Gordon Onslow Ford

Last survivor of the Paris surrealists of the 1930s
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The Independent Online

Gordon Onslow Ford, painter: born Wendover, Buckinghamshire 26 December 1912; married 1941 Jacqueline Johnson (died 1978); died Inverness, California 8 November 2003.

Gordon Onslow Ford was the last surviving member of the Paris surrealist group of the 1930s. Although less well-documented than the work of his surrealist contemporaries, Onslow Ford's painting, writing and teaching has had an understated impact on art from his days as a surrealist to the present.

To a certain degree the artist himself played some part in his relatively low profile, refusing to sell his works on the art market and selectively donating them, most recently to the Lucid Art Foundation, in Inverness, California, an organisation he helped establish in 1998 to support artists and researchers committed to the natural environment and to the exploration of deep levels of consciousness. His work has featured prominently in exhibitions in Europe and the United States, and resides in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and Tate.

Gordon Onslow Ford was born in 1912 in Wendover, Buckinghamshire, into an artistic family. His grandfather, Edward Onslow Ford, was a leading figure in the New Sculpture movement of the late 19th century. Although he painted from a young age, Gordon Onslow Ford was discouraged by his guardians from following an artistic career and was sent to the Dragon School in Oxford, and later to the Royal Naval College in Dartmouth.

His service in the Royal Navy, 1927-37, did not dampen his strong desire to take up a career in painting, and on leaving the Navy he moved to Paris and entered into an unsatisfactory series of apprenticeships with the painters André Lhote and Fernand Léger. It was in Paris that he made his first vital acquaintance, meeting the young Chilean Roberto Matta Echaurren, who was working in the architectural office of Le Corbusier. While Matta introduced Onslow Ford to André Breton and the Paris surrealists in 1938, Onslow Ford encouraged Matta to make the transition from drawing to painting, providing him with studio space, and financially supporting the young Chilean by purchasing a painting every month. It was also through discussions with Onslow Ford that Matta developed the notion of "psychological morphology", an idea that expressed both artists' interest in painting the invisible forms taking shape in the depths of the psyche.

By 1939, Onslow Ford had become a regular at the surrealist meetings at the Café Deux Magots, and had forged strong links with Yves Tanguy and the other newly initiated surrealist painters, Victor Brauner, Esteban Frances and Wolfgang Paalen. It was this group of young surrealists that Breton in 1939 proclaimed as the future of surrealist painting, defining it in terms of a marked return to the techniques of psychic automatism from which surrealism had evolved in the 1920s. The optimism with which Breton heralded this new group owes much to the vitality and commitment of the younger members, of whom Onslow Ford was pivotal. It was he who organised the summer sojourn in Chémillieu in 1939, which was crucial in reinvigorating the group in the foreboding final summer before the Second World War.

In late 1939, Onslow Ford was recalled to London as a Naval reserve and, as rumour has it, was forced by a fortuitous malady to miss the Atlantic voyage to which he had been assigned, thus escaping death on the first British ship of the war to be sunk. Following his move to London, he transferred his knowledge and experience of surrealism to the activities of the British surrealist group. In June 1940 he participated in the important "Surrealism Today" show at the Zwemmer Gallery, also providing the all-important financial backing for the issue of the London Bulletin which accompanied the exhibition, and co-editing the review with the Belgian surrealist and leader of the British group E.L.T. Mesens.

Onslow Ford was finally relieved from active service with the help of the artist Kay Sage, who had organised the Society for the Preservation of European Culture in New York. In return for the society's intervention, Sage arranged for Onslow Ford to give a series of lectures on surrealist painting. In January-February 1941, Onslow Ford gave four lectures, entitled "Surrealist Painting: an adventure into Human Consciousness", which were attended by various young artists who would shortly become crucial figures within the Abstract Expressionist movement, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

As the only English speaker of the exiled surrealist group, Onslow Ford became an unwitting spokesman for the movement. His lectures on automatism in particular were met with great interest by the budding New York group, already receptive to experimentation with automatism and to Onslow Ford's interest in Jungian analytical psychology. Onslow Ford has been recognised as a precursor to Pollock in his development in the late 1930s of a technique of pouring paint directly onto the canvas, which he termed coulage.

In 1941 Onslow Ford married the writer and poet Jacqueline Johnson, and the couple travelled to Mexico, settling for six years in Erongarícuaro, a village in the Michoacán region, home to the Tarascan Indians. Although Onslow Ford exhibited in the "First Papers of Surrealism" exhibition in New York, 1942, it was during the first two years in Mexico that he began to distance himself from surrealism, breaking away in May 1943 although retaining good relations with Breton.

In Mexico, Onslow Ford began to develop his painting away from its surrealist roots towards an immersion within the natural world, a move that was in some way prompted by his fears that becoming a social figure within the New York art scene would ultimately be detrimental to his artistic evolution. On his return from Mexico in 1947, he settled in the San Francisco Bay area and in 1951 formed the group Dynaton, derived from the Greek word for "the possible", with the artists Lee Mullican and the ex- surrealist Wolfgang Paalen.

From this point onwards, Onslow Ford began to develop the metaphysical element of his work that had been latent in his surrealist period, and began to rearticulate his interest in exploring psychological depths through a language, both written and visual, inspired by Buddhist philosophy and spiritual practice. An interest in Eastern thought was becoming part of the cultural climate of California at that time, as reflected in the establishment of the Asian Academy (later renamed the California Institute of Integral Studies) in San Francisco in 1951, where Onslow Ford studied the non-dualistic Hindu philosophy of the Vedanta.

His works of the 1950s have strong echoes of the Theosophy- inspired early abstractions of Wassily Kandinsky and Frantisek Kupka. Further study of Buddhism and initiation into Chinese and Japanese calligraphy with a Zen Master, Hodo Tobase Roshi, had an enormous impact on Onslow Ford's art and his way of life. In 1952 he became an American citizen, and in 1958 he built a home and studio in the secluded woodlands of the Bishop Pine Preserve above Inverness.

It was in these woods, he recalled, that the revelation came to him in 1951 that the basic forms of the line, circle and dot were "at the root of art". The discovery of this basic visual language, which dominated his art for almost two decades, enabled the artist to work with the speed he deemed necessary for capturing the flux of the "inner worlds which lie beyond dreams". Constantly seeking greater technical mastery of his art, Onslow Ford worked with the chemist William Parle in the early 1960s to create a pioneering paint product that was a precursor to acrylics, and which facilitated the rapid over- laying of black and white colours propitious to the artist's experimentation with spontaneous gesture.

A highly articulate and poetic writer, Onslow Ford also communicated his vision of art in several books, including Painting in the Instant (1964), Creation (1978) and Once Upon a Time (1999). These writings map the development of his painting along the axis of the notions of "Spontaneous Expression" and "the Inner Worlds", which he defined as the creative life force inherent within all forms of matter, becoming apparent only beyond the boundaries of rational thought, and revealed through artistic vision. Although such notions developed through his metaphysical concerns, they none the less recall the surrealist origins of his thought, with the union of the external and the internal, mind and matter, and the automatic gesture at their heart.

Onslow Ford has left the majority of his work and his impressive collection to the Lucid Art Foundation.

Donna Roberts