George Fairley

'Honorary Welsh' artist in the Swansea circle
Click to follow
The Independent Online

George Wylie Fairley, artist and teacher: born Dunfermline, Fife 16 December 1920; married 1947 Mary Sergent (three sons, one daughter); died Wisborough Green, West Sussex 23 November 2003.

The artist George Fairley was a late survivor of Swansea's golden age of artistic activity between the 1930s and 1960s. Its most famous member was the poet Dylan Thomas, but it also involved other fine talents such as the poets Vernon Watkins, John Pritchard and Charles Fisher, the composer Daniel Jones and the artists Alfred Janes and Mervyn Levy.

Although he was a Scotsman eventually resident in England, Fairley's work was marked by his long stay in the Swansea area. "Some thought of my father as an honorary Welshman," says his son Iain.

George Fairley was born, an only child, in Dunfermline in 1920. His father, Robert, had been deafened by shelling while serving with the Black Watch in the First World War. Although the family lived in modest circumstances, they strongly supported George when he won a scholarship from Dunfermline High School to Edinburgh College of Art in the late 1930s.

He was taught by three notable Royal Scottish Academicians, David Alison, William Gillies and Adam Bruce Thomson; and his contemporary the painter Alan Davie was a close friend. Fairley then studied in the studios of several Paris artists, including Fernand Léger, returning to England when the Second World War started. He served as a radar technician in the Royal Air Force and was involved in the D-Day landings and the Allied push through France, the Low Countries and into Germany.

Demobilised, he became for 15 years a fine art lecturer at Swansea College of Art. He inspired a wide range of students, many remaining active artists. They ranged from Peter Markey, the creator of witty coloured moving models, to Andrew Vicari, the colourful Monte Carlo-based court painter and chronicler of the Gulf War. Fairley also devoted time to art therapy, working with victims of mental problems.

He nourished his teaching by drawing on other art forms such as poetry. Among writer friends were Kingsley Amis and Vernon Watkins. In a letter, Watkins praises the sensitivity of theatrical designs Fairley made for the poet's "Ballad of the Mari Lwyd".

Fairley's closest Swansea friend was the painter Alfred Janes. They would travel to London to monitor artistic developments, keen to avoid being thought parochial. The advent of American Abstract Expressionism and an exhibition of work by the Belgian Surrealist René Magritte both made a deep impression. Fairley was keen to experiment, although sometimes the new turn would prove a dead end and he would paint over the less successful efforts. Underlying what he did was a reverence for the Old Masters. "Walk with Piero," he would say, referring to his ideal, Piero della Francesca.

Early in the 1960s Fairley became head of foundation studies at Croydon College of Art, staying until retirement. He remained interested in new developments and materials, experimenting with plastics and the colouring of them. His three-dimensional work included several stainless steel murals for the National Westminster Bank in Horsham and Orpington.

Fred Janes was encouraged by Fairley to join the Croydon staff, settling in London. The broadcaster Wynford Vaughan Thomas, encountering the two, asked if he might join them, adding: "I hope I'm not interrupting you?" "Oh no," said Janes, "we started this conversation in 1947."

Fairley taught four days a week. Although he later reduced his exhibiting, during his Swansea and early Croydon years the venues that he showed at were very prestigious and up-to-date in outlook. As well as Gimpel Fils, Redfern Gallery, New Vision Centre, the Bear Lane Gallery in Oxford and the John Moores Liverpool Exhibition, he showed in France, Italy and America.

In 1981, Fairley and his wife, Mary, moved to a converted windmill at Wisborough Green, in Sussex. For many years he ran hugely successful art classes there, inspiring people who had never picked up a paint-brush.

His last solo show was at Portbail, Normandy, in 1994. As a former liberator, "Monsieur George" was invited to speak at the D-Day celebrations there and to exhibit in an old deconsecrated church. Despite serious illness five years ago, Fairley made the trip to Swansea for Fred Janes's retrospective exhibition at the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery in 1999 (he had died earlier that year). Fairley himself had work on his easel when he died.

David Buckman

Comments