Obituary: John Titchell

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The Independent Culture
JOHN TITCHELL was a fine draughtsman. A simple approach, very straight, intense observation, bent on finding out what he needed for his work. He worked rather slowly and methodically. There was an obsessiveness in his work, no flourishes. The drawings were tightly structured and strongly designed and composed, constantly looking, sifting and selecting.

His sequence paintings were original like the man. He would make four versions of the same subject from morning to sunset or through the seasons and arriving on site as early as 6 o'clock in the morning. I know of nobody who used colour in his manner. Completely unphotographic, his work translates and sifts his visual experience. He creates a parallel which embodies both a reality and an idea, like a poem about light.

Titchell was affectionately known to all as Titch, but was in fact rather tall. He was born in Kent in 1926. He served in the Army during the Second World War and saw something of Germany and India. He talked a lot about India and always wanted to return. He said the experience profoundly affected his attitude towards colour and he was amazed by the light and its brilliance. He liked the Indian people and developed a taste for Indian food and he would travel miles to a good restaurant.

My wife and I visited Titch on the day he died. We had a wonderful afternoon visiting Egerton House, where it had all begun in a sense - a dilapidated old Georgian house in the Kent countryside rented in turn by a number of artists, including Titch (in the late Fifties), Campbell Bruce and Jacqueline Stanley, and myself; we returned afterwards to Titch and Audrey's for cake and tea. There was no indication of what was about to happen, as he looked so well. We were planning a visit to Somerset. During our conversation he was reminiscing about Sidcup Art School where our friendship began.

Sidcup was an experience which he maintained changed his life. The Principal, J. Robinson (Robbo to his students), made a lasting impression on Titch by his calm, patient manner to young pupils of 14 years of age. He also met a young Ruskin Spear and Robin Guthrie who Titch said was a gent, both excellent draughtsmen and painters.

Under their guidance he gained entrance to the Royal College of Art, where he was taught by Rodrigo Moynihan, Carel Weight, John Minton, Colin Hayes, Robert Buhler and others, all professional painters. His appetite for art was insatiable. Music, literature, films, painting and sculpture - where better a place to encourage and nurture this appetite than art school.

I believe that Titch in turn was repaying a debt for the treatment he had received at those schools, for when he became a teacher himself he was to become one of the finest and most conscientious of all his generation. He taught in a number of art schools, principally Hornsey, Walthamstow and Maidstone.

His teaching was direct and simple. Critical of weakness, he countered this with sound advice as to a remedy and was quick to praise and to encourage effort and hard work, to guide his students to a fuller understanding of their work and problems. He had no ambition to become a full-time teacher. He did not want that kind of safety. "It would stop me working if I had a cushy number." He also maintained that he wanted to spend his time teaching students, not in meetings and on committees.

In the late 1950s, he and his family moved to the countryside and in the early 1960s found their home in Pluckley, where his wife Audrey started to plan and build the garden which became such a central and important theme in Titch's work. It is a beautiful garden, just as exciting on a small scale as Great Dixter or Sissinghurst. The garden, the Kent landscape and the coastline around Folkestone and Hythe were his inspiration.

He was dogged by ill-health for the last 20 years of his life, suffering heart problems. These he refused to recognise and continued to work as regularly and as hard as ever before. Sadly in his life he did not receive the recognition he deserved.

He loved creative people and his friends included musicians, writers, composers, painters, sculptors and potters and people from every walk of life. All of them were captivated by his charm, his work and his stories, for he was one of the greatest of yarn spinners, some true, some invented on the spur of the moment. He occasionally struck a lyric vein that became poetic. For example his description of the tea tent at Canterbury Cricket Week - "the clicking of bat to ball and the steam of the tea urns and the wheelchairs and the hats. The polite applause mingled with the gentle clacking of false teeth filled the air." Such imagination and observation.

He was a great family man, enjoying his grandchildren, and indeed all children, since he was infinitely patient and he never lost his touch with the young. He gave the greatest attention to his students and their problems, possessing that rare grace of seeming to have all the time in the world to listen and to advise. He loved to argue and converse on any subject, to be devil's advocate. He would argue against his own argument in order to prolong a discussion.

We all in our lives have had some good and some bad luck. Like many, I am sure, I thought it my good luck to be friends with John Titchell.

John Titchell, painter: born Crayford, Kent 6 August 1926; ARA 1986, RA 1991; married 1947 Audrey Ward (one son, one daughter); died Plockley, Kent 11 May 1998.