Obituary: Theodore Major

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THEODORE MAJOR was a great individualist in the British art world. He was an uncompromising Lancastrian, proud of his provinciality and working- class roots, who rejected the commercial gallery system, did not paint for money and hoped with his paintings, drawings and prints to win the attention of ordinary people, especially children. "To disturb and extend consciousness in the mind of the viewer" was his declared aim. He declined to sell pictures, "not to the people who want them, the rich people".

Neither was Major interested in courting national fame. Nevertheless, periodically the press's spotlight picked him out, as in 1992, when he refused to pay a poll tax bill of almost pounds 1,900. Although he had already settled in full for the house he lived in near Wigan, he declined to pay three years' arrears for the one next door, which he used as a store. Having failed to seize goods in lieu of payment - Major told the bailiff to jump in the canal - the council applied to have him committed to prison.

When they heard that Major had no savings and lived on the state pension, then pounds 56 a week, the magistrates decided that, in view of his income, his age - 85 - and health it would be unjust to jail him. The arrears would be remitted, so that he would have nothing to pay. They then shook his hand and wished him good health.

He was born in Wigan in 1908, and had two brothers and four sisters. His father and mother both worked in a cotton mill. Theodore left school at 13 and worked in a tailor's shop, but poor health eventually led to his losing his job. He early on suffered three bouts of rheumatic fever.

Major insisted that he was essentially self-taught as an artist. He did, in fact, attend evening classes at Wigan Art School, with some life-room experience at Southport, eventually studied full-time at Wigan and did some part-time teaching there and at adult education classes. In 1952 he founded and for some years ran the Wigan Art Club in a room above the Crofters' Arms. The small, informal group did not paint there, but discussed work completed elsewhere or chose a topic for discussion.

It was while he was teaching at the art school that Major met his future wife Kathleen, daughter of a local general practitioner. After they married in 1940, to help support them and their only daughter, Mary, born in 1944, Kathleen taught at an infant school. About 1950, they settled in Appley Bridge, near Wigan, which remained their home for the rest of their lives.

Major began to establish a reputation as a Lancashire artist. He drew cartoons for the Daily Mail and the Manchester Guardian and showed with the Manchester Academy, with Margo Ingham's Mid-Day Studios and the Crane Gallery. He shared exhibitions with his close contemporary L.S. Lowry and had Arts Council-sponsored solo shows at Carlisle and Blackburn Art Galleries.

Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Blake, van Gogh and Rouault were influences. Major became noted for his grim, Expressionist depictions of Wigan streets and factories, pictures of children, of lonely seascapes, of nudes "painted in homage to Kathleen, and to all women", nightmarish pictures of the mind and a series on the atom bomb, "a warning and comment on the foolishness and stupidity of modern man".

Major said that in the northern scene he "began to see a great beauty", and with his depiction of it he won the approval of such critics as John Berger. "His canvases deserve to rank among the best English paintings of our time," judged this supporter of social realism. But Major began to shun publicity. He wrote that he had "no ambition to see my work hanging on stately walls, or in private or public collections. I have no wish to see it framed in gold, or loved by an admiring public."

Instead, he held on to his work, eventually having to buy the house next door as a store. He used a small front bedroom, with a good light, as a studio. Visitors were allowed to call at this private gallery, which came to contain several thousand pictures, and many became his friends.

Despite this reclusiveness, Major's reputation grew. Manchester City Art Gallery has a portrait head by him, the Turnpike Gallery at Leigh some industrial scenes and Salford Art Gallery, where Major had an important exhibition in 1984, has Pit at Wigan, currently in the Lancashire Mining Museum touring show "Facing Coal". In his will he is believed to have expressed the hope that a trust will conserve his huge collection.

Serious medical complaints plagued Major all his life, negating the possibility of military service in the Second World War and interrupting the continuity of his work. "How on earth he lived to be 90 is a miracle," says his daughter. "He just seemed to gather strength to do what he wanted." Perhaps, in the end, this was not surprising from the man who claimed that "painting is my life and art my religion".

David Buckman

Theodore Major, artist: born Wigan 19 February 1908: married 1940 Kathleen Ainscow (died 1978; one daughter); died Ormskirk, Lancashire 17 January 1999.