Friday, 7 December 2012

Forgotten, Remembered: Algernon Newton & Alfred Munnings

I remember years ago reading a novel by Milan Kundera, in which I first came across the Stalinist policy of erasing disgraced political figures from photographs. The idea of deliberately removing someone from the historical record seemed to my young mind thoroughly fiendish; little did I know that a comparable fate had befallen a number of 20th century British artists whose work was deemed unfashionable by the opinion-makers of the age.

It is not difficult to make an artist disappear. If you run a museum you leave their work languishing in the basement, and if you publish books you contrive to overlook them. If you leave, say, Eric Ravilious, out of your survey of 20th century British art, then the chances are that art history teachers will ignore him too. So the next generation grow up having never heard of him, and his vanishing is complete. The artist doesn't need to be dead, although it helps. Fashion in art is just as brutal as fashion in Cold War-style Stalinist politics; in both cases, a few influential people control the flow of information to the public, and use their power as they see fit.

Algernon Newton, The House by the Canal, 1945 (Harris Museum & Art Gallery)
People now find it incomprehensible that Ravilious was so neglected, but his work was too thoughtful and too localised for the post-war champions of Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism and so on. In the era of 'The Shock of the New' artists vied to push the great experiment of Modernism to ever wilder extremes; what significance could a painting of an old bus or a lighthouse have in that age of grand gestures?

Following Rav's rehabilitation, art lovers are now wondering whether there are other artists of a similar calibre waiting to be rediscovered. One of those whose name is suggested as 'the next Ravilious' is Algernon Newton, whose work is currently on show at the Alex Katz Gallery, off Piccadilly; it's worth going along just to see the gallery, which occupies several floors of a grand old town house.

Algernon Newton, Dawn, 1936 (Ferens Art Gallery)
The paintings themselves vary greatly in size, but whether working at the scale of a postcard or filling a wall, Newton approached his work with the same meticulous care. His best known pictures show long urban vistas in the manner of Canaletto but with a completely different mood - an unsettling atmosphere, Andrew Graham-Dixon suggests in his fascinating catalogue essay, that reflects Newton's mental state in the aftermath of the Great War and the break-up of his family. Richard Dorment of the Telegraph disagrees with this biographical interpretation, arguing instead that Newton's idiosyncratic style reflects his artistic influences.

Whichever side you take in this welcome debate it seems clear that Newton was an artist of unusual vision, a painter who apparently controlled a terror of impending apocalypse with luminous glazes and fastidious attention to detail. He painted ever brick in his buildings and every leaf on his trees, even in the many large paintings he produced during a long and prolific career. Strikingly, after a tumultuous and frustrating youth, Newton went on painting into his eighties, depicting downland landscapes with the same painterly precision and poetic mystery he exhibited in his earlier work.

Alfred Munnings, The Start, 1950 (Richard Green Gallery)
If you want to follow Newton with something rather different I recommend popping round to Richard Green for a look at an artist who has been thoroughly 'disappeared' from most accounts of 20th century British painting. I knew very little about Alfred Munnings, self-taught Norfolk painter of horses and landscapes, until I saw James Fox's startling series about modern British art. Whether out of genuine interest or a desire to cause a stir, Dr Fox decided to rehabilitate the former President of the RA, whose famous 1949 outburst against Modernism in general and Picasso in particular had earned him his erasure from the art history canon.

I must admit that I thought Dr Fox had gone a bit far with Munnings. I couldn't see what was so great about his crowd-pleasing pictures of racehorses. Walking into the Bond Street gallery, however, it was immediately clear that this artist had something; his subject matter may have been less than challenging but the way he painted was startling. Nothing measured about Munnings. Look up close at a picture and you see a welter of paint applied this way and that, not stroked but slapped and slathered. But the clumsy jumble of colours is transformed as you step away and there, extraordinarily, is the horse or circus troupe or whatever it may be, brought to life without great subtlety but with considerable panache.

This was an exhibition to warm the cockles on a cold December afternoon in a recession, and the accompanying article by Brian Sewell only added to the fun. Odd to think that Munnings (1878-1959) and Newton (1880-1968) were almost exact contemporaries.

Mary Fedden at the Portland Gallery
Other highlights in the vicinity include a celebration of the life and work of Mary Fedden, which has just opened at the Portland Gallery. Understandably, this is dominated by the more decorative paintings from the last twenty years of her life, but there is more than enough variety to make it worth the short jaunt across Piccadilly. A couple of early pictures show that classic brownish Slade palette, but the real scene stealers are a set of gorgeous little watercolours of animals and birds.

FFI: Richard Green, Daniel Katz, Portland Gallery.


  1. The Daniel Katz gallery very kindly sent me a catalogue of the Newton exhibition - I wrote enquiring about the price of one (as I am far from London now), and they posted one out to me, which was lovely of them. so I've been enjoying looking through that - I find it quite incomprehensible why he isn't more well known, his use of light is incredibly moving and his street scenes are very Hopper-esque with their sense of melancholy. He is now one of my favourite artists. I hope he does gain a stronger reputation, albeit a little late in the day.

  2. Excellent blog, as usual. Oh to be in London. An artist that we feel is sadly overlooked is Charles Knight (1901-1990) the Sussex/Ditchling painter who taught at Brighton Poly (as was). We were fortunate to know him from evenings in the pub in Ditchling. Chris Beetles has quite a few and published a catalogue in 1997. We feel that the quality of his work deserves far greater recognition.

  3. Thanks for your comments. Gretel, the Hopper connection hadn't occurred to me, so thanks for that. Daydream Believer, I think Charles Knight falls into the category of painters who were sidelined when abstraction/international modernism won the day post World War II. With a few exceptions, landscape painters struggled to be taken seriously until... well, they still do.

  4. Stephen Barker10 December, 2012

    Thank you for highlighting the exhibition on Algernon Newton an artist I have been vaguely aware of. Just a thought, Newton's meticulous technique of painting in thin glazes to achieve a smooth finish reminds me of the work of Meredith Frampton 1894-1984, although Frampton is noted for portraits and still lifes they have a slightly surreal feeling as do Newton's paintings.

  5. Interesting comparison - thanks Stephen. Someone needs to go to the Ferens Gallery in Hull and look at work side by side!

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  7. Thankyou for this. And your comment about the Stalinist retouching policy reminds me that former Czech leader Alexander Dubcek was erased from a group photograph of his Russian masters, except that they forgot to take out his shoes, which are clearly and surreally visible behind some hugh bloke's trousers.

  8. I am a recent convert to the paintings of Algernon Newton whose work I became aware of only recently. Actually, I looked through Gretel's catalogue- small world!

  9. Peter - I think Dubcek might have been the politician Kundera was talking about... a long time ago so I'm not 100% sure

    Acornmoon - the catalogue's lovely but the paintings are even better in person!

  10. Hi James Excellent Blog as usual. Always loved Algernon Newton, the painting owned by The Harris in Preston is one of his best, I think. (used to work there so had exclusive access to it!) Newton's work reminds me not only of Hopper but American Precisionism and also that of Tristram Hillier - also an undervalued artist.

  11. Thanks Andrew - definite similarity to Hillier...