Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Edward Seago at Portland Gallery

Edward Seago, Low Tide, Strand on the Green, oil on board
When I was approached by the Portland Gallery to write a book about Edward Seago I had little idea of the adventure ahead. Having lived in Norwich for several years I was familiar with his East Anglian landscape paintings, which I associated with those of his predecessors John Sell Cotman and John Crome, but beyond that I was aware only that he had enjoyed a long friendship with HRH the Duke of Edinburgh. So not entirely a blank canvas, but close to it.

Over the following two years a portrait of Seago – Ted, as he was always known by friends – gradually took shape, and I realised that this was no ordinary artist. His education, for a start, was far from conventional, since he was confined to bed for much of his childhood by a chronic heart condition. Yet he was impetuous and determined and, having made up his mind at an early age that he could only be an artist, he asked Bertram Priestman RA for technical help and sought patronage from Lady Evelyn Jones, daughter of the 4th Earl Grey.

Edward Seago, After the Ploughing Match, oil on canvas, 1936
With their support the nineteen year-old Seago held his first solo exhibition in London and was an overnight success, although these early paintings of horses and their riders owed rather too much to Alfred Munnings. This didn’t prevent him seeking advice from the great man, who suggested he apply to the RA schools. Instead, after only a term at Norwich School of Art, Seago went off to join a circus as a sort of artist in residence, and for the next three years travelled constantly.

As well as producing a remarkable body of paintings and drawings, Seago found inspiration for a lively autobiographical book, ‘Circus Company’, which he wrote with the help of poet laureate John Masefield. The pair went on to collaborate on several titles, including ‘The Country Scene’ – a sumptuous quarto volume filled with Masefield’s poetry and Seago’s evocative paintings – and ‘Tribute to Ballet’, at which point war intervened.

Edward Seago, Suffolk Village, oil on board

Edward Seago, A Sussex Fishing Village, watercolour
When Seago was commissioned to the Royal Engineers in the autumn of 1939 he took the opportunity provided by his first full time job to take stock of his career, which had so far perhaps given him more success than fulfilment. His first childhood sketches had been of the ever-changing sky, and he now perceived that his true vocation lay here, in the study of light and atmosphere. There would be notable achievements in portraiture, particularly two paintings of Queen Elizabeth II on horseback, but Seago otherwise devoted the second half of his life to landscape painting.

His vision was wide-ranging. Factories and building sites interested him as much as Norfolk beaches; he was inspired equally by sparkling Venetian canals and the dirty skies of a London winter. A great admirer of John Constable’s oil sketches, he painted rapidly, with expressive brushwork that he rarely attempted to conceal, and in later life worked from memory. Having trained his mind to recall the significant details of any scene, he astounded house guests with his ability to paint faraway places in his Norfolk studio. He was, as HRH the Duke of Edinburgh put it, like a conjuror pulling rabbits out of a hat. And, yes, his best work has a touch of magic.

Edward Seago, The Spritsail Barge, oil on board
An exhibition of Edward Seago's paintings, including many that have never been shown before, begins at the Portland Gallery next week. The paintings shown are all included, and each link will take you to the relevant page on the gallery's website. The text above is from the catalogue essay.

My book on Edward Seago is out now from Lund Humphries

The estate of Edward Seago is represented by the Portland Gallery.

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