Denis Wirth-Miller: Bohemian artist who enjoyed a close association with Francis Bacon

Denis Wirth-Miller was one of a group of artists who for many years injected the spirit of bohemia into the life of Wivenhoe, a small shipbuilding and repairing town on the Essex coast. The jollifications of Wirth-Miller, his partner, the James Bond illustrator Richard "Dickie" Chopping, and the painter Francis Bacon remain the stuff of local legend.

Such stories, true or untrue – among the latter is one that after Bacon's death his former Wivenhoe house was kept as a shrine by Denis and Dickie – have tended to overshadow Wirth-Miller's achievements as a painter. One recognition of this will be a forthcoming small retrospective at the Minories Art Gallery, Colchester.

Also undermining Wirth-Miller's reputation was the fact that from the early 1970s sight problems hindered him and that latterly he suffered from dementia. All this must have been hard for a man who had shown in London's leading galleries and had work in the collections of the Queen, the Arts Council and Contemporary Art Society.

Wirth-Miller was born in Folkestone, Kent, in 1915, where his Bavarian father Johann Wirthmiller (Denis later Anglicised his name) ran a busy hotel. Wirth-Miller's mother moved him to Bamburgh in her home county of Northumberland, where he was raised by his grandmother.

After school, he joined Tootal Broadhurst Lee, the textile manufacturers in Manchester, where innate talent prompted his appointment as a designer. After arriving in London early in 1937 he met Dickie Chopping, who moved into one of the painter Walter Sickert's former studios in north London, where Denis was living. Thus began a lifelong relationship; in December 2005 they became the first in Colchester to make a civil partnership.

It was not without disagreements, even how about they first met – according to Chopping at a Regent's Park charity garden party, according to Wirth-Miller at the Café Royal, a celebrated meeting point for gay men. A friend was concerned about the vulnerability of the Sickert flat to bomb damage and advised them to leave London, lending them the dilapidated Felix Hall in Kelvedon, Essex. There, they scraped a living gardening and other jobs.

Then, importantly, they met the painters Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines, who had established the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, first at Dedham and, when that was destroyed by fire, at Benton End. The artist Mollie Russell-Smith recalled how, as a student lacking an easel, with trepidation she knocked on the door at Benton End and it was "flung open by three young men" – Chopping, Wirth-Miller and Lucian Freud. "They bundled me in, assuming that I had come to be a student, and Dickie showed me all over the house with great enthusiasm and charm. I was enchanted."

Benton End was an artistic Eden. Wirth-Miller must have absorbed much from Morris, artistically and as a plantsman. Later, in Wivenhoe, Wirth-Miller tended a walled garden producing magnificent vegetables. Their house on Wivenhoe Quay, then used as a sail storehouse, was bought in 1944, but wartime restrictions prevented their moving in until 1945, when they began converting it back to its original role as a merchant's house.

By the late 1940s Bacon was visiting Wirth-Miller and Chopping. The friendship between Bacon and Wirth-Miller had been instigated earlier in the decade by the two Scots painters Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, whom Wirth-Miller had known in his Soho days. For years, Bacon had a home and studio in Wivenhoe which eventually Wirth-Miller bought from him.

Wirth-Miller, Chopping and Bacon were close, holidaying abroad. "Denis had a deep intellectual friendshipwith Francis," says Daniel Chapman, a close friend for many years. "Their interests in literature, philosophy, art, gambling and life in general were coincidental and were live and vibrant up to each of their dying days." For most of the last 20 years Wirth-Miller and Bacon would hold extensive telephone conversations daily.



Wivenhoe’s artistic social life was boosted in when the journalist and local resident George Gale invited the politician Edward Heath to open a Wivenhoe Arts Club, which attracted painters and writers and had its own gallery. It was not so significant in the lives of Wirth-Miller and Chopping, insists Chapman, as Denis’s assisting others such as the primitive painter Ernie Turner to develop his talent.

Known as “Wivenhoe’s Alfred|Wallis” – after the St Ives Cornish primitive – Turner began painting in 1964 when he retired as a shipwright. Wirth-Miller helped him with technical advice, encouraged him to experiment and fostered his sales in London and to overseas clients. Turner became so popular that clients had to order paintings.



Cultivating his friendships at home and abroad and partying hard were strong Wirth-Miller traits. A former near-neighbour of Bacon's cottage and studio in Wivenhoe remembers the "outrageous" reputation he, Wirth-Miller and Chopping had. "They frequented local pubs and restaurants, sometimes to the owners' dismay. At one time I lived above and worked in the restaurant the trio frequented.

"On those occasions the proprietor used to hide the bottles of champagne so there would not be all-night sessions. I heard tales of Wirth-Miller and Bacon having drunken painting sessions, painting on each others' canvases."

In contrast, Chapman recalls Wirth-Miller as a serious worker. When materials were in short supply during the war, like others he would resort to house paint and enamels.

After the war years his work was in oil on a large scale. "Early works were portraits, figures and still life," Chapman said, "later a series of very large dog paintings – hounds on the move, mastiffs, great danes in motion in the act of turning or hunting or disappearing into the mist. Later works were East Anglian or Dartmoor landscapes. He was always drawing in secret, often hands and feet."

Denis Wirth-Miller, artist: born Folkestone, Kent 27 November 1915; died Colchester, Essex 27 October 2010.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping the First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week