Ernest Greenwood: Artist and administrator whose efforts revived the fortunes of the Royal Watercolour Society

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The Independent Online

It was chiefly thanks to Ernest Greenwood that the Royal Watercolour Society, which was founded in 1804, succeeded in preserving its independence and has now survived into its third century. After the Royal Academy the Royal Watercolour Society is the oldest artistic society in Great Britain, its membership having included such distinguished artists as John Sell Cotman, David Cox, Samuel Palmer, Holman Hunt, Edward Burne-Jones and John Singer Sargent. However by the mid-1970s it had fallen on very hard times. The Society's galleries in Conduit Street in the West End were neglected and had been understaffed for years; layers of soot, ingrained for decades, covered surfaces and seeped everywhere. Its picture collection was stacked against a wall under drapes (a prize possession, a Samuel Palmer watercolour, was kept ready to be propped up on the filing cabinet drawers to impress important visitors) and old cups and beakers were used to serve the drinks at private views. There was little money in the bank and the Society's main asset, its lease on these galleries, was running very short indeed.

In 1972 Greenwood, who had been elected to the RWS in 1962, held a retrospective exhibition in the galleries of the New Metropole in Folkestone and there he met Sir Gerald Glover, who had recently acquired the property. Glover told him that if the RWS was ever in a fix to let him know. By now the Society's search for new premises was desperate. Greenwood took up his offer and one evening – it was, he recalled, pouring with rain and he arrived drenched on the doorstep – he went to visit Glover at his home in Park Lane. Glover phoned his architects. It so happened that in drawing up plans for a new development on the South Bank for Southwark Council the architects, in order to please the Council, were anxious to incorporate an educational component in their designs so they were more than happy for the opportunity to include a Royal Society in their building. In 1980 Bankside Gallery was opened by the Queen as the home of the Royal Watercolour Society – and 20 years later Tate Modern opened next door.

Ernest Greenwood was born at Welling in Kent, the sixth of seven children. His father was a shipping engineer but died when Greenwood was still at school, leaving his mother to bring up a large family in conditions of considerable hardship. In 1927 he went to study at Gravesend School of Art from where, four years later, he won a scholarship to the Painting School of the Royal College of Art, where he was taught by Gilbert Spencer and Sir William Rothenstein (although he claimed that for the most part he had had to teach himself).

After a year spent at the British School at Rome he returned in 1935 to the Royal College for a further year in the Etching School under Malcolm Osborne and Robert Austin. While at the RCA he met Eileen Messenger, a student in the Design School. Their first joint exhibition was held in her digs in Redcliffe Road, Chelsea. Greenwood proposed by the fountains in Trafalgar Square and Messenger and he married in 1939.

At the outbreak of war Greenwood was conscripted into the Royal Artillery and after a few months he was transferred to the Army Education Corps School. By the war's end in he was working in the Rehabilitation School in Berlin. The School contained perhaps the only concert grand piano in the ruined city and he made several drawings of a young pianist who came – without consent – to practice a Beethoven sonata. The horrors he saw around him also inspired a major work, Resurrection; together with two other paintings of Berlin ruins the picture is now in the Ben Uri Gallery in London.

Demobilised in 1946, Greenwood was appointed art master to the Technical High School for Girls at Chislehurst in Kent. He was invited to paint for the school a series of murals in 15 panels on themes of Christmas and Easter. The series was finished in 1951 but it was later dismantled when the interior of the school was modified, and he found the panels stored in the coal shed. The mortification was a continuing source of hurt for him. The rest of Greenwood's life was spent in education, both as a teacher and inspector: in 1953 he was appointed an inspector of art education to London County Council, then from 1966 until his retirement in 1973 to Kent Education Authority. His visits as inspector took him to distant parts of Kent, which led him to realise how very seldom, if ever, the children were taken to an art gallery. In one secondary school he discovered that the end room of the school hall was decorated with five little china ducks – he succeeded in having a large woven decoration put in its place.

Despite in later years expressing regrets over the time he had spent as an administrator rather than as a creative artist, Greenwood always found time to paint. Used to committee work, however, he was perhaps inevitably attracted by artistic societies, and served as President of the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society from 1960 to 1965, in 1966 as President of the Guild of Kent Artists, and as President of the RWS from 1976 to 1984. Always courteous but strong in his opinions, in his retirement he became a regular lecturer on the Swan Hellenic cruises.

Greenwood was a strictly representational artist who worked in two fields, portrait and landscape. His landscapes were usually Kentish or of continental scenes inspired by his travels. Samuel Palmer was an influence on his work. Rural, elegiac in tone and invariably with buildings but without figures, it is as if his pictures were speaking a private language of swans, barns, bridges and millstreams.

In 1970 he exhibited with Sir Hugh Casson in Canterbury and in 1989 at Tenterden with John Ward and Ken Howard. He held retrospectives at the New Metropole in Folkestone in 1972 and at Maidstone County Hall Gallery in 1997. There were also exhibitions in Arizona where Greenwood had friends. In 1994 he was invited to paint decorations for the Judges' Chambers at Canterbury Crown Court.

In 1960 Greenwood bought a listed hall house at Broad Street near Hollingbourne in Kent dating from the 16th century with timber frames, low ceilings and lattice windows. The house was full of character and he and his wife restored it with loving care. He turned the dormer bedroom into his studio. Outside there was a large garden with greengage trees. After Greenwood became confined to a wheelchair they moved to sheltered accommodation at Lakeside in Hothfield near Ashford in Kent.

Simon Fenwick

Ernest Greenwood, artist and teacher, born Welling, Kent, 12 February 1913; married 1939 Eileen Messenger (died 2008, one daughter); died Ashford, Kent 17 May 2009.