Obituary: Meredith Hawes

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The Independent Culture
MEREDITH HAWES spent the whole of his life in art and teaching. He was a passionate educator for whom art was as much a mission as a profession. "Paint what you see, not what you know. Look at it with your eye not your brains" was his invariable advice. He listed the subject matter of his own pictures as "landscapes, sea and water, harvest scenes, boats and architecture".

Hawes was born in 1905 at Thornton Heath in Surrey. He claimed as one of his ancestors Stephen Hawes, who was a poet at the court of Queen Elizabeth I. His father, William Osborne Hawes, was a civil servant with the Admiralty who devoted his spare time to writing detective stories, plays and children's books.

The young Meredith's original intention was to become a scientist, and after attending Selhurst Grammar School in Croydon he was about to take up a place at University College London to read Chemistry. At the last moment however he decided that his future lay in art - although his headmaster prophesied "dire results" - and studied instead from 1922 to 1924 at Croydon School of Art.

He then went to the Royal College of Art, where his contemporaries included Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and Ceri Richards. Although working on book illustration which required small, detailed drawings, at the same time Hawes became involved in the RCA's theatrical society for which he both designed and painted scenery. This large-scale work was to lead to some exceptional projects.

During his first post as a teaching assistant at Bournemouth School of Art Hawes received his first commission, for a decorative panel in the house of a doctor in Manchester. Other commissions followed: panels for a restaurant and a ballroom, then a scheme for a new cinema in Poole; painting the foyer and auditorium was an enormous task although by now he had a number of helpers.

After a short period at Derby College of Art as head of the design department Hawes moved to the College of Art in Hull as vice- principal. One day he was called in to the mayor's office where he was asked to come up with a scheme for the city centre of Hull to commemorate the Coronation of George VI. This was a huge undertaking; after completion it took three days and the valiant assistance of the fire service to get all the decorations into place.

Subsequently Hawes was appointed Principal in turn of the Bournville School of Art and Crafts, Birmingham, in 1938, Portsmouth College of Art in 1945, and finally Birmingham College of Art, where he was also Director of the Branch Schools.

In Birmingham the city council initiated a "Plays in the Park" scheme which involved Hawes in working yet again on an enormous scale in order to decorate the 200ft-long, 20ft-high side of Birmingham Town Hall. Panels nine feet square were painted in an aircraft hangar and fitted together on site while Hawes was in constant dread lest one of his assistants fell from or through it.

Hawes was an amusing raconteur, and one of his less successful commissions featured in a story he used to tell against himself about the 40ft mock- up of a whale done for a Chelsea Arts Ball of the 1940s: when he got it on to the stage the whale just disintegrated.

Despite his heavy teaching commitments Hawes still managed to find time to do graphic work for publishers including John Murray, the Oxford University Press and Jonathan Cape. He also designed for the Gas Council and the Electricity Board.

As an artist he worked within the English landscape tradition but his pictures are always strong, vivid and solidly structured. Although he made use of several media, by choice he worked in gouache or bodycolour (opaque watercolour); this preference began as a student when he became interested in medieval illuminated manuscripts and Persian and Indian miniatures.

Towards the end of his life he returned to the strong colours - vibrant greens and pinks and yellows - he had favoured in the 1930s. Although his sight eventually began to fail he never wore glasses but preferred to make use of his own, typically individual, arrangement of two magnifying glasses sellotaped together.

Hawes was a genial figure, ample in girth, strong in his views; with his long side-whiskers he might have been taken for a bucolic West Country farmer or a landlord.

In 1952 he was made a freeman of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths for his services to the arts. He was involved with many institutions, and was a member of both the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (who held a large retrospective of his work in July 1997) and the Royal Watercolour Society. He sold two of the three pictures he exhibited at the spring show of the RWS this year, while in May Abbott & Holder in Bloomsbury held an exhibition of work mostly from the 1920s and 1930s. An unfinished drawing was on his easel when he died.

In 1934 Hawes married Edith Sylvia Kirkland, who had been a student at Bournemouth College of Art. She died of cancer in 1959. There were three children. Margaret, whom he married in 1963, was a senior lecturer in art history at the Birmingham.

Hawes made his last home at Torpoint in Cornwall from where, together with his wife Margaret, he ran classes for the Extra-Mural Department of Exeter University, and painted scenes of the River Lynher.

Simon Fenwick

Meredith William Hawes, artist: born Thornton Heath, Surrey 17 April 1905; three times married (one son, two daughters, three stepdaughters); died Torpoint, Cornwall 7 July 1999.