Christopher Pemberton: Artist who found rich inspiration in the landscapes of Suffolk and Normandy

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The Independent Online

Christopher Pemberton was a versatile painter, draughtsman and teacher, highly regarded by his peers. He produced fine portraits and still lifes, but his landscapes of Suffolk and Normandy, areas he knew intimately, were among his finest pictures.

When Pemberton had a solo show at Cadogan Contemporary in 1989, the Royal Academician Anthony Eyton referred to two such panoramas as "heroic achievements". Eyton mentioned particularly the Cézannesque, Tot de Bas, Evening. He admired how the artist had chosen to let some canvas remain white, how over different days and conditions he had sought for the essential structure of what lay before him, the patchwork of houses and fields becoming more intricate, until the colours "smash against one another in a closely wrought web, giving an overall impression of landscape and sky and its ensuing light." Eyton recalled Constable's remark on Gainsborough's pictures: "On looking at them we find tears in our eyes and know not what brings them."

Pemberton would have been the first to acknowledge the influence of Cézanne on his work. He would spend several years in retirement translating Joachim Gasquet's book on the French master. Pemberton was also one of that band of artists who, as a student in the 1940s, absorbed the peculiar brand of English realism taught by the former Euston Road School teachers and pupils.

Pemberton was born in Chelsea in 1923. His father, Richard, who had begun as a clerk in the House of Lords and the Treasury, was latterly a schools inspector in Suffolk. His son came to know its landscape when growing up at Bildeston.

Pemberton had a twin brother and another younger brother. There was an artistic streak in the family. His mother, Daphne, drew, painted and made lively animals in clay; his twin, like his father, while being a farmer made pots as a recreation; and the younger brother entered advertising. From an early age, Pemberton, encouraged by his mother, showed a talent for drawing, creating acute caricatures of his family. He was gifted academically, too, and was a King's Scholar at Eton College. There he began painting under Robin Darwin, later principal of the Royal College of Art. Pemberton painted a grand and compelling mural in the drawing school of the meeting of Solomon and Sheba.

From 1942 to 1946 Pemberton served in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, mainly on Atlantic convoys, then in 1948 graduated in modern history from Christ Church, Oxford. By now, Pemberton had decided to be an artist. His parents were delighted, although along the way insurance, which would have been a most unlikely outcome, was suggested as a safer choice.

Pemberton studied at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts for four terms during 1948-49. It is a school that has left an indelible imprint on many of the artists it produced, such as Eyton, Terry Frost, Patrick George, Dick Lee and Euan Uglow. The school was then at a high point of influence under Leonard Daniels, attracting so many ex-servicemen that classes often spilled into corridors. The artist Glyn Morgan found the overcrowding so oppressive that he switched from painting to illustration, under the charismatic John Minton.

The principal just before Pemberton joined Camberwell, William Johnstone, was convinced from his experience studying in France that it was the finest practising artists who would most inspire his students. Thus, his staff included people such as Michael Ayrton, B A R (Sam Carter), Eric Fraser, Lawrence Gowing and Victor Pasmore. Pasmore, one of the three artists who had founded the influential pre-war Euston Road School of Drawing and Painting, was appointed to Camberwell's staff in 1943. As the Second World War drew to an end, Johnstone shrewdly calculated that the other two Euston Road founders, William Coldstream and Claude Rogers, could be attracted to join him. These men greatly influenced Pemberton.

At its premises first on Fitzroy Street and then on the Euston Road, the Euston Road School's teachers between 1937-39 tried to inculcate in its students, in the words of its historian, Bruce Laughton, "an objective and unprejudiced investigation into the phenomena of visual appearances." In a reaction against various inter-war artistic "isms" such as Surrealism, Coldstream and his colleagues sought inspiration from the Old Masters, Cézanne and the urban realism of Walter Sickert.

Although the Euston Road School existed for only about 18 months, its influence remains potent. There is nothing slapdash in the Euston Road-inspired painter's exploration of the material world and its expression in paint. However, its dogged and calculated system can produce work with "the association of devotion and passion" that Eyton recognised in Pemberton's big mature landscape Tot de Bas, Evening.

After Camberwell, Pemberton became art master at Bryanston from 1950-51, after which he returned to London to paint and part-time teach for three years. In 1954 he visited Cyprus for some months, having previously in 1948 had a solo show of portraits there in Kyrenia. In 1957, by then art master at Shrewsbury School, his work was included in an exhibition of painting and sculpture by Camberwell School present and former students, organised by Daniels at the South London Art Gallery.

Pemberton's final teaching move was back to Camberwell, where he taught variously in the painting department on foundation and degree courses for 27 years until his retirement in 1984, finally as head of foundation studies. In 1956 he had married Hester Buchanan Riddell, by whom he had four sons and a daughter. One son, Alex, also became a professional painter, and did a foundation year at Camberwell in 1977-78. Although not taught there by his father, he learnt much from him at home and insists that he was a natural teacher: "His way of teaching and his personality were very much respected and loved and he formed many friendships with colleagues and students whom he kept in touch with for years. I guess this stemmed from his inimitable way of engaging with people, his quick and perceptive mind, his passion for art and love of the Old Masters."

From the mid-1980s, Pemberton settled in Bardwell, Suffolk; and from the early 1970s he annually visited the family's holiday home in Normandy. Throughout his career he participated in notable mixed exhibitions, including a series at the Royal Academy of Arts, 1956-61; John Moores, Liverpool, 1957; Hayward Annual, 1982; and Gainsborough's House, Sudbury, from 1984, where he showed many drawings, a constant preoccupation.

There was also a string of solo exhibitions in London and the provinces, latterly one at Chappel Galleries, near Colchester, in 2001, which included a fine range of work. Interviewed about his methods and aims, Pemberton's answers revealed how, even in old age, his approach remained studied and serious. Asked if he preferred to paint landscapes, portraits or still life he favoured first, "A portrait if I can find a sitter who will go on for twenty sittings. Then landscape if I can find one that won't change too much. I often need several seasons for an oil."

Christopher Henry Pemberton, artist and teacher: born London 14 March 1923; married 1956 Hester Buchanan Riddell (died 2001; four sons, one daughter); died Lordington Park, West Sussex 1 December 2010.

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