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Charlotte Kell

Unconventional artist and poet

Charlotte Mary Kell, artist, poet and teacher: born Rockbourne, Hampshire 3 October 1944; died London 9 July 2006.

Charlotte Kell was a singular personality, with a fountain of ideas which found expression in a stream of visual and written work. Like many artists who do not conform to an accepted norm, she did not achieve much commercial success. But, by the time of her comparatively early death, Kell had contributed to numerous group exhibitions, and had around a dozen solo shows and a string of publications to her credit.

Kell was born in Rockbourne, Hampshire, in 1944, where her mother, Bobby, was living during the Second World War. Charlotte was one of four daughters, her father, John, a lawyer, and her grandfather General Sir Vernon Kell, the founder of MI5. "Charlotte was a real free spirit," says her sister Virginia:

Whatever she did she was fully supported in it, but ours was not an artistic family. We didn't always understand what she was doing, which was quite difficult for her.

At the beginning of the 1970s Kell attended the University of California, Berkeley. She studied a range of two- and three-dimensional art disciplines and photography. On return to England her studies continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s, at London University, North London and Oxford Polytechnics, Froebel College and the Roehampton Institute. As well as graduating with honours in English literature and Classics in translation, she studied early childhood education and qualified to teach at secondary level and English as a foreign language.

Kell learned much about the practice of art and its history from Morris - known as Charlie - Chackas, a Marxist and portrait and still-life painter, who lived in his eccentric hut-inside-a-hut in Oxford. For 45 years until his death in 2000, she absorbed valuable lessons in technique and learned of the diverse artists who had influenced him. When in 2002 Duncan Campbell's Kensington gallery put on a studio sale of Chackas's work, Kell wrote a sympathetic catalogue introduction.

Alongside her studies and exhibiting, Kell was busy as a freelance portrait photographer, art teacher and participant in community art and workshops. She also taught creative writing and took part in poetry readings and workshops organised by the Poetry Society.

During the 1980s, Kell began to publish poetry, for adults and children, through Stylus Publicatations and, more often, with Outposts Publications, the catholic imprint overseen by Howard Sergeant. Among her later Outposts volumes were The All-night Café Poems (Dance of Fire) Books 1 and 2, both appearing in 2002. In an introduction to these she explained the influence of Homeric and oral poetry on her work, her own poems having been "difficult to write because I'm as interested in the sound (word music) as I am in the content". She hoped this was "thought-provoking, spiritually uplifting and, at times, just fun".

In 2002, Outposts also published Collages, Art Boxes and Sculpture, a book on Kell's visual work by Max Wykes-Joyce, former art critic of the International Herald Tribune. Kell had participated in a series of boxed art exhibitions organised by the boxes enthusiast Jane England, of England & Co. As is often the case with boxed art, Kell's constructions were "open to many readings", as too is the case with much of her two-dimensional work.

The writer Nigel Foxell saw Kell's artwork develop from the mid-1970s. Before he knew her there had been a notable series of "remarkable heads, semi- abstract, fuzzy-edged and well over life-size. They had a haunting quality." She was by this time working on her boxes and collages. She called her assemblages "icons of our age", referring to "ancient, half-forgotten gods and worlds".

Graffiti, posters and ephemera informed her collages, made from paper "whose life is useful one minute, and detritus the next". Foxell sees the boxes, which can be white, not entirely white and sometimes brightly coloured "as being collages in three dimensions instead of two, with a slightly surrealist quality, and a beauty, too".

For the last decade or so Kell was engaged on a series of carvings. For those who saw her work she anticipated that what she created will "hopefully enrich your life in some small way. I don't think any artist can hope for more than this."

David Buckman