English born painter who settled in Scotland. She spent much of her working life in and around the tenements of postwar Glasgow sketching the slum children there.
Eardley was particularly drawn to the Samson family – a haphazard collection of twelve offspring who lived with their parents in a two bedroom tenement, on a street called Rottenrow. Her paintings of the Samson kids are intensely lively (as the children themselves no doubt were) – painted with vigour, leavened with a toughness born from hard experience and never, ever stooping to sentimentality.
The children embody a sense of truth that shows the keeness of Eardley’s observation – for example in her painting of a young boy holding his little sister by the wrist, not the hand – a strong gesture of protectiveness that suggests, perhaps, that he acted as a surrogate parent. Her pastel drawings, too, are a revelation; little maelstroms of beautiful fevered lines, sketched directly onto that most unforgiving of drawing surfaces – sandpaper.
Eardley herself was a tough lady – with short hair, normally dressed in corduroy trousers and a woollen sweater. She never married or had children, and happily acknowledged that she was a difficult character - prone to depression, driven to distraction by severe neck pain, and eventually killed at 42 by a brain tumour. She once wrote that “If you want experience and understanding of beauty then envy me now – but if you want happiness then don’t envy me because these things don’t bring happiness.”