Robin Ironside, Grosvenor Museum, Chester
Paul Vallely is Associate Editor of The Independent where he writes on social, ethical, political and cultural issues. He writes leaders, features and has a weekly column in the Independent on Sunday. 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.
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