Colin Hayes

Uncompromising teacher at the Royal College of Art and subtle painter of 'Objective Abstractions'
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The Independent Online

Colin Graham Frederick Hayes, painter: born London 17 November 1919; Tutor, Senior Tutor and Reader, Royal College of Art 1949-84, Fellow 1960-84 (Honorary Fellow 1984); RA 1970; President, Royal Society of Artists 1993-98; married 1949 Jean Law (died 1988; three daughters), 1992 Midge Christensen; died London 1 November 2003.

Colin Hayes was the last surviving member of the Royal College of Art fine-art staff painted by his friend Rodrigo Moynihan in Portrait Group (1951), now in the Tate Gallery collection. During the early Fifties, this group, under the guidance of Robin Darwin, was to make the Royal College a leading force in English art education, and in changing the fortunes and image of the Royal Academy of Arts. Hayes was a key member, and active in bringing about major changes of attitude in both establishments.

He was born in 1919 in London, to Gerald Hayes, a mathematician and musicologist, and his wife Winifred, a painter and sculptor who had studied at the Aberdeen and Edinburgh colleges of art, and at the Royal College of Art in London. Colin Hayes was educated at Westminster School and went on to Christ Church, Oxford, to read Modern History, also attending the Ruskin School of Drawing.

At the outbreak of war in 1939, he volunteered and was commissioned in 1940. He served in the War Survey Section of the Royal Engineers. He was sent to Iceland and from there to North Africa, where he was wounded in the Western Desert. In 1943 he returned to England as a captain in the Survey Directorate South Eastern Command during the invasion period. He was invalided out of the Army in 1945.

Resuming his studies at Oxford, Hayes graduated, and then, despite being offered a place at the Slade in London, chose to return to the Ruskin, whose staff included Rodrigo Moynihan and Barnett Freedman, whom Hayes admired as artists and whose philosophies were akin to his own.

His first teaching post was as Head of Painting at Cheltenham Ladies' College but after two years he was invited to join the staff at the Royal College of Art by the new Rector, the future Sir Robin Darwin. This coincided with Hayes's first major one-man exhibition at Marlborough Fine Arts in London.

I first met Colin Hayes at my interview for entry to the Royal College in 1949 and, after two years of National Service, I took up my place in 1951. As a teacher Hayes believed in hard work, observation and in constantly drawing. He said,

You don't really understand a subject until you have drawn it. In this way you become really familiar, and notice things that you would not otherwise have seen.

He believed that nothing came easily; if it did, it was probably not worth having. To become a painter would be a long and painstaking process.

Hayes's knowledge of painting and other subjects was encyclopaedic. He seemed able to put his finger on how to make our work progress, always suggesting that we look at certain pictures by artists who were working in similar directions and engaged with problems that we were struggling with. His teaching was uncompromising - no short cuts, no easy routes. He taught us that self-criticism was about the most important thing that we could learn; he wanted his students to be enthusiastic but to beware of self-delusion, the development of the eye and the intellect being inseparable.

Among his many students were Bridget Riley, Peter Blake, John Titchell, Ron Kitaj, David Hockney, Tony Whishaw, Jean Cook, John Bratby and Frank Auerbach, all of whom would have benefited from his quiet and wise guidance. He retired in 1984 and remained an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College.

My wife owns a small watercolour by Hayes, painted in the North African Desert. It is of a German ammunition lorry destroyed in the fighting. He would have been 23 years old at the time the picture was painted. It is a stark image, reminiscent of Paul Nash's Totes Meer in the Tate, or some of Edward Burra's powerful late landscapes, though he could not have seen these pictures at that time. What is surprising about this painting is the maturity and grasp of drawing and colour in the economy of execution, a hallmark of his work. It anticipates the direction he would follow throughout his life.

His fascination with colour and light probably stems from this time spent in North Africa as well as his later visits to India and the Mediterranean - Greece and Crete, Italy and France. He owned a small house on one of the Greek islands. His early training in the "Euston Road" manner, the influence of such artists as Walter Sickert and Harold Gilman, the ability to judge and pitch the tonal range of his palette so valuable to the figurative painter, always provided the underpinning and structure to his work - but he was acutely aware of the new painting coming from France, the Fauves. Derain, Matisse and Bonnard had a striking influence on his work, encouraging him to make frequent excursions to paint abroad and to face these new challenges and developments.

Hayes had the ability to place colours in juxtaposition and, by so doing, to create a sense of atmosphere and emotive charge - and yet his paintings, though vibrant, do not shout; they tend rather to slowly reveal layers to the onlooker, the subtlety of colour luring the eye to explore the surface of the picture. He was an English colourist: a limited palette in the hands of Colin Hayes was like an orchestra capable of infinite variations.

Painting right to the end as he would have wanted, he never lost sight of his love for painting and his subjects. The term "Objective Abstractions" coined by his friend Rodrigo Moynihan seems an apt description of Hayes's work, with the emphasis perhaps tilted toward the abstract. I would add that his paintings are metaphors for light and atmosphere.

Fred Cuming