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 - 1960continues until 13th October. 11am to 6 pm Monday to Saturday
I have been touched by the number of graphic designers, many I know and a lot I don’t, who have helped me with a very special personal project. But I still need help and I hope you will read this and chip in, no matter how small. Grab a coffee and read on.
Dear Graphic friends
This is very unusual for me so, I apologise in advance.
In 2001, I wrote an article about a graphic designer called Keith Cunningham. Link here, should you wish to read it.
He died in 2014 and spent a large part of his life teaching at the London College of Printing. Michael Peters, Dave King, John Hegarty, Fernando Gutiérrez and many others passed through his hands.
But he had an alternative life as a painter. He worked alongside his contemporaries and friends, Joe Tilson, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff as a student at the RCA in the early 1950’s. He received a First and a travelling 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 then made the extraordinary decision to withdraw completely from any further public exhibition of his paintings. He continued to paint until 1960 and then locked away some 200 paintings in a warehouse where they remained unseen for 50 years.
Why am I telling you all this?
Well, Cunningham’s wife Bobby Hillson (she ran the MA fashion course at St Martins shepherding John Galliano, Rifat Özbek and Alexander McQueen to success) now 89 she wants to exhibit a selection of Keith’s paintings.
She made contact with me, and to cut a long story short, I am donating my time and supporting her in helping to make things happen.
Unlike many of their talented students, they never earned very much but always privately celebrated in the success of their students. But staging this show is eating into Bobby’s meagre savings but she is determined to do it because she believed in Keith.
It occurred to me that many of us in the design world owe a debt to those who have encouraged, guided and inspired us. As it happens, I never went to art school But, I was very affected by this book cover designed by Keith Cunningham..
I first saw it in 1963 at my local library. I stole it. (Keep that to yourself).
Sometimes it just takes a little thing to make a big change, the cover did it for me. But I feel sure that many of you did attend art school and maybe never said thank you to those unsung heroes, the tutors.
I have always tried to view everything as a creative opportunity, and if you have read this far, I’m now going to get to the point. Would you consider donating £50 or £100 to help with the considerable expense of this show?
See it as a thank you to those who helped you along the way, but you didn’t get the chance to thank. You will be invited to the private view and have your name printed in the catalogue. Not a lot I know but you will make an 89-year-old very proud.
So, if you are in mood please contact me as soon as possible and I will explain where you can send your contribution, no matter how small.
I wrote back in 2012 about my view of the then range of posters produced for the London Olympics by 'Fine artists' rather than any British graphic designers, illustrators or photographers. The result was dismal.
Now in 2016 we have another 'fine art' collection of posters, this time for the Rio Olympics. Headed as before by Tracy Emin with the most inept and juvenile piece of work attempting to pass itself off as a poster.
I find it extraordinary that whoever commissioned the above stuff actually believes that it is great work?
You have to go back to 1972 Munich Olympics to see some decent posters.
FMR, standing for Franco Maria Ricci, was an international art magazine published by its namesake in Italy.
It first appeared in 1982 hailed as “the most beautiful magazine in the world”, by some and "rather pretentious" by others. But it certainly looked good, especially the covers. It was a bi-yearly, subscription only publication priced high to avoid having to take a lot of distracting advertising.
Franco Maria Ricci's intention was to present the beauty of art history and he referred to the magazine as "a sort of school for taste, for showing that the world is full of beautiful things." Publication finally ended in 2009.
It’s a warm summer evening in 1998 and I am approaching a small block of red-brick flats just before hitting Sloane Square in London. I ring the bell at my destination and am greeted by a warm and weathered face that would not be out of place in a crofter’s cottage on the Orkneys.
This is the Scottish playwright John Byrne. He puffs gently on a roll-up and ushers me in amidst the howl of crying babies and the rear view of a woman in a bathrobe, ironing. It was like a scene from Look Back in Anger. We move along a narrow passage with paintings, drawings and framed textiles from floor to ceiling. We arrive at a small sitting room that seemed to double as a studio. "Would ye like some tea?" said Byrne in his distinctive Scottish tone. So why was I here? I'll explain.
At the end of 1997, the then design director of Royal Mail, Barry Robinson, commissioned me to design and art direct Royal Mail's contribution to the millennium celebrations. This was to be 48 individual stamps to tell the story of the past thousand years. The project would span 1999 to 2001. It was probably one of the most challenging and wonderful projects of my life as a designer, and I relished the prospect. It involved me in meeting and working with an extraordinary array of artists, designers, and photographers, from Bridget Riley to Antony Gormley and from Don McCullin to David Gentleman.
The reason I was at the home of John Byrne was because he is not only a brilliant writer, with TheSlab Boys, Your Cheatin’ Heart and Tutti Frutti with a BAFTA award for the latter to show for it, but he is also a wonderful painter.
I first came into contact with his work when I met the folk music producer Bill Leader back in the late 1960s – he had just produced an album for a relatively unknown singer called Gerry Rafferty. Along with his then singing partner Billy Connolly, they were called The Humblebums. Leader showed me the cover of their new album: I thought it beautiful.
Bill told me it was an artist who went by the name of Patrick. I later found out that he exhibited at the Portal Gallery not far from where I was based in Mayfair at the time. At that point, Byrne was trying to earn a living from his painting – he’d attended the Glasgow School of Art from 1958 to 1963, where he was awarded the Bellahouston Award for painting in his final year – but had a difficult time until he had a brilliant idea. He sent a small, rather naïve-style painting of a Panama-hatted man to the Portal Gallery, which specialised in exhibiting naïve painters similar to Alfred Wallis. Byrne claimed that the little painting was the work of his elderly father, Patrick: a one-time busker and now newspaper seller at Paisley Cross. The gallery liked what they saw and asked to see more of ‘Patrick’s’ work. Byrne set about painting another half-dozen in the naïve style of the first. It resulted in a one-man sell-out show and instant acclaim.
Fast forward to that evening in 1998 at John Byrne’s flat. I wanted to commission him for one of the Royal Mail millennium stamps on the topic of the medieval migration to Scotland.
The millennium stamp by Byrne.
We sat talking about the subject over our tea until I was aware that the woman who was ironing was now standing in the doorway. “This is Tilda,” said Byrne.
Above two paintings of Tilda Swinton
I looked up and saw the glowingly ethereal face of Tilda Swinton swathed in a bathrobe. Byrne mentioned that Tilda had recently given birth to their twins, and that explained the howling on my arrival. She was clearly exhausted and I was puzzled by the modesty of their accommodation, but this was when Swinton was still very much the art-house cinema muse and was yet to crack Hollywood and the big time. Well, she did that and the rest is history. Not many years after Byrne had finished my stamp project, he and Swinton had parted and gone their separate ways.
Now at ’75, Byrne’s play Slab Boys has recently been revived at the Glasgow Citizen Theatre and he continues to work in his studio each day, only taking breaks for a fag or to keep the wood-burning stove topped up.
Byrne in his studio.
He was a long-term friend of the late Gerry Rafferty and had co-written some songs with him, along with designing many of his album covers, including Stealers Wheel. He also painted a number of Rafferty’s guitars. In turn, Rafferty wrote a song dedicated to Byrne entitled Patrick My Primitive. Take a listenhere.
Gerry Rafferty's guitar.
More recently Byrne was commissioned to paint the ceiling mural at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh. You can see a time-lapse film of its creation here.
Byrne with his ceiling mural at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh
Last Saturday was a beautifully bright autumnal morning. I strolled from my home in Clerkenwell to Sir John Soane’s Museum at Lincoln’s Inn Fields to see what turned out to be a delightful little exhibition of engravings, etchings, screen prints and lithographs called Face to Face. It is a collection on the development of portraiture by British printmakers from the mid-20th century to the present.
If you have never been to Sir John Soane’s Museum, it is a wonderful, labyrinthine collection of artefacts curated by Soane during the 19th century. It is packed floor to ceiling with classical casts, models, books, paintings and room settings with furniture for every mood.
Above some of the treasures collected by Sir John Soane
Tracey Emin at the White Cube Galley in front of one of her extreem blow ups
Having absorbed the portraits in the exhibition, I thought about a review that I had read the day before in TheGuardian. It was about Tracey Emin’s new show at the White Cube Gallery in Bermondsey, where she has an array of work from sculpture and neon to embroidery and drawing. In the glowing, five-star review, art critic Jonathan Jones linked Emin’s understanding of drawing with that of Michelangelo. I had to read that line twice. Why?
Well, this is a drawing by Michelangelo…
And this is a drawing by Emin…
Either Jones should have gone to Specsavers or he needs to be certified – or perhaps both. Emin’s drawing ability is frankly laughable. However, Jones went on and on to say that Emin’s drawing skills are “a master class in how to use traditional artistic skills in the 21st century”. He added that her nudes “have a real sense of observation”.
And three more descriptions I couldn’t resist sharing: “Framed blue meditations on the human body”, “Flowing and pooling lines of gouache define form with real authority” and “The rough, unfinished suggestiveness of her style evokes pain, suffering, and solitude”. I agree with the pain and suffering.
I have loved the skill of artists who draw beautifully ever since I was a small boy. In my professional life, I have had the pleasure of commissioning very many great people. So, it was baffling for me when Emin was appointed ‘Professor’ of Drawing at the Royal Academy a few years back. Emin has said she’d never learnt to draw. But the RA still went ahead with the appointment. In a recent Guardian web chat, she said: “They sacked me.” I wonder why?
Imagine the Royal Academy of Music employing a violin teacher who could barely play the instrument. Or a film school appointing an editor who couldn’t edit or a cinematographer who had never used a camera – you get my drift. It just wouldn’t happen. But, in the world of ‘fine’ art, it’s okay; you can appoint a Professor of Drawing who frankly can’t. But at the time of Emin’s appointment, the RA produced a postcard of one of her drawings to sell in its shop…
Going along to the White Cube Gallery did not change my view. If you have a pristine, white gallery space with perfect frames hung and aligned beautifully and the works printed with great craft onto exquisitely textured watercolour paper, virtually anything will look good. In fact, the metal and skeletal plinths that hold Emin’s dreadfully lumpy bronzes are far more interesting than the works they support. It is often the artist fabricators who are the unsung heroes, whose behind-the-scenes work transforms the ideas of artists into reality.
White Cube. The perfect gallery space.
One of Emin's sculptural works.
The tables were very nice.
The Soane exhibition is an example of a collection of artists who have the ability to draw. Emin gets by with extreme blow-ups of her crude drawings. We all know that enlargements, with their accidental textures and imperfections, help make works look far more interesting than they actually are. Emin has now reached such heightened celebrity that she could even wipe her bottom on a piece of the best Fabriano handmade paper and have it framed and hung in the White Cube and it would be lauded by Jones as “The height of truthful autobiographical artistic expression” or some similar claptrap.
Anyway, here are some of my favourite artists/illustrators in no particular order. They all have one thing in common: they can draw…
Glynn Boyd Harte
Sara Fanelli Justin Todd
I could have gone on and on. My point is all the above are widely different in style and technique, but they all have something the Tracey Emin lacks in drawing, supreme ability.
In the 21st century, an artist’s celebrity is as, if not more, important as the work they produce.
Last December I posted a piece about the Dorothy Annan ceramic panels on the slowly dilapidating Fleet Building in Farringdon Road (my original post here). The panels were in danger of being swept away (If the US bank Goldman Sachs had their insensitive way) when the building site was to be developed. Well, I am delighted to tell you that after lobbing by a group of avid supporters, via the Twentieth Century Society, the panels have now been listed by English Heritage . What a nice early Christmas present for all those who, like me, have admired them over the past 50 years.
A couple of years back I featured the work of my brother Frank….
I paid him a visit recently and, as always, was taken aback by the sheer volume of work he creates. Here…
He is very much an ‘outsider artist’ having never received any formal art training, but he has always had an insatiable appetite for creating.
Over the past four decades he has made sculptures from wood. Wood that he gathers from highways and byways on his journeys, but mostly these days from the twelve acres of land that he lives on in deepest Wales where he has been for the past 15 years.
His work is eccentric, fun, provocative and often beautiful to look at and to the touch. He has never exhibited or sold much. The whole process of negotiating a sale fills him with horror. He continues making because he has a need and passion to do it along with music – he plays sax, clarinet, flute, keyboard and took up cello a decade ago. His house is busting with hundreds of carvings, papier-mâché pots and a plethora of other creative activities that he indulges in. Outside he has planted hundreds of trees, all now maturing, and a series of delightful gardens in which his many sculptures feature. Here is a little visual gallery…