Keith Cunningham in his Battersea studio 1956. And the finished painting below.
Last night saw the opening of the late Keith Cunningham's show at Hoxton Gallery. After 5 decades his unseen paintings have seen the light of day. And the reaction has been terrific. I am personally delight having written about him 15 years ago about his contribution to the graphic world. In the process, I managed to get this deeply private man to talk about his never seen paintings.
Born in Sydney in 1929, Cunningham arrived in post-war London in 1949, where he attended Central St Martins. Following on, he was offered a place at the Royal College of Art along with a bursary and, at the suggestion of tutor Abram Games, he went to see Rodrigo Moynihan, then the head of painting. Moynihan offered him a place on the fine art course. Here, he worked alongside fellow students and new friends Joe Tilson, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Methuen-Campbell. He worked furiously in this heady atmosphere of creativity at the RCA.
The results impressed a clutch of Royal Academicians, including Sir Roger de Grey, Carel Weight and John Minton, with the latter stating that Cunningham was “one of the most gifted painters to have been at the Royal College”. Cunningham left the RCA with an impressive First, along with a travelling and continuation scholarship. He opted to explore Spain, after which he returned to London to complete his scholarship. During his RCA period, he exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the Beaux Arts Gallery and, for two consecutive years, the prestigious London Group show; this culminated in Cunningham being asked to submit work for full membership to the group –he declined.
"... he was always a bit quiet and mysterious,
but I was very interested in him
and had a respect for his outstanding talent."
Frank Auerbach on Keith Cunningham, August 2016
He then made the extraordinary decision to withdraw completely from any further public exhibition of his paintings. Instead, he worked in the solitary atmosphere of his studio in Battersea, where he would travel each day to work on his canvases. It was here, with eternal smoking Gauloises in hand, that he would pour out his emotions, striking, stabbing and scraping the canvases into life.
The sheer physicality of his work is very evident in the layers of manipulated paint and texture, creating a visceral, brooding intensity that vibrates the longer you gaze. Whatever was going through Cunningham’s mind in that lonely studio, it is encapsulated in this small selection of paintings from the impressive body of work that he has left behind.
Keith Cunningham: Unseen paintings 1954 - 1960 continues until 13th October. 11am to 6 pm Monday to Saturday
Hoxton Gallery 59 Old Street London EC1V 9HX