George Weissbort: Painter whose work was informed by his ultra-traditional approach

He would think nothing of sitting for hours in front of a single picture in the National Gallery

Recently, the art critic Brian Sewell wrote that George Weissbort “painted the right pictures at the wrong time”. He bore neglect stoically and with good humour. His “determined and utterly conscious” rejection of modernism and, indeed, of the modern world was reflected in the uncompromising traditionalism of his oil paintings – landscapes, still lifes and portraits. I took the painter Paula Rego to meet him at his London studio. Unerringly she picked up a very old notebook filled with witty drawings and sketches, seemingly influenced by playful artists like Klee and Miro. Noticing this, Weissbort swiftly ushered us back to the oil paintings made during the 50 years which followed the notebook, as if to say: I’ve moved on. She would describe him later as “a truly honest artist who knows so much about painting”.

Weissbort was brought to London in 1933 from Belgium, which his Polish-born Jewish parents had to leave. His father was a cultivated businessman with an East End knitware factory, his mother an educated and serious helpmeet and business partner. George and his younger brother Daniel, who was born in London and later became a well-known poet and translator, were raised bilingually in French and English in Swiss Cottage, then a major centre for mainly German Jewish refugees. A love of the arts and an awareness that the living of a good life somehow involved this love were central to the education of the two boys. They grew into adulthood with a clear sense of their own priorities. This did not involve the family business.

Mother and children were evacuated to Oxford. At some point Weissbort wandered into the Ashmolean Museum and saw a man copying an exhibit. The next day the teenager returned with a notebook and pen. For the next 73 years he never stopped drawing and painting. Later in the war he was introduced by a friend and slightly older contemporary, the future composer Joseph Horovitz, to the painter Arthur Segal, who was also living in Oxford. Segal, who had come to naturalism after experimenting with modernism, led Weissbort in the direction he already wanted to go.

After the war Weissbort attended Bernard Meninsky’s life classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts and classes in oil painting by Ruskin Spear and Rodrigo Moynihan, presumably at the Royal College of Art. Oil painting became his obsession. In his own words: “I bought every treatise on the subject I could find, experimented with different oil-media, and consulted restorers at the National Gallery, the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre, to rediscover the technique of the Old Masters. I ground my own oil-colours, boiled my oils with driers etc, and prepared my own varnishes.”

A classic autodidact with a knowledge of art history to rival that of painters like Avigdor Arikha and Merlin James, he would think nothing (or everything) of spending several hours in front of a single favourite picture in the National Gallery: Vermeer, Titian, Chardin; looking at the picture, not necessarily copying it. He took pleasure in patiently educating lesser mortals, especially non-painters like me, who move on too quickly to the next picture, although his patience with the paintings themselves was surely unique even among painters.

Weissbort had one-man shows at Gallery Petit and Denise Yapp’s gallery and a retrospective at Chambers Gallery in 2006. He also participated in group shows, including at the Fine Arts Society. His work can be seen at Mark Mitchell’s gallery in London. He had shows in France, Belgium, Germany and Mexico, and he exhibited at the RA Summer Show for many years. Weissbort was also a professional portraitist – “as a rough guide, portraits take between six and 10 sittings” – whose subjects included his brother’s schoolfriend Jonathan Miller, Lord Shinwell and the former Chief Rabbi Israel Brodie.

In the 21st century, to paint wholly in the spirit, under the sign, of the Old Masters was, for this lonely and obsessive painter, a radical project of artistic reclamation and psychic renewal. The deep content of his work, rather than its subject matter, was a yearning for stability, order and harmony, qualities of life and art he spent a lifetime seeking. The work was a projection of his very being.  

“My approach to painting is as follows,” he wrote. “Starting with modern masters, like Cezanne and Matisse, I gradually moved backwards in time to my final lodestars Mantegna, Titian, Vermeer and Chardin. I work unremittingly, inspired by nature and my exemplars, trying continuously to improve, strenuously exploring the infinite worlds of line, shape, tone, form and colour, striving to combine emotion and reason, all the elements alive, developing systems governed by visual logic that could be analysed and discussed.”

George Weissbort, painter: born 11 April 1928; married firstly Yvonne Ingels (died 1996), secondly Rebecca Thomson; died Wye Valley, Gloucestershire July 9 2013.

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