Obituary: George Butler

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
GEORGE BUTLER was the oldest living member of the Royal Watercolour Society. Despite still exhibiting - and selling - his work until recently, Butler's artistic roots seemed to be founded in another age entirely.

Three years ago, in 1996, the RWS asked its members for their opinions on the suitability of certain papers for watercolour drawing. In his response, Butler replied that, at school, his art master had told him he had a sketchbook picked off the body of a soldier at the battle of Sebastopol: "The paper was Whatman and he said it was perfect."

Butler was born in Sheffield in 1904, and attended King Edward VII School in Sheffield and subsequently Sheffield College of Art. From there, he went on to the Central School of Art in London. Among his teachers was A.S. Hartrick, a Scottish artist, whose lessons included reminiscences of Gauguin, "a fine figure of a man" whom he had known at Pont-Aven, of Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh, with whom he had worked in the same studio in Paris. Van Gogh, Hartrick recalled as "a rather weedy little man, with pinched features, red hair and beard, and a light blue eye". Also around Hartrick were young artists such as Thomas Hennell, Vincent Lines and Henry Rushbury, whom Butler came to know well.

In 1925 Butler went to work in the art department of the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. He stayed with the firm until 1960, from 1933 serving as director and head of the art department while at the same time continuing to paint and exhibit watercolours.

Butler's first one-man show was at the Redfern Gallery in 1927; he was later to have them in Paris, Aix-en-Provence and at Chatsworth. He also exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, the London Group, the New English Art Club, the Royal Society of British Artists and in galleries in England and France. His work can be seen in collections at Chatsworth and Kedleston in Derbyshire, Sheffield, and in various private collections in the United Kingdom and France.

In 1935 Butler became a member of the Arts Club in Dover Street, where he served both before and during the war on the club's House Committee. After a bombing raid in September 1940, he arrived at the club only to find that a bomb had fallen through its drawing room and that its then Chairman of the Picture Committee was busily throwing out pictures damaged or burned the previous day. Butler rescued what pictures he could and took them to J. Walter Thompson's office nearby in Berkeley Square. After the war he had the paintings, which included a Morland and Solomon J. Solomon's portrait of Mrs Patrick Campbell, restored and returned to the club.

In many ways Butler was a quintessentially English gentleman. He was a fairly tall, well-built man with an almost military moustache. Open and genial in manner, and well-spoken, he habitually wore a Harris tweed suit and highly polished shoes or boots. His work on the other hand perhaps belied his appearance. Typically his drawings are of young girls, often ballet dancers, or sensitive and quite delicate evocations of French or English landscapes. Drawing, he once said, is the probity of art.

He made many sketching trips abroad with Henry Rushbury, a considerable architectural draughtsman, and it was Rushbury who persuaded Butler to concentrate on drawing and watercolour on his retirement from Thompson's. As well as delighting in the scenery around Bakewell in Derbyshire where he moved after leaving London, Butler had a very English love of France and he and his wife built a house near Aix-en-Provence. For over 20 years they spent four months of the year in France and George Butler became a member of the Societe des Artistes Independants Aixois.

In the 1950s he made a visit to the factory at Hayle Mill in Kent which produced the RWS papers. Their problem then was that the best watercolour paper was made from the pulp of used cotton and linen rags which local women were employed to sort. The time had arrived, however, when artificial fibres were being found in most fabrics so in their place the factory had started making paper from cotton flowers imported directly from America. Butler purchased sufficient quantity of this new paper for him still to be using it for his watercolours 40 years later. "The paper we use is as important to us day by day as violin strings are to Yehudi Menuhin," he wrote.

In 1956 Butler was elected an associate of the Royal Watercolour Society and a full member in 1957; he served as honorary treasurer to the society for many years. He was also active in the Artists' General Benevolent Institution, becoming its vice-president in 1977.

Simon Fenwick

George Butler, watercolourist: born Sheffield 17 October 1904; married 1933 Kcenia Kotliarevskaya (died 1992; one son, one daughter); died Bakewell, Derbyshire 19 April 1999.