Felix Kelly, Herbert Read and Neo-Romanticism.
When Paintings by Felix Kelly appeared in 1946 he was just emerging as an interesting minor figure. The initiative for the booklet was quite likely Kelly's, given his relative obscurity. Moreover, it is fairly certain that it was Kelly who asked the already eminent modernist scholar and critic, Herbert Read, to write its introduction. The young artist had to screw up his courage to ask Read to do it, as is evidenced by the following extract from a letter to him:
Because I found it difficult on Tuesday evening I did not say how grateful and honoured I feel that you should undertake this introduction to my book especially as I know how harried and busy you must be at this time. (4)
Read had bought one of Kelly's paintings in August 1943. It seems the purchase was swiftly followed by an invitation from the older man for Kelly to illustrate a proposed re-issue of Read's story, The Green Child, originally published in 1934 (Pls 6-9). The 'Tuesday evening' alluded to in Kelly's letter may well have been the occasion of the opening of his first major exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery, 1944, in which the drawings for The Green Child were included. (5) The painting that Read had bought, The Three Sisters, one of six works by the young artist in the gallery's summer exhibition the previous year, was reproduced in colour in Paintings by Felix Kelly and used for the dust-jacket as well (Pl 2). (6) In it three women in long, black 19th-century dresses walk separately down a path marked out by a pergola of iron hoops now bare, though no doubt originally the support of laburnum or wisteria. To the right a corps de ballet of trees, also bare, reinforces the prevailing sense of unease as they stretch in sympathy towards the women and the simple Georgian mansion and conservatory beyond. The sky threatens. The title's reference may be to Chekhov, but the scene is English.
The concept that places have their moods and mysteries is a very English one, richly explored during the eighteenth century. In his introduction to Kelly's book, Read distinguished between the topographical school of Paul Sandby and his followers, and the imaginative school of Girtin, Turner and Cotman. Even the more exact topographical artists had invested their landscapes with a romantic overtone, however, by means of some detail or the grouping of incidental figures. It was clear that Felix Kelly had been deeply impressed by this landscape tradition. Some of his house portraits in the 1946 publication (Cliveden, Buscot and Belton, for instance) were of the simple topographical type, but, as Read pointed out:
... even in these comparatively 'straight' paintings Kelly expresses, by a wispy group of figures, a dead branch of a tree, a broken gate or a pallid statue, some element of poetry discovered by his imagination rather than by his recording eye. (7)
Read felt the young artist went further than his 18th-century predecessors:
Not content with such an obtrusive romantic accent in an otherwise realistic record, Felix Kelly abandons the limits of nature's topography and invents the landscapes of a dream-world. The details may still be exact--the houses, the pedestals, the urns and wrought-iron: all are actual, as such things are actual in a dream. But their arrangement is poetic: it is--the word cannot be avoided --super-realistic.
'Superrealism' is a term Read used for surrealism when referring to British developments. Where the French word 'surrealisme' was seen as an ideology and specifically situated in history, 'superrealism' was a wider phenomenon, in a sense a continuation of the romantic tradition of subjectivism, but drawing new inspiration from Freudian analysis of the subconscious, as Michel Remy has put it. (8) In various texts (such as Art Now and Art and Society) Read wrote of the distinction between rational and irrational perception, and the need for an artist to combine the two. (9)
An artist is a product of a society, he argued, but needs also to go beyond that into the subliminal self. In Art and Society (1936), Read writes of Delacroix in this vein. Impressed by Constable and Bonington, Delacroix had come closest of the French romantics to realising the personal and expressive quality of English art, acknowledging the limits of the French school's preoccupation with questions of style, method and the study of the model. (10) It had taken another century to convert romanticism into 'superrealism'. British artists in the 1930s and 1940s were reflecting similar dissatisfaction with the French emphasis on plastic values at the expense of the poetic. Promoted by Roger Fry and Clive Bell, post-impressionism had swept through the British art world to the near annihilation of that other dimension that writers of the day perceived as essentially British. John Piper argued that British art was characterized by 'literary interest and atmosphere' rather than design and structure. (11) Robin Ironside found in the best British painting '... a stimulus that may be ethical, poetic or philosophical, but not simply plastic, not a stimulus transmitted by any pure, inflexible aesthetic perception of the external world'. (12) Compared with post-impressionism and early modernism, the new 'superrealism' or surrealism offered a solution more congenial to English sensibilities.
Read's writings on contemporary British artists repeatedly noted the combination of fact and dream. Graham Sutherland's paintings were a 'transmutation of natural facts'; (13) Robert Colquhoun's figures were 'fantastic, inhabitants of a dream world, and yet they still belong to the organic world'; (14) even Piper's topographical landscapes were generally '... inspissated with a romantic melancholy which is essentially expressionistic'. (15) Himself a poet, Read invoked poetry when discussing neo-romantic art: 'To say of a painter [and he was considering Paul Nash in this instance] that he is poetic is to describe a quality, not of his art, but of his imagination ... to describe a painter's work as poetic is to relate it to the source of all inspiration.' (16)
As we have seen, Read applied the word 'superrealist' to Felix Kelly. He called him also 'a poet of the inner court'. When Read accepted the invitation to write the introduction to the Falcon Press book he asked Kelly for some sort of statement about his work and beliefs. The young artist tentatively offered three points:
I think firstly before commencing a painting I must realize the emotional content of my subject. Secondly, whatever the subject, either imaginative or otherwise, I like to compose it not only of the visible but the invisible people or things once there. Thirdly, I suppose it is obvious that the classical symbols of the 18th century have the strongest appeal. (17)
Fifteen years later, the artist gave a copy of the book of his paintings to the writer Enid Bagnold. He had been working as stage designer of her play The Last Joke during its season at the West End's Phoenix Theatre, 1960. Bagnold recognised at once what Kelly had been trying to do, and wrote to him enthusiastically. The pictures were:
... exactly what I would have liked to have made of things seen--if I had spent my life painting: as I nearly did. North country fields in boxes and in squares with a false and a true perspective--an indication that all might slip sideways and show what the ghosts and bodies of fields are really like--the conversation of a house as it talks in its own language to its Follies ... the addition of an iron hoop or a steam age spouting chimney--not for its sake alone but because of the unheard talk between one age and another ... Well--you see how much you've impressed me. I turned over the pages with such delight and also with recognition. That you should be a friend of that man who wrote the Green Child--where the stream ran backwards ... that too has 'recognition'. (18)
Bagnold voiced more poetically than the artist his own intentions. Those had been reported by film and art critic, Caroline Lejeune, in 1957:
He finds it hard to see a house without imagining a ghost house beside it ... So he generally paints two portraits of a subject, the real one and the make-believe. (19)
The make-believe was generally the better of the two. The magic resides not in a distortion of the facts but in the relationship of the parts to the whole and the garden and its furniture to the house itself. An early example is the 'portrait' of Lord Berners' country seat, Faringdon House which is faithful to the building's architecture except in the matter of proportion (Pl 3). Kelly had a tendency to increase the height of a house, investing even a classical building with gothic potential. In the garden the small bust of a dwarf in bonnet and skirt watches over the house whose inhabitants are out of sight--their presence suggested by opened windows. (20) Petrified presences, such sculptures signal the past in the present, the duration of an estate, the 'unheard talk between one age and another'. The artist explores the tension between the animate and inanimate, the secret life of things.
A line of monuments animates the small gouache, Iron Stiles (Pl 4). (21) Doric mausoleum, urn-topped column, sphinx, pedestal with statue, and a Celtic cross stand like guardians above a series of burial plots, creating a diagonal perspective that is echoed by the eponymous stiles. These, like the monuments, are invested with life as they clamber eagerly one after the other over the walls that separate the plots. A pair of black-robed women (again in period costume) are about to quit the picture space in the distance. The plaster of the walls crumbles in a couple of places, revealing a warm brick colour that contrasts with the pervading palette of creams and greenish greys. Brush strokes are long and smooth. In the foreground Kelly creates lank and tangled grass by scratching with a sharp instrument to reveal the lighter paint beneath. The 'type' of a Georgian stately house, simple and regular, terminates the perspective.
This house (the same one as in Herbert Read's purchase The Three Sisters) is found yet again in even more formulaic simplicity in a small gouache, Eighteenth-Century House (1943) (Pl 5). (22) The house in question, with circular attic windows and parapet, seems to abut directly onto a small palladian rotunda. An iron gate-arch with lantern rests on fluted columns; funerary monuments (cross, urn and gravestone) follow the diagonal of a wall, a less elaborate grouping than their equivalents in Iron Stiles. Again there are the leafless, twisted trees. Central to the whole painting is a black and spidery, hooded carriage without its horse and not much bigger than a perambulator. No humans are evident; only this grouping of strangely animated objects. Colour is again economical: fawn and cream, grey and black, and the palest hint of green to the grass. The painting manages to straddle the dark and sinister quality noted by many observers of Kelly's work and his equally strong tendency towards decoration, seen particularly in the carriage, the rotunda and the pattern of the branches against the sky.
In addition to his affiliation with the neo-romantic school, Kelly was being hailed as heir to the late Rex Whistler. Both cover and title-page of Paintings by Felix Kelly were embellished with a Whistlerian rococo device of palette, brushes and tubes of paint (Pl 1). (23) Some critics found this decorative tendency in 1940s British art undermined its more serious aspirations. In an article called 'The new romanticism in British painting' that appeared in Art News, 1947, Kenneth Clark struck a note of caution that has some pertinence for Kelly's work:
[W]e must observe that the style [neo-romanticism] is open to two dangers, which are in fact, endemic in English art. The first is linear decoration, the second, whimsy ... [W]hen [romantic art] aims too directly at picture-making it becomes merely decorative. So the imitators of Sutherland who use his properties--the roots of twisted trees, for example--without having experienced them as expressive elements in nature, soon degrade them to hieroglyphics, with about as much significance as a cloud pattern on a Chinese pot. As for whimsy, the English artist always has Arthur Rackham and J.M. Barrie waiting round the corner to greet him if he forgets for too long the classical tradition of reason and order. We cannot abandon ourselves to the Gothic frenzies of German art. (24)
Especially in later years, Kelly's work is full of whimsy (hot-air balloons and the like). Not for nothing had he been a cartoonist for Lilliput during the 1940s. One might as well concede too that the trees and branches in some of the more straight-forward house portraits (especially in later years) were little more than framing devices. But the likes of Rackham and Barrie no longer hold for us the horror they did for mid-20th-century moderns; and, in the best of Kelly's work, the tortured trees are keys to the mystery and melancholy of the artist's vision.
Geoffrey Grigson could be even more withering than Clark. In a trenchant essay, 'Authentic and false in the new "romanticism"', published in Horizon, 1948, Grigson saw the current trends as 'a new provincialism', and feared that for many of neo-romanticism's exponents the favoured linear technique (Kelly was often said to 'draw' with paint) and the emphasis on personal feeling were 'pointless without a purpose and a belief, without a true end'. (25) The 'ethical, poetic or philosophical' content referred to by Robin Ironside were all too frequently absent. For Grigson, too many painters of his own time had become little more than masters of what he called 'a number of superficial, attractive devices.' He may have had Kelly's enthusiasm for drooping cables and wires of uncertain purpose in mind when (alluding to Sutherland's and Piper's followers) he wrote of 'that playboy art which mixes constructivist strings with Surrealist fantasy and proves tickling to the fashion papers'. (26) Painters need order, he protested: 'They need subject; which is another way of affirming that they need viable ends.' (27) The 'virtuous objective' for a painter was 'a wide sea embracing meaning and humanity'. (28) Few of the neo-romantics had so big a vision:
The English neo-romantics are like the travellers up river, back to the sea, going, if they persist in the journey, off the main course and into the tributaries and under the hot selfish jungle, exciting events occurring on the way of which the reports intermittently are flashed back to Bond Street. (29)
Herbert Read, however, had clearly found the expressive element and the tension between the animate and inanimate in Kelly's work compelling. The pregnant mood of such works as The Three Sisters and Iron Stiles, and Kelly's technique of drawing with paint, suggested to Read the perfect illustrator for The Green Child, which had been first published in 1934. Grey Walls Press put out a new edition in 1945. Kelly provided four illustrations (Pls 6-9). (30) The blurb on the dust-jacket used excerpts from the critical adulation that had greeted the original publication to justify the decision to issue a new, limited edition. Read based the tale on The Story of the Green Children which he had come across in Thomas Keightley's The Fairy Mythology. (31) He had already used this story in his 1928 text, English Prose Style, as an example of a folk tale's tendency 'to develop a clear objective narrative encumbered with odd inconsequential but startlingly vivid and concrete details'--a literary equivalent in fact of what Read admired in Kelly's art. (32) Read's own tale, The Green Child, supplied a vehicle for themes central to neo-romanticism.
The first two of Kelly's illustrations for it are most characteristic of his style. The main character, Olivero, has returned to his home town in the north of Victorian England. During years of self-imposed exile he had pursued utopian political ends in South America--hence his Spanish name. In the first of Kelly's pictures (Pl 6), Olivero stands transfixed by the sight of the river running through the village. Its normal course had been reversed, he was surprised to note: now it flowed back to its source. A distant figure upon a bridge and a light in one window of a row of houses are the only other signs of human life in Kelly's illustration, yet the sombre scene is animated by a cluster of watchful graveyard monuments on the opposite bank and an enormous leafless tree writhing against the night sky. In the second illustration (Pl 7), Olivero strides out determined to discover the meaning of the river's change of course. Here again, bare trees convey tension and reinforce the urgency and direction of Olivero's mission. In this picture, the buildings (especially a flour mill) are more prominent than the houses of the first illustration. The angularity of these simplified geometric configurations contrasts with the curves of a velvet-green slope and a semicircular stone wall. Simple, plastic forms in turn contrast with the surface pattern made by trees against a sky which, in both pictures, though cloud-swept is yet scattered with stars like Christmas glitter. In Kelly, expression and decoration are held in tension.
Kelly's drawings capture the mood of the tale rather than exact detail. Read's story is set in summer, the shade of the sycamores denser, the weather 'exceptionally fine', yet the artist found a wintry scene better served his expressive purposes. Top-hat and black frock-coat are substituted for Olivero's South American cloak and wide-brimmed hat in which we are told he is still attired. Occasionally the illustrations seem to misunderstand the author's intentions. In the second section of the book, where Olivero's career in South America is reviewed, the main square of the fictitious town of Roncador, is dry, dusty and silent (Pl 8). Surprisingly, given his own taste for surface decoration, Kelly has not understood--or has chosen to ignore--Read's description of the church: '... only to be judged by its facade, which was a perversion of the baroque style'. (33) He has created a simple and sculptural edifice, not the rococo frenzy the writer had in mind. Nowhere do we see the portico 'flanked by spirally-twisted columns' or the life-sized figure of the Virgin of the Assumption. Sun-baked, eery, quiet, the picture, with its colliding perspectives, suggests the influence of De Chirico. Spectral women in black gowns enter the church, echoes of the 'three sisters' of the painting that had initiated the association of artist and author. Read's modernist abhorrence of Baroque ornament is of less concern to Kelly than the creation of atmosphere.
Nor, when (in the book's third section) Kelly paints the subterranean domain of the Green Children to which Olivero and the Green Child, herself, descend in 'an immense bubble' at the river's source, does he focus on the crystals that Read describes--perhaps failing to comprehend their symbolic significance (Pl 9). For the Green Children crystallography:
... was the most esteemed of all sciences in this subterrestrial country; indeed, it might be regarded as science itself, for on it were based, not only all notions of the structure of the universe, but equally all notions of beauty, truth and destiny. (34)
On this point Read was aligning himself with that mystic branch of German modernist architecture, the Crystal Chain Movement, where crystals symbolised modernism's ideal of truth and clarity. One might have expected Kelly to depict that interface between the animate and inanimate--the petrification of the bodies of the Green Children after death. Instead, he develops in a fusion of architecture and nature a sort of natural cathedral, cave walls marked out like masonry. He was to return to this concept in later work, delighted always by natural arches and cliffs castellated like some eternal architecture. In this merging of architecture and nature, though, Kelly does capture something of Read's (and modernism's) timeless ideal, the antithesis of fashion. In the world of the Green Child, modernist philosophy prevailed, it seems: '... no value was attached to change itself: a thing once beautiful, it was thought, was always beautiful, and the work of art was created only out of necessity.' (35)
By contrast, there is a feeling of change and loss to Kelly's vision of human affairs, signalled not only by the graveyard and the bareness of the branches in the first two drawings but by signs of dilapidation. In Roncador, walls are stained and crumbling. A crude wooden structure high up the church suggests some uncompleted project. There is an inactive hoisting system, remnant of the same activity. Kelly's 1940s paintings are full of ropes and pulleys, mostly relics of some defunct industry. In the second picture in The Green Child (where Olivero strides out upon his quest), the foreground is occupied by drooping cables, perhaps examples of what Grigson had in mind when he inveighed against 'constructivist strings' and 'surrealist fantasy'. In the Green Child case, however, their function appears to be to indicate the displacement of older technology by industrial progress (specifically new roller machinery for fine-ground flour) that had occurred during the years of Olivero's exile from his home town. The 19th century witnessed a constant turn-over in technology.
Kelly enjoyed a life-long love affair with outmoded means of transport. Vintage cars, abandoned steam trains and paddle-steamers populate his paintings across the decades. As with others of the neo-romantic movement, there is a regret at the passing of once majestic modes of travel; yet Kelly's paintings contain more than nostalgia. Old trams and trains, often driverless and sometimes miniature, blast defiant clouds of steam and appear to fulfill the surrealist quest for a self-animating machine. (36)
Technology was not the only thing that was changing with astonishing speed. The built environment was being transformed as economic factors, modernisation, development and (in time) bombing took their toll. British heritage was under threat. For Evelyn Waugh, as he penned Brideshead Revisited for publication in 1945, it looked as if '... the ancestral seats which were our chief national artistic achievement were doomed to decay and spoliation like the monasteries in the sixteenth century'. (37) The tension of the old and the new in British life had been signalled in the predicament of John Betjeman, assistant editor of The Architectural Review during the early 1930s. Employed to promote the modern, he came to realize that his sympathies lay elsewhere. In an early article, 'The Passing of the Village' (published September 1932), Betjeman was dutiful to the modernist cause. The beauty of the machine was sung; mock Tudor public houses decried. It was to be a decade more before he could bring himself (influenced by Piper) publicly to enjoy the latter. But there was no disguising, even in 1932, the writer's sorrow at the passing of the genuine thing. (38)
A decade later, when it seemed that bombs were likely to complete what 'the sinister hands of improvers and despoilers' had begun, (39) there was to be government backing for more than one project recording British buildings before it was too late. War Pictures by British Artists, 1942-3, and then the vast exercise, Recording Britain, 1946-9, each commissioned numerous artists to make topographic water-colour drawings 'of places and buildings of characteristic national interest, particularly those exposed to the danger of destruction by the operations of war'. (40) Although photographers were employed to record the devastation (Cecil Beaton was one) they were not generally thought of as artists. In his introduction to the War Pictures booklet, Blitz, JB Morton expressed the opinion that
Only the artist with his heightened powers of perception can recognize which elements in a scene can be pickled for posterity in the magical essence of a style ... so that from the destruction of war something of lasting value emerges. (41)
John Piper contributed a small number of drawings to both projects. Surprisingly Kelly was involved in neither, probably because he had not emerged prominently enough at the time of their inception; but maybe also because of his involvement with the RAF and a period of ill health that saw him demobilized early in 1944. Had Herbert Read been a member of the Committee on the Employment of Artists in Wartime things might have been otherwise. It was almost certainly Read, in his capacity as chairman of the select committee for 'School Prints' just after the war, who ensured Kelly's inclusion in that project with his lithograph, Drifters and Paddle Steamer, 1946, a nautical subject with echoes of Ravilious. (42)
The crumbling walls and ruins, more evident in Kelly's work at this time than in later decades, attest to his sympathy with these projects committed to recording Britain's threatened heritage. 'I feel it's important to make a record of great homes, both here and in England, before grim things happen to them,' he told a New York journalist in 1948. (43) Quite apart from the projects just mentioned, various artists of the day--especially Piper--had also turned their attention to Britain's architectural heritage in their own painting for private patrons. With the revival of this artistic genre, a form of patronage was revived, in the eighteenth-century tradition, as William Gaunt observed in an essay on Kelly. (44) Commissions for paintings of houses threatened--or just loved--flowed in thick and fast following Kelly's earliest exhibitions in the mid 1940s (contemporary with the Recording Britain project), influencing the artist's direction in no small way. But his most interesting early work captures the idea of inexorable change to landscape and architecture in a more general way.
The small oil, Road to the Pits (1945), makes piquant contrast of industry and heritage architecture (Pl 10). (45) Centre place is given to a group of Georgian houses (not particularly 'great homes') on rising ground. Simple and time-worn, they no longer gaze upon some picturesque sweep of nature (or of Capability Brown's devising), but face directly onto a dirt road for the transportation of coal. The pit machinery, source of coal and power, is visible, though literally marginalised on the picture's extreme left, suggestive perhaps of Kelly's ultimate defiance of the march of progress. The colours are again sombre--greens, greys and creams--except for a blush of rust red, an inconsistently placed reflection of the setting sun or perhaps the forces of the pits themselves.
The area depicted could be South Yorkshire, or Derbyshire, where the Sitwell seat, Renishaw, views from the high ground the distant evidence of mining. In 1968 Kelly painted a claustrophobic view of the sawmill at Renishaw (improbable Gothic tower and puffing steam engine surrounded by woodland) and in the 1980s (for Sir Reresby and Lady Sitwell) a strange fantasy of the roof-top where the chimneys play the role taken by urns and statues in earlier work. (46) But Kelly never matched John Piper's memorably dark studies of Renishaw's splendour, both threatening and threatened.
Herbert Read himself came from Yorkshire. Olivero's return to his home-town in The Green Child, accompanied by mixed feelings of 'sentimental nostalgia' and a 'rational fear of disillusionment', (47) anticipated Read's own old-age return to the area of his childhood. His autobiography, The Contrary Experience, contains a reverie on the changes wrought to the moorlands of Yorkshire in the years since he had left. Place-names of Viking origin (Bransdale, for instance) had survived more than ten centuries, as had a sense of belonging that the area's old homesteads imparted. Yet, as Read observed:
There has been more weakening of that sense in the past fifty years than during the preceding millennium: what William the Conqueror could not obliterate has crumbled under the relentless pressure of economic laws. Those silent and deserted farmsteads are there to bear witness. I wrote Moon's Farm as an elegy for this waste land. (48)
Moon's Farm, a dramatic poem for three voices, was written especially for radio and was first broadcast by the BBC in January 1951. (49) Kelly had heard it while lying in bed with a bout of the ''flu'. He wrote to Read expressing his admiration of the work: 'I listened to both performances and found it strangely moving--heaven knows how one gets the feeling of the silence of the countryside on a radio programme.' (50)
Read returned to his birth-place believing that 'a landscape in which we are born and to which we must always return for the release from tensions born in exile, has [a] mysterious power of reconciliation, of absolution'. (51) The character simply called Second Voice in Moon's Farm returned to the moors, because ' ... I thought I might find the truth about myself here ...'; (52) he returned also perhaps to die, clinging still to the illusion that he might die a happy man '... without fear and trembling'. (53) In The Green Child, Olivero's wishes on returning to his village were more high-minded still: 'To escape from the essence of time, to live in the eternity of what he was accustomed to call "the divine essence of things"--that was his only desire.' (54) As the Green Child herself sank beneath the surface of the pool that would return her to her subterranean realm, '[h]er face was transfigured, radiant as an angel's'. (55) In death the Green Children's bodies were turned to crystal through immersion in petrous water--'perfectly united with the earth. That was their whole desire: to be one with the physical harmony of the universe'. (56)
The image of the backward flowing stream, the return to one's roots, is central to The Green Child, perhaps to Read's own thinking as well. By contrast, Felix Kelly never returned to his homeland, New Zealand. Afraid of the changes wrought in his absence he felt he could not return. Moreover, though his memories of New Zealand were powerful, he increasingly identified with his adopted country. In retrospect he realised that it was his removal to Britain in 1935 that had been the home-coming. He wrote to Read of his feelings as an artist on arrival in England: '[F]or the first time I now and again felt I could really paint a little, mainly owing I think to the fact that both light and subject matter were sympathetic to my particular kind of painting.' (57) In the 1960s, thirty years after his departure from New Zealand, he told a journalist that he dreamt of his homeland and painted scenes of it for relaxation: 'But I shall never go back. So many things have changed and I want to remember them as they were.' (58) In fact, he transformed New Zealand in these paintings into something it had never been, a place of his imagination. (59)
Writing of the highly individual work of Jacob Epstein in Contemporary British Art, Read observed, 'We might say that there are exiles of spirit as well as of place, and only time will gather them to the fold'. (60) It is true of Kelly too. In the same text Read considered the predicament of the artist in general in Britain in the modern period, since Puritanism and then the Industrial Revolution had undermined patronage, the social basis of art:
The individual artist in an industrial society such as England was henceforth a social outcast, a misfit. He might exist on the aristocratic fringe, and by prostituting his talents; but at best he was but a deformed creature. (61)
Felix Kelly was a rich man by the time of his death in 1994, as a direct result of his existence 'on the aristocratic fringe'. He was one of several whom Read may have had in mind when he penned these lines. It is tempting to see Kelly's exclusion from Contemporary British Art despite Read's early admiration of the young artist as a sign that the writer already saw the direction in which he was heading. In his introduction to Paintings by Felix Kelly, Read hints at the young artist's growing clientele amongst the British upper classes when he writes, '... he paints for the "cabinet", for the intimate world of people who surround themselves with private possessions rather than certificates of culture.' (62) But it is as well to note the caution at the start of Contemporary British Art against reading too much into the author's selection. (63) There is every chance that Kelly was one of the painters Read had in mind when, later in the book, he alluded to '... several other artists [with whom he had no space to deal] who remain independent of groups and tendencies.' He could think of
... many individual talents of grace and charm, justified in their activity, giving insight and interest to the routine of our lives, but not pretending to that more-than-personal significance which reflects some deeper movement of the human spirit. (64)
After all, in Paintings by Felix Kelly, Read had observed that the young artist was '... not seduced, as are so many of his contemporaries, by the pompous appeal of the museums. It is not his ambition to found a group or to belong to a school.' He was, wrote Read, 'a poet of the inner court'. (65)
For all his links to the neo-romantics and surrealists--and even the decorators--Kelly had few friends in the art world and cut himself off from artistic discourse. Perhaps those terms 'misfit' and 'social outcast' that Read had used might be applied also to Kelly's social position in Britain, despite his strong sense of homecoming on arrival there in 1935. Though he counted numerous upper-class people in Britain among his friends, Kelly's position remained, as Read had put it, on the 'aristocratic fringe'. James Lees-Milne noted in Kelly's lifetime that 'for all his love of country houses he saw them as an outsider'. (66) Nor could Kelly have found comfort in the country of his birth, being not just afraid of the changes wrought there but because his flight in the first place had been an inevitable consequence of his love of British heritage and also because of his homosexuality. New Zealand in the 1930s had been too conservative and too small a place for Felix Kelly, the outsider who so desperately wanted to belong.
Kelly's reputation is currently being re-assessed. His refusal to engage with the artistic discourse of his day has led to a decline in critical interest in his work. Undoubtedly he produced many uninspired works from as early as the late 1940s, especially when patrons insisted on too faithful a record of their houses, yet there is much even of his late out-put containing still that quality that Read had admired, that combination of observed fact and the fantasies of his mind. New Zealand is slowly discovering this strange artist, 'gathering him to the fold' of their expatriates. In Britain it is a matter of rediscovering what Herbert Read had seen when he strayed into the summer exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery in August 1943, those paintings of fresh vision that this artist as a young man from the outer reaches of the Empire had produced on arrival in a country that for him was both new and very old indeed.
Donald Bassett's book Fix, The Life and Art of Felix Kelly is published by Darrow Press $NZ 75. ISBN-978-0-473-1140-3
(1) Paintings by Felix Kelly. Introduction by Herbert Read. London, 1946. There was a second impression in 1948.
(2) See Donald Bassett, 'Felix Kelly and New Zealandness', Bulletin of New Zealand Art History 22 (2001), pp55-70.
(3) During the 1950s his dealers were Leicester Galleries and Arthur Jeffress. He exhibited at Arthur Tooth and Son from 1965 to 1974, and thereafter at Partridge's
(4) Victoria, BC, Canada, McPherson Library, University of Victoria, Herbert Read Archive, HR37-117. Undated letter [1945/6], Felix Kelly to Herbert Read ('Tuesday, 18 Cranley Gardens, Kensington, SW7').
(5) This was a three-artist exhibition: 'New Paintings and drawings by Lucian Freud, Felix Kelly and Julian Trevelyan', November/December 1944. Kelly exhibited twenty-one paintings and the four drawings for The Green Child.
(6) Collection of John and Louise Read, London.
(7) Paintings by Felix Kelly, p7.
(8) See Michel Remy, Surrealism in Britain, Aldershot, 1999, p35.
(9) H Read, Art Now, London 1933; Art and Society, London, 1936.
(10) H Read, Art and Society, 2nd edn, London, 1945, pp80-1.
(11) John Piper, British Romantic Artists, London, 1942, p46.
(12) Robin Ironside, Painting since 1939, London, 1947, p10.
(13) H. Read, Contemporary British Art, Harmondsworth, 1951, p24.
(14) Ibid, p26.
(15) Ibid, p27.
(16) H. Read, Paul Nash, Harmondsworth, 1944, p16.
(17) Victoria, BC, Canada, McPherson Library, University of Victoria, Herbert Read Archive, HR37-117. Undated letter [1945/6], Felix Kelly to Herbert Read ('Tuesday, 18 Cranley Gardens, Kensington, SW7').
(18) Letter from Enid Bagnold to Felix Kelly, Rottingdean, 21 September 1960.
(19) CA Lejeune, 'Houses are his passion', Good Housekeeping 72, no.1 (July 1957), p94.
(20) This is the version, present location unknown, reproduced in Paintings by Felix Kelly, pl 36. There is a second version (Private collection, Rome) in which the dwarf observes a man in a blue jacket with his arm around the waist of a sailor boy.
(21) Iron Stiles was reproduced in Paintings by Felix Kelly, pl 35.
(22) Eighteenth-Century House was reproduced in Paintings by Felix Kelly, pl 9.
(23) Embossed and gilded on the cover. Kelly's tendency towards decoration found more thorough outlet in contributions to fashionable interior decoration magazines of the 1950s, such as House and Garden and Harper's Bazaar (see Donald Bassett, 'Felix Kelly (191494) and decoration', British Art Journal V, no.2 (2004), pp53-61).
(24) Kenneth Clark, 'The new romanticism in British painting', Art News 46 (February 1947), p58.
(25) Geoffrey Grigson, 'Authentic and false in the new "romanticism"', Horizon 17 ( March 1948), pp211, 204.
(26) Ibid, p209.
(27) Ibid, p211.
(28) Ibid, p213.
(30) H. Read, The Green Child, London, 1945. The original four drawings were gouache. Three of them are reproduced in Paintings by Felix Kelly, pls 27-9, where two are said to belong to Dr Osmond Frank. Present locations unknown.
(31) T Keightley, The Fairy Mythology, London, 1828; New edn, revised and greatly enlarged, London, 1850.
(32) H Read, English Prose Style, London, 1949, p139. First published 1928.
(33) H Read, The Green Child, p67.
(34) Ibid, p123.
(35) Ibid, p134.
(36) For Kelly's interest in machinery, locomotives etc, see Donald Bassett, 'Felix Kelly, Modernity and the Machine', Journal of New Zealand Art History 24 (2003), pp39-50.
(37) Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Revd edn, Harmondsworth, 1962, p10 (1959 preface). The book was first published 1945. By 1959 'the cult of the English country house' had reduced this threat to British heritage. For a discussion of the parallel careers of Felix Kelly and Charles Ryder, fictional hero of Brideshead Revisited, see Donald Bassett, 'Felix Kelly and Brideshead', The British Art Journal, VI, 2 (2005), pp52-7.
(38) 'The Passing of the Village', Architectural Review, September 1931, pp. 89-93. Betjeman's Shell Guides arose out of this concern and began publication in 1934. See Timothy Mowl, Stylistic Cold Wars: Betjeman versus Pevsner, London, 2000.
(39) Recording Britain, Oxford University Press in association with the Pilgrim Trust, 1946-9, vol I, p v. The words were those of Sir Hubert Llewellyn Smith.
(41) Blitz (War Pictures by British Artists, no. 2), Oxford University Press, 1942.
(42) As is suggested by John Haldane: 'A poet of the enchanted world', Modern Painters, 15, no.1 (Spring 2002), p96.
(43) New Yorker, 16 October 1948, p24.
(44) William Gaunt, 'On the Slopes of Parnassus II--Felix Kelly', World Review, New Series 20, October 1950, p30.
(45) Road to the Pits is reproduced in Paintings by Felix Kelly, pl2.
(46) Sawmill, Renishaw, Derbys., 1968, oil on board, 44.5 x 61 cm. Rooftops at Renishaw, oil, 13.5 x 5.5 cm, is inscribed on the back: 'To Reresby and Penelope. A Renishaw Roofscape. With lots of love from Felix. Oct.1981.'
(47) H Read, The Green Child, p5.
(48) H Read, The Contrary Experience; Autobiographies, London, 1963, p336.
(49) First broadcast for the BBC by Rayner Heppenstall, 21 January 1951. Published subsequently in H Read, Moon's Farm and poems mostly elegiac, London, 1955.
(50) Victoria, BC, Canada, McPherson Library, University of Victoria, Herbert Read Archive, HR61/104. Letter from Kelly to Read, '27 January , 18 Cranley Gardens, London, SW7'.
(51) H Read: The Contrary Experience, p338.
(52) H Read: Moon's Farm and other poems, p57.
(53) Ibid, pp73-74.
(54) H Read, The Green Child , p6.
(55) Ibid, p38.
(56) Ibid, pp124-5.
(57) Victoria, BC, Canada, McPherson Library, University of Victoria, Herbert Read Archive, HR37-117. Undated letter [1945/6], Felix Kelly to Herbert Read ('Tuesday, 18 Cranley Gardens, Kensington, SW7').
(58) Wellington, New Zealand. Archive of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Felix Kelly papers. Unidentified newspaper cutting.
(59) On Kelly's mixed affiliations to New Zealand and the United Kingdom, see Donald Bassett: 'Felix Kelly and New Zealandness', Bulletin of New Zealand Art History 22 (2001), pp55-70.
(60) H Read, Contemporary British Art, Harmondsworth, 1951, p20.
(61) Ibid, p22.
(62) Paintings by Felix Kelly, p.8.
(63) 'Of course, by including a particular painter or sculptor in this or that group, or leaving him out of all groups, I am expressing a preference of a kind ... But the inclusion or exclusion of particular names, or the illustration of the work of particular artists, must not be taken as an act of aesthetic judgement on my part, or in any sense, "the making of a grade"'. Given the limits of space available in a small book Read felt an obligation to include ' ... not works of art arranged in an order of merit, but illustrations that throw significant light on the historical situation with which we are dealing. In this way I may well exclude Mr X, whose work in a traditional style I admire, and include Mr Y for whose experimental style I feel no immediate sympathy.'
Contemporary British Art, pp13-14.
(64) Contemporary British Art, p35
(65) Paintings by Felix Kelly, p8.
(66) James, Lees-Milne, 'Portraits of houses: contemporary masters of a venerable genre', Architectural Digest, 46, March 1989, p122.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||British Art Journal|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2007|
|Previous Article:||James 'Athenian' Stuart's portrait of James Dawkins.|
|Next Article:||Hogarth's House as Hogarth saw it.|