Obituary: Max Chapman

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The Independent Culture
THE ARTIST Max Chapman was one of the last links with the rarefied aesthetic world of Ricketts and Shannon in the 1920s and the later Bohemianism of Soho and Fitzrovia. He was an inventive, committed painter whose career reflected the quandary facing many artists this century: whether to follow figuration or abstraction.

He was born in Dulwich, south-east London, in 1911, his father, Joshua, university-educated, his mother, Bertha Cregeen, an artist of Isle of Man origin whose two sisters, Emily and Nessy, also exhibited portraits. Max attended Dulwich College, then the Byam Shaw Art School, 1927-30, where he was taught and befriended by Charles Ricketts.

Ricketts was then nearing the end of his life as an influential painter, illustrator, stage designer, sculptor and connoisseur. With the artist Charles Shannon he had assembled a collection of artefacts, much of it now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Ricketts attracted disciples as varied as the writer Cecil Lewis, the artist Glyn Philpot and the illustrator T. Sturge Moore. Aged 16, Chapman was exhorted "to emulate Michelangelo and Titian". Ricketts was known for his generosity and in 1934 Chapman's efforts were rewarded with "a scholarship to Italy and the European Grand Tour".

He returned to England "overwhelmed", he said, "but disoriented through over-exposure to splendour". Yet he felt that he must not look back artistically, that it was "essential to come to terms with the present day". He drew inspiration from Cezanne and "turned to Clive Bell and Roger `Significant Form' Fry for straws to clutch".

Chapman took as a studio premises which had been occupied by the painters Dod and Ernest Procter in Newlyn and met many prominent Cornish artists. He became a founder member of the Nineteen Thirties Group, had solo shows in London and Spain and handled two mural commissions, "both, alas," he later recalled "Hitler-obliterated".

He was uncompromising on his pacifism and homosexuality. In the Second World War he was a conscientious objector, driving an ambulance. The composer Michael Tippett, who held similar views, was a notable friend from those times with whom he corresponded.

A defining event in Max Chapman's life was his association with Oswell Blakeston. They were inseparable until the slightly older man's death in 1985. Although they had individual careers, these were to touch at many points, enhancing Chapman's outlook, experience and opportunities. Blakeston, Chapman told me, had "a quick eye for the bizarre and the outrageous".

Blakeston had run away from his bourgeois home as a schoolboy, becoming a conjuror's assistant, cinema organist and clapper boy with David Lean at Gaumont film studios. In the large close-ups used to convey information in silent films - "hands holding letters, visiting cards and so on" - Blakeston played the hands of many stars. He began writing film criticism, later becoming assistant editor of the influential magazine Close Up. "Oswell Blakeston" was adopted instead of his real name, Henry Hasslacher. (Oswell was derived from that of the writer Osbert Sitwell. His mother's family name was Blakiston, which he modified.)

With Francis Bruguiere, Blakeston pioneered abstract films in Britain. He was also a writer of filmscripts, plays, novels, cookery and travel books, prolific artist, poet and lecturer. Among his enormous literary output were his 1932 book Magic Aftermath, "the first fiction to be published in spiral binding"; the 1935 crime story The Cat with the Moustache (a collaboration with Roger Burford), "one of the first descriptions of trips with mescal"; and the 1938 anthology Proems, in which Blakeston "published the first poems by Lawrence Durrell".

Dylan Thomas called Blakeston "a friend of all boozy poets and me too". Oswell wrote regular articles on London's pubs for What's On, for which Chapman was a highly readable art critic for some 25 years. A bar-room acquaintance was the writer M.P. Shiel, who in strange circumstances became king of the Leeward Island of Redonda, of which Blakeston was made a duke.

As a writer of stories, John Betjeman reckoned that Blakeston was a neglected genius of the macabre. His 1947 collection Priests, Peters and Pussens had idiosyncratic illustrations by Chapman, The Sunday Times commenting that these were "as unusual as the stories they decorate". Chapman also contributed a drawing for the 1976 Blakeston fiction Pass the Poison Separately. Blakeston and Chapman co-wrote stories, among them Jim's Gun (1939) and Danger in Provence (1946). While writing the latter in Venice, the authors were arrested as Russian spies. On hot evenings they had been using a typewriter on the roof - they were thought to be transmitting Morse messages.

Chapman was to contribute poems and decorations to Blakeston's 1947 anthology Appointment with Seven and illustrations to another, How to Make Your Own Confetti (1965). This was a beautifully produced compilation on multi- coloured paper, setting new standards in book production. The two journeyed widely while Blakeston compiled notes for his European travel books, Chapman providing the photographs.

Chapman continued to experiment as a painter. In the 1950s "there were at last intimations of artistic identity". The English-based Polish artist Zdzislaw Ruszkowski's "Bonnard-based colour theories released inhibitions", and the American artists John Coplans and Jackson Pollock made an impact on his work. Chapman explored automation; tried monotypes, printing from oil paint on glass; and also had a "white period". He showed widely, ranging from the established Royal Academy, London Group and Leicester Galleries to the more experimental Grabowski, Molton and New Vision Centre Galleries and abroad.

He claimed that his new form of papier colle, collage noye, was "plagiarised" after being exhibited in Paris in 1960. Classic colle retains the separateness of its components, while collage noye unites them under one skin; the underlying structure of coloured papers is moulded and manipulated into low relief, then subjected to pigment washes to conceal and reveal what lies underneath. The imagery is thus drowned - hence the term collage noye.

By the 1970s Chapman felt that as an artist he had "come full circle . . . charting a course back, in a sense, to the beginning of the Renaissance". Trendy art theories had prompted him to "remain too remote from the human condition". Now, figuration and the theme of physical love became pre-eminent in his work. They spawned a fine series, Lovers, some of which were shown in his 1981 selected retrospective at Middlesbrough Art Gallery.

Maxwell Harrison Chapman, artist and critic: born London 24 February 1911; died London 18 November 1999.