Fred Yates: Self-styled 'happy Lowry'

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The Independent Online

The painter Fred Yates used colour to break away from the early influence of L.S. Lowry, whom he knew in post-war Manchester art circles. Despite the local industrial landscape "school" Lowry spawned, there were as many canvases at inter-war Manchester Academy exhibitions of holiday beaches as there were of chimneys and smog. It was to this tradition of northern escapism that Yates, a self-styled "happy Lowry", belonged.

Born in Ardwick, Manchester in 1922, the twin son of an insurance agent, Yates was raised in the drab inter-war period depicted in Lowry's pictures of mills and matchstick men. The dullness of the Depression years was, however, alleviated by the charisma and indomitable character of the northern working classes. Yates drew from his surroundings a heightened sense of theatre in which humour, farce or pathos – but seldom tragedy – attended the humdrum rituals of everyday life. In contrast to Lowry, Yates celebrated the warm and socially engaged, rather than dark and alienated, side of human life of the streets.

Using an instantly recognisable style that heaped bright colour and thick paint onto strongly designed figure or townscape compositions, Yates integrated faux-naïf and sophisticated impulses within the same work. His poetic, deeply empathetic vision of carnivals, parades, processions and other almost tribal rituals reflected the fact that Yates, a restless traveller, painted en plein air wherever he went. There was an element of the exhibitionist apparent in the tall, handsome man setting up easel in the high street and "performing" to an audience. An amateur pianist, he was drawn to the old music hall and saw himself as a people's painter, creating as much for a popular, pedestrian audience as for the connoisseurs who purchased his work with growing frequency from the prestigious West End gallery of his dealer John Martin.

The spectacular commercial success of Yates's later career hid the struggles of the earlier years. After serving in the Grenadier Guards during the Second World War, he had joined the Royal Household, which gave him direct experience of the pageantry and costume that later informed his soulful and decorative pictures of public regalia. He spent much of the 1950s and 1960s as a schoolteacher, first in Bournemouth, where he described himself as "a foreigner", and Brighton, where he lived for 12 years. Only in 1969, aged 47, did he give up to dedicate himself to full-time painting.

He spent the early 1970s in Fowey, Cornwall, where his natural feeling for the life of the harbour town and its inhabitants made him a popular local figure. By the time he moved to Cape Cornwall, on the Penwith peninsula, Yates had established himself as an expressionistic figurative painter in tune with a long Cornish tradition of folky and naïve art established by Christopher Wood in the 1920s and later continued by Alan Lowndes, Joan Gillchrest, Simeon Stafford and Linda Weir.

In common with those of many Cornish painters, Yates's fortunes rose steadily as a result of the landmark 1985 "St Ives 1939-64" exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London. Although not included in that select survey, his work was featured regularly in the Penwith and Newlyn art galleries as well as in most leading private galleries throughout the region. Sell-out exhibitions were a feature of Yates's late career, particularly after he joined John Martin in the late 1990s.

Although Yates was essentially a landscape painter, the figure groups or crowds that inhabited his places were like a compelling signature tune reminding us of Lowry's quirky vision of humanity. Often crudely painted with sticks or other makeshift implements, these figures caught in moments of reverie or play also shared with artists as diverse as Karel Appel, Ken Kiff and Patrick Hayman a caricatural distortion. His technical gifts were such, however, that he could paint more sober compositions of a high academic quality.

A lifelong bachelor, Yates sought a simple, uncomplicated way of life and he increasingly came to appreciate the joie de vivre of rural France. He had several spells there, including five years in Provence in the early 1990s. After returning to live in Marazion for a couple of years, where his work focused on St Michael's Mount and the sweep of Mount's Bay, Yates finally succumbed to the French way of life and moved permanently to the hill country of the Haute-Vienne in the Limousin in 1997. There he painted the villages and water mills that, in their more rustic way, reminded him of the Stockport of his youth. He also acquired a house at Sablet, near Avignon, where he painted in the clearer, brighter light of Provence.

Yates was greatly inspired by French art. He particularly liked the French empathy for the craft of painting and the way that the simple profession of painter functioned comfortably alongside that of baker or butcher. "It is the man in the street that I'm after and want to please," he wrote.

Yates's work was appreciated by connoisseur and layman alike and among buyers from a solo exhibition in Geneva in the early 1970s was the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Much earlier, Yates had exhibited with the Paris Salon, while in 1954 he had a notable success in England too, winning second prize to Lowry's famous picture "Going to the Match" in an art competition organised by the FA on the theme of football. Exhibitions were held at John Martin to mark his 80th and 85th birthdays, and last year the book Fred Yates: c'est votre passion, monsieur! was published.

Yates remained modest in the face of success, seeking only to maintain the freedom and solitude that were essential to a life dedicated overwhelmingly to the practice of painting.

Peter Davies

Frederick Joseph Yates, painter: born Manchester 25 July 1922; died London 7 July 2008.