Charles Oakley: Artist praised for his 'poetry in paint'

Charles Oakley was one of an important generation of British painters who, in the late Forties, arrived at the Slade School of Fine Art wearing "demob" suits. He had neither portfolio nor sketchbooks to show, but a single watercolour, depicting a momentous occasion in his youth.

Oakley grew up in Urmston, Manchester, the son of an engineer; two previous generations of Oakleys had been naval captains. Family holidays spent in Falmouth provided an ideal playground for the young Charles – rusting old U-boats from the Great War were berthed in the harbour. Then, in the early years of the Second World War, while youth hostelling in the Lake District, he came upon the crash site of two Hurricane fighters. A dead pilot lay by the wreckage of one of the planes. The scene burned itself into his mind and was only exorcised when he sketched it out on paper and coloured it.

This single work became a talisman and after his three years' military service with the Royal Artillery in the Himalayas, it was this that he took to his successful Slade interview with Randolph Schwabe in 1947. His tutors, William Townsend and William Coldstream, being well-connected, brought artists and critics such as Francis Bacon, Wyndham Lewis and David Sylvester into the Slade to look at students' work. Oakley's diligent studies in the Antique Room won him the Taylor and Melvill Nettleship awards, as well as the Wilson Steer medal for Northern Landscape, a "summer composition" painting of coal trucks in a railway yard produced in 1950. He remained at the Slade for a postgraduate year and in 1951 married Ann, his life-long partner.

In those days, the path from the Slade and the Royal College to the New English Art Club was still in use and Oakley showed industrial scenes at two of its exhibitions before moving north to become an art master at Eden School in Carlisle. A splendid watercolour of the old city bus station remains a popular reproduction sold by Tullie House museum in Carlisle.

In 1957 his first solo exhibition was held at the Crane Kalman Gallery, Manchester, and was opened by L.S. Lowry. Oakley recalled Lowry's enthusiasm when he purchased a picture from the show. At this stage, living on a fabric designer's salary, and with a growing family, the Oakleys could not reciprocate – much to their chagrin in later years. Thereafter he showed regularly in Manchester exhibitions, being praised for his "poetry in paint". In 1962 he obtained the post of Senior Lecturer at Belfast College of Art, and it was after this that true poetry arrived, with paintings of ships' engine rooms at Harland and Wolff, recalling the submarines of childhood – one of which was acquired for the Ulster Museum, Belfast.

In shows at the Caldwell Gallery in Bradbury Place, Belfast, these intense, claustrophobic interiors were juxtaposed with the wide expanses of Donegal where the Oakley family had a summer cottage. Oakley rhapsodised on the windswept beaches where occasionally he would come across the rotting remains of old fishing boats. When these paintings were exhibited in 1965 at the Bondgate Gallery, Alnwick, along with works by Lord Haig and J.H. Themal, Oakley, according to The Guardian, "stole the show". A few years later, as Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley were emerging as the poetic voices of Ulster, the critic William Feaver praised the "mortuary effect" of the painter's "leaky skies" and "peat trenches".

Oakley might easily have been typecast as an Irish landscapist of a conventional kind. However, hints of Edward Hopper and "magic realism" had begun to creep into his painting and around the time of his return to England in 1974, he became interested in working in three dimensions – "dabbling in construction work" and experimenting with trompe l'oeil was how it was described. Repeated visits to the Dutch museums instilled a respect for the measured space of Vermeer, Terborch and Metsu, and took him back to his Slade School exercises in mathematical perspective.

In 1982, on a student trip, he visited the massive 360-degree Mesdag Panorama in The Hague which was re-examined in a series of works – as indeed were the methodical approaches of painters such as Thomas Eakins and George Stubbs whose deep visual research led to periods of physical and spiritual isolation. These and the Dutch masters became his new subject matter in what were described as "works with romantic and historical associations", in the first of three exhibitions staged at Pyms Gallery, London in 1984 – perhaps the most fruitful collaboration of Oakley's career since it led to touring shows, in galleries in Hull, York, Kendal and Belfast.

What we see in The Eakins Studio (1986), for instance, is a box/vitrine, similar to a stage designer's model. The life room impedimenta, sculpture stands and a "donkey", are recreated in miniature – tiny hand-crafted objects in which experience is locked. And on the back wall are pinned the famous studies of male and female nudes which contain them. Oakley's own experiences had come back to haunt him.

A connection between these austere academic rituals and lost heroes such as Scott and Oates of the Antarctic, or Mallory and Irvine on Everest, fused in his mind and led him to produce the evocative Antarctic Triptych (1984) and the Quarter Rupee Triptych (1986) in which the intrepid teams of explorers and mountaineers pose for famous photographs. In the former the image is pinned to the remnants of one of their packing cases, along with other memorabilia, including a postcard of Caspar David Friedrich's The Wreck of the 'Hoffnung', inspired by an attempt on the North Pole in 1823. Embedded in the foreground fragments of cracked ice are remnants of a Union Jack.

By the early Nineties, other themes, equally austere, suggested themselves. The discovery of a monument to Roger Casement, the death of Richthoven and new interpretations of Balthus, Winslow Homer and Magritte were added to the repertoire in these later years when two further solo shows were staged at Castleside Gallery, Cockermouth, in 1996 and 2000. In 1999 he won the Singer Friedlander/Sunday Times watercolour prize with The Thomas Eakins Gallery.

In a genial, self-deprecating way, Charles Oakley used to claim that he was having fun and that these "tableaux" were just a way of filling time. But it was much more than that. Serious research would take him off to find the Mallory ice axe at the Alpine Club, or in 1996, back to Rajasthan. And with collectors waiting for paintings that might take months of detailed work to complete, he carried on until his late seventies when his eyes began to fail. Thereafter, he still spent his mornings in the studio, listening to Radio 3 and reading, surrounded by the work of a lifetime.

Kenneth McConkey

Charles Ernest Oakley, painter: born Manchester 29 November 1925; Art Master, Eden School, Carlisle 1953-56; Assistant Head Designer, Ferguson Fabrics, Carlisle 1956-62; Senior Lecturer in Painting, Belfast College of Art 1962-74; Principal Lecturer in Fine Art, Newcastle-upon-Tyne Polytechnic 1974-84; married 1951 Ann Waddell (one son, two daughters); died Carlisle 1 April 2008.

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