Obituary: Christopher Assheton-Stones

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The Independent Culture
FOR NEARLY 30 years Christopher Assheton-Stones was an ambassador for pastel painting. As painter, writer and teacher he campaigned for pastel painting to become more widely accepted and maximise its potential as a full-coverage medium.

Whether advising international clients at art auction or inspiring pastel painters to begin or improve, Assheton-Stones combined gentle persuasion with an instinctive grasp of an artist's intentions. In teaching others how to see, his advice was crisp, authoritative and amusing; his criticism constructive and encouraging. A favourite analogy was to describe underpainting as a Christmas pudding, a rich mix of ingredients to stimulate the senses. As a pastel painter, a particular interest for him was landscape, although he was equally accomplished tackling architecture and industrial workings.

Pastel derives from the Italian pastello, the paste made up of powdered pure pigment formed into sticks through the addition of binding agents such as gum tragacanth. Pastel is as old as the cave paintings whose vivid colours Assheton-Stones held up as proof that pastel enjoyed a permanence denied media such as watercolour which are considered fugitive. Assheton- Stones relished the power of pastel to deliver vibrant colours across a wide range of tones and avoided technical tricks or sleight of hand, arguing that pastel worked best as a full-coverage painting medium where the pores of the paper, or fine sandpaper as he preferred, were loaded with powder as an underpainting foundation.

This preference carried two caveats: not to use the type intended for smoothing car-body repairs as its man-made abrasive particles were too smooth to stop pastel sliding - as on one occasion - to the floor; and if the surface was not loaded with pastel as a foundation, skin would soon become part of the painting.

Assheton-Stones came from an artistic background: both his mother, Angela Stones, and her mother, Dorothy Bradshaw, were painters, while his grandparents on his father's side met at Keswick School of Art. He was born in Ceylon, in 1947, and brought up in India until he was five, when he came to England and was sent to boarding school. At the age of 16, when he was at Shrewsbury, he exhibited at the Paris Salon and, although he went to Keele University three years later to read Modern Languages, he dropped out after a year to go to Exeter College of Art, before taking his diploma, in 1968, at Poole College of Art. In the same year, at the age of 21, he was elected to the Pastel Society, as its youngest member.

He had discovered the Pastel Society as a child; and it introduced him to artists and techniques of working that he still referred to gratefully 30 years later. But he did not yet settle down to a career in painting; through a chance meeting at Goodwood, where he had gone to catalogue the porcelain (with heraldry, another childhood interest), he was offered a job at Sotheby's in London. There he spent three years as an expert, before going into the trade himself, first in a shop in Mayfair, then on his own account. He continued to paint, however, and teach for the ILEA, and it was at an evening class in Pimlico that his heart was won by Penelope Barlow, launching them on a triumphant artistic partnership.

Within the Royal Academy pastel painters have traditionally struggled for a voice; Christopher Assheton-Stones never let that voice be stifled, however eminent or academic his opponent. In 1983 he published Working With Pastel. In Buildings and Towns in Pastel (1984) he explored how to reproduce glass and metal, materials whose highly reflective surfaces challenge all artists with glaring highlights that disrupt a picture's visual appeal. This hard-won skill he deployed with dramatic success in huge pastel paintings of Formula 1 racing cars; a medium previously disregarded by art directors in advertising agencies.

Discovering Pastel, a 1990 video, introduced his beloved Lake District as a perfect inspiration for landscape artists. Beginner and expert alike were reminded to respect the eye's need to be drawn to the strongest tonal contrast first, not necessarily the darkest or brightest area of a picture. Creating a centre of interest was crucial, as was recording the direction of light whose intensity could shift dramatically over a typical two- to three-hour demonstration painting session. Leaving areas of paper bare of pastel, he showed, invited intrusive patches of faded paper base within as little as a month. Throughout his career he taught with groups taking in locations as diverse as the Lake District, Constable Country and Spain.

He developed a design of wooden pastel box. His own box teemed with an exquisite spectrum of pastel colour - its lid was removable lest it blow away in the wind. Another innovation, of international appeal, was a range of special warm and cool colours added to an existing selection of soft pastels.

Following a diagnosis of cancer, Assheton-Stones continued to work with exceptional energy and courage.

Christopher John Assheton-Stones, pastel painter: born 19 April 1947; married 1977 Penelope Barlow (one daughter); died Ravenstonedale, Cumbria 4 October 1999.

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