Obituary: Peter Rees Roberts

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The Independent Culture
THE ARTIST Peter Rees Roberts was known in particular for his mural works and for his career as a freelance national press artist in the 1950s.

He studied drawing and illustration at Wimbledon School of Art from 1939 to 1941. After being medically rejected for war service, be began to study mural painting under Professor Ernest Tristram at the Royal College of Art, which had transferred to Ambleside for the duration of the war. His paintings from the Ambleside years continued the tradition of earlier Royal College mural painting students such as Evelyn Dunbar and Cyril Mahoney.

Like Dunbar, Rees Roberts painted scenes of workers in rural industries, his 1942 tempera panels of The Bobbin Mill at Ambleside being his most ambitious and successful work at the RCA. Stanley Spencer was a strong mural painting influence at the time, but Rees Roberts said that he was more affected by the Mexican artist Diego Rivera. His large painting of a gasworks, also from his time at Ambleside, is a stylised composition of men and machinery that has echoes of films such as Metropolis or Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

While at Ambleside, Rees Roberts met Ursula McCannell, another Royal College student. Shortly before this, Ursula had made a stone head of a handsome man with strong aquiline features - rather prophetically it could almost be a portrait of him. Rees Roberts in turn painted a tempera panel of Ursula in the style of Raphael, a particularly beautiful portrait that marked his feelings for her.

Ursula was the daughter of the painter Otway McCannell, and had been encouraged to paint by her father from an early age - she was the youngest exhibitor at the Royal Academy, in 1940. She had travelled to Spain with her father in 1936, and attracted much press attention when at the age of 15 she exhibited paintings inspired by the Spanish Civil War at the Redfern Gallery in 1938. Her father became principal of the Farnham School of Art in 1928, a post he held until the mid-1940s.

Rees Roberts left the Royal College in 1944, and he and Ursula married the following year. After a holiday at Mousehole in Cornwall, they settled in Farnham near Ursula's parents and Peter taught for a while alongside Otway at the Farnham School of Art.

After the war, Rees Roberts exhibited at several London galleries including the Modern Art Gallery, the Leger, the Redfern and the New English Art Club. He began to paint more in oils and his pictures, often of Cornish fishermen, became darker and more in tune with the neo- romantic mood of the time. His 1945 self-portrait, The Painter in Mousehole, has a brooding intensity that is reminiscent of the heroic men in Ursula McCannell's early paintings of the Spanish Civil War.

The 1948 Picasso exhibition in London made a strong impact on Rees Roberts and his style moved closer to that of his contemporaries the Roberts, Colquhoun and MacBryde. These Cubist-inspired, densely abstracted figurative paintings of the late 1940s gradually became simpler, with an increasingly brighter palette. This process was hastened by his visits to France with Ursula in the early 1950s.

Through the 1950s and early 1960s Rees Roberts exhibited at the Royal Academy and regularly with the London Group, despite the pressure of working as an advertising artist to make a living. He and Ursula had a young family, and he supported them by his work as a very successful illustrator for the national press, represented by the Internation Artists' agency and by Thompson Artists. His numerous clients included Marlborough Cigarettes, Daks, KLM Airlines, the National Coal Board, Pringle Knitwear, Clark's Shoes, Allied Breweries and the Cunard Line. In the late 1940s and early 1950s he also worked as a fashion illustrator for the News Chronicle and designed covers for Queen magazine.

In 1959 Peter and Ursula first visited Cadaques in Spain, and in 1963 bought a house there from the Spanish painter Juan Jose Tharrats. Cadaques was to become a second home, and from 1960 they exhibited there regularly. In recent years they showed mainly in the gallery of Carlos Lozano, a friend and associate of Salvador Dali.

Rees Roberts developed a following among visitors to Cadaques for his wickedly humorous small paintings of characters and scenes observed in France and Spain; he enjoyed the incongruous and quirky, and although he was modest about these pictures they proved very popular. His last series of paintings were provocatively anti-clerical, featuring Rubenesque naked women disporting themselves among black-clad priests and bishops.

In 1964 he stopped working as an advertising artist and began to teach at Farnham School of Art again. He also taught at Brighton College of Art and continued to exhibit at the Royal Academy. He painted the first of what was to become a long series of mural commissions and also created nine large exterior wall sculptures for the Army Catering Corps Training Centre in Aldershot.

In 1970, the year after he stopped teaching at Brighton, he and Ursula bought a farmhouse at Baltimore in Ireland. During the 1970s and 1980s he executed murals for several shipping companies including the Norwegian Viking and Cunard lines. He completed murals for Williams & Glyn's Bank in the City, for Lloyds banks in Cambridge and Farnham, and for hospitals in Ealing and Guildford. He also exhibited at the New Ashgate Gallery in Farnham and the Century Gallery in Henley. Until earlier this year he taught art in adult education classes in Farnham.

Peter Rees Roberts had three sons: Tristan, a painter and architect; Marcus, a lecturer, painter and printmaker; and Lucien, a painter and designer. In 1989 the entire family exhibited together at the England & Co gallery in London. The exhibition, "Three Generations", included works by Ursula's father Otway, and was a tribute to the multiple talents of the McCannell/Rees Roberts dynasty.

Peter William Rees Roberts, artist: born Mitcham, Surrey 23 August 1923; married 1945 Ursula McCannell (three sons); died Ewshot, Hampshire 22 October 1998.

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