Chris Wadsworth
Percy Kelly - Looking East to the Ennerdale Fells
Writer and Art Consultant

19th January 2011

The Spectator

More real art, please

Although I am an admirer of Dulwich Picture Gallery, and like to support its generally rewarding exhibition programme, I will not be making the pilgrimage to see its latest show, Norman Rockwell’s America.

Likewise, I was not especially wowed by the Saul Steinberg exhibition at Dulwich, mounted with the full support of the all-powerful Steinberg Foundation, back in 2008, though I know Steinberg has many devotees. Once again, much of his work was made to be seen in reproduction, and I don’t think museums need to put on exhibitions of the originals in such cases as these. The same could be said of photographs — much better to sit at home in the comfort of your own armchair and peruse a high-quality volume of reproductions than fight your way round a crowded paying exhibition and be rewarded only with glimpses. More real art, please.

By way of complete contrast, I have no hesitation in recommending the work of Percy Kelly (1918–93). Kelly was a strange and somewhat tortured man who also happened to be a brilliant draughtsman. Not many people in his lifetime knew this because he refused to exhibit or sell his work, and used to hide it away if even an admiring visitor (such as L.S. Lowry) came to call; he was convinced that Lowry would steal his ideas. Born in Workington, Cumberland, Kelly managed to exile himself from his beloved home-county — partly through a temperamental inability to earn money — first to Pembrokeshire and finally to Norfolk. The best of Kelly’s output is the grand series of powerfully mesmeric charcoal drawings he made in the late-1950s, mostly of landscape. They bear comparison with the cream of Sheila Fell’s work (which he knew and admired), but have a solidity and conviction, an earthbound magic, which is all his own.

Kelly’s determination to hold on to his pictures (‘I would rather starve than sell one piece of my work’) is immensely refreshing in today’s climate, where art students are taught salesmanship and presentation rather than how to draw or paint. But it has meant that his work is widely unfamiliar. This is changing now: the current show at Messum’s is the second in London and a biography of Kelly by his long-time champion, the Cumbrian dealer Chris Wadsworth, is due out later this year.

Very last chance to see Cézanne’s Card Players at the Courtauld Gallery (until 16 January), which I regret not having written about earlier. A fascinating in-depth examination of one particular subject favoured by Cézanne, it brings together three of the original five paintings on the theme with a number of related oil studies as well as preparatory drawings and watercolours. The loans come mainly from America and Russia and will probably never be repeated, so this unique gathering needs to be witnessed. Artists, in particular, have been loud in its praise — nearly always a good sign

Andrew Lambirth  Art Critic The spectator


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