Art-Historical Notes: Where are the Hirsts of the 1930s now?

PROMOTED BY gallery publicity, young British artists - such as Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin - are almost household names. Experience shows, however, that such reputations can soon fade. Francis Butterfield and Humphrey Slater, in the 1930s rising members of the British avant-garde, are now forgotten.

Their backgrounds and odd histories were very different. Born in Bradford. Yorkshire, in 1905, Butterfield left school to become a wool-stapler. Francis attended evening classes under Henry Butler at Bradford School of Art, to educate a passion for painting. By the late 1920s he had become frustrated with his day job and, despite the difficulties involved, began to paint full-time. Although he had never been to Paris or stayed in London, and his knowledge of contemporary painting was limited to black-and white reproductions, he developed a distinctive abstract style.

He survived due to the peculiarly favourable artistic environment of Yorkshire then. Artists including Jacob Kramer, Philip Naviasky and Harry Allen were able to establish reputations while staying in the county. There were active bodies such as the West Riding Artists, Yorkshire Artists and local art clubs and a body of enlightened patrons, notably Sir Michael Sadler, a former Vice-Chancellor of Leeds University.

In 1934, Butterfield had a successful show at the prestigious Zwemmer Gallery, in London. He joined the Seven and Five Society, whose members included Henry Moore, Paul Nash and John Piper, took studios in London and Paris and had works accepted by several public galleries, although his type of string, hot glue and sand abstraction proved too much for Leeds Corporation Art Gallery.

By the early 1940s Butterfield had left such artistic controversy behind. He appears to have given up painting to work as a journalist. A former colleague at Norman Kark Publications, where Butterfield illustrated and wrote for the glossy magazine Courier, sometimes on art, remembers him as rather disillusioned. He died in obscurity in 1968.

While a student, Humphrey Slater fired a revolver through someone's ceiling, an indication of the unpredictable course his life would take. Born in 1906, Slater spent his early years in South Africa, attended the Slade School of Art in the mid-1920s, leaving mysteriously halfway through a term, then was taken up by the idiosyncratic dealer Lucy Wertheim. She chose an abstract painting for her first exhibition in 1930, "a breathtaking, daring innovation . . . in London in 1930!"

Wertheim befriended Slater, whose witty, provocative conversation helped to win him many friends, including Arthur Koestler, Cyril Connolly, A.J. Ayer, George Orwell and the Carline family of painters. The Wertheim connection could have proved a valuable launching pad for a prestigious painting career. Few galleries showed young artists at this time; Mrs Wertheim's attracted top critics, titled and famous customers.

But Slater's talents shifted from abstract painting, with which he became dissatisfied. He joined the Communist Party, but was disillusioned during the Spanish Civil War. Serving with the International Brigade, he became adept at street warfare and tank destruction and was appointed chief of operations XV Brigade Staff. In 1940, Picture Post included Slater among a group of "Men Who Teach the Home Guard School".

Post-war, Slater for a brief time edited the arts magazine Polemic with a dazzling contributor's list, and developed a new career as a writer. His novel The Conspirator was filmed starring Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor. In 1958, he died in Spain, where he had gone to write his autobiography. It was a sad end for someone termed by the painter William Coldstream "a very gifted and rare artist", and points up the fragility of early fame.

David Buckman is the author of `The Dictionary of Artists in Britain since 1945' (Art Dictionaries Ltd, pounds 89.50)

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