Wednesday, 26 April 2017

A Secret Artist

Roger Cecil, Untitled 1 (MOMA Machynlleth, copyright artist estate)
One of my great pleasures is to find an artist I know nothing about. Come to think of it, I also enjoy helping other people discover artists they might not otherwise know. Once I was at Bristol Central Library, home of one of the country's best (and probably least used) non-university art libraries, and asked to see all the books they had on Ben and Winifred Nicholson. The Bens came out on a trolley, a great stack of massive, scholarly tomes. On top was one slim volume devoted to his first wife and lifelong correspondent. You can probably imagine which book I seized first, and not only because the Bens weighed twenty pounds each.

Under-appreciation attracted me to Ravilious, to Peggy Angus and to other artists I've written and lectured about. It's partly perversity, partly curiosity. There's pleasure to be had in finding a new angle on a well-known story, but to me you can't beat a new(ish) story: the drawings pulled out of a folder that has languished for years in an attic; the archive boxes stuffed with previously unseen treasures; the watercolour on the landing that was shown in 19-something and has not been seen since. The signature. The date. The faded label on the back.

So my first feeling when I opened a *surprise package* to find a copy of Peter Wakelin's lovely book 'Roger Cecil: A Secret Artist' was, I'm sorry to admit, jealousy. Damn! Another one found, and not by me!

Roger Cecil, Shaman Secret (MOMA Machynlleth, copyright artist estate)
Then came perplexity. Cecil's is not the kind of painting I immediately respond to, especially in reproduction. Besides, I really had never heard of him. And he hadn't troubled the critics all that much in his lifetime (he died in 2015). But when I sat down one evening and read the book I was fascinated. Cecil was the genuine article, a pure artist if you like. Someone who turned his back on the Royal College of Art and the London art scene of the 1960s so that he could focus on painting his way. An artist so devoted to his craft that he spent his whole life in the same house in Abertillery, a coal-mining town in the Ebbw Fach valley, and simply painted.

Peter's straightforward approach and clear prose are ideally suited to the subject, and he talks as engagingly about specific paintings as he does about the vicissitudes of Cecil's life. Romantic involvements are left to our imagination, perhaps out of respect for those still living, but I loved following the progress of this artist's life, the way he gradually altered his childhood home so that it eventually became mostly studio and only partly house, and the way his work evolved over time in near-isolation.

Not total isolation, though. It emerges in the narrative that Cecil was the subject not just of one, but of two BBC films, the first exploring his decision to turn down an RCA scholarship in 1964. He also showed his paintings regularly and sold a great many of them. Nor was he immune to outside influence. You can see traces of other artists' work, notably (to my mind) Peter Lanyon and Roger Hilton, and the paintings are firmly of their time. But so what? They're still interesting and often beautiful, and between now and June you can go and see a good selection of them at MOMA Machynlleth, Wales.

'Roger Cecil: Inside the Studio' is at MOMA Machynlleth until 24 June.
'Roger Cecil: A Secret Artist' is published by Sansom and Co.


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