Robin Ironside, Grosvenor Museum, Chester
Paul Vallely is visiting professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester and a senior research fellow at the Brooks World Poverty Institute at the University of Manchester. He writes on ethical, political and cultural issues. He has a fortnightly column in the Independent on Sunday and also writes for the New York Times and the Church Times. His latest book is Pope Francis – Untying the Knots. He was co-author of the report of the Commission for Africa and has chaired several development charities.
Wednesday 17 October 2012
It’s a family kind of place, the Grosvenor Museum. This being Chester, there is a child-friendly section on the Romans.
There’s a Victorian Parlour where kids can dress up and play with traditional toys. Upstairs is a gallery of paintings with local connections. But to the side, on the first floor, is a small room that seems to belong to the eccentric uncle of the family.
It is filled with small paintings, in water colours and ink. There elegant etiolated figures lounge in ruined classical landscapes and overgrown gardens. Images overlap and dissolve in dreams that turn to fevered nightmare.
They are all exquisitely, obsessively drawn – and deeply odd. The uncle in question is that of Virginia Ironside, this paper’s agony aunt. Robin Ironside was a painter, curator, writer, theatre designer and one of the most idiosyncratic artists of 20thcentury Britain.
He was an extravagant, dandified Bohemian character in the style of his 19th-century heroes Baudelaire and Berlioz. His was an extraordinary life. Despite his extreme poverty he dressed flamboyantly, surviving on a diet of boiled eggs and a patent cough medicine called Dr Collis Browne’s Cholorodyne, which contained opium dissolved in alcohol mixed with tincture of cannabis and chloroform.
He also experimented with mescaline and LSD. That addiction to hallucinogenic drugs explains a lot about the fantastical nature of his sensual paintings, all skeletal claws and blank faces, ghostly silvery light, and delicate mauves and pastels.
There is paradox at the heart of his vision. It combines cool classical and rococo settings with romantic sensuality. It mixes wild fantasy with a draughtsmanship so precise he painted using a magnifying glass.
It is moody yet intricate, decadent yet fastidious. His Street Violinist at Victoria Station is typical, contrasting the discipline of the Edwardian Baroque architecture with the messy humanity of the street life beneath its central arch.
As a gay man at a time when homosexuality was illegal there is, in the sinuous sexuality of his figures in their restrained settings, a recurring metaphor of passion unexpressed, frustrated and crying out from a desolate interior.
Ironside was hugely eclectic in his influences. He has the visionary imagination of Blake, the precision of the Pre-Raphaelites, the mystery of Goya and the subliminality of Dalí. He is not a major figure, though reproductions give no idea of how breathtaking is the fineness of his touch. But he was a candle flickering pale against the dawn.
To 6 January (01244 972197)
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Three-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish children told 'the non-Jews' are 'evil' in worksheet produced by London school
- 2 Moscow voted the world's unfriendliest city
- 3 The excuses your boss is most likely to believe when you call in sick
- 4 I'm pansexual – here are the five biggest misconceptions about my sexuality
- 5 More than 11,000 Icelanders offer to house Syrian refugees to help European crisis
The real reason Eddie Redmayne was cast as a trans woman in The Danish Girl
JK Rowling announces Harry Potter's son is starting at Hogwarts
Idris Elba is ‘too street’ to play 007, says James Bond author
Loose Women poll asking if rape is 'ever a woman's fault' sparks backlash
Akram Khan: Choreographer says dance is 'as important as maths and being a doctor'
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
If these extraordinarily powerful images of a dead Syrian child washed up on a beach don’t change Europe’s attitude to refugees, what will?
Senior British politicians tell David Cameron: When dead children are being washed up on beaches, it's time to act
If you're not already angry about the refugee crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up