Maurice Sumray

Offbeat St Ives painter

The meticulously drawn figurative paintings of Maurice Sumray, in which crowds of bald or scantily clad women dance or play piggyback in mysterious carnival-like arrangements, seemed out of place in the predominantly abstract or landscape-inspired art colony of St Ives, Cornwall, where Sumray moved permanently after leaving his native London in 1968.



Maurice Sumray, painter and engraver: born London 26 December 1920; married 1952 Pat Twinn (two sons, two daughters); died Carbis Bay, Cornwall 21 July 2004.



The meticulously drawn figurative paintings of Maurice Sumray, in which crowds of bald or scantily clad women dance or play piggyback in mysterious carnival-like arrangements, seemed out of place in the predominantly abstract or landscape-inspired art colony of St Ives, Cornwall, where Sumray moved permanently after leaving his native London in 1968.

Yet Sumray, an immensely gifted and probing draughtsman who sometimes took a year to complete a large and detailed composition, pursued his imaginative vision with single- mindedness, in spite of periodically falling prey to bouts of melancholia and self-doubt about the whole enterprise of being a painter. "Painting for me is a battle," he said, "and I find the medium difficult."

Born in London in 1920, the son of an East End Jewish tailor, Sumray was largely self-taught, though he showed during the Second World War (during which he served in the Ministry of Economic Warfare) in mixed exhibitions at the Whitechapel Art Gallery. After establishing "Sumray Textiles", specialising in hand-printed cottons, he studied with his twin brother, Harman, at Goldsmiths' College, London, between 1949 and 1953.

While at Goldsmiths' in 1950 the precocious 30-year-old artist was described by Wyndham Lewis in The Listener as one of the "best artists in England". The author of The Demon of Progress in the Arts (1954) saw in Sumray's well-crafted figuration and humane naturalism a foil to what he saw at the time as "that contagion that hurries an artist to zero" and led to the bogus extreme of advanced abstraction.

Sumray's early paintings such as The Old Jew (1948) and The Hunchback (1950) indeed eschewed abstraction, sharing with Wyndham Lewis sombre colour and stylised, mask-like faces. Sumray's melancholic figures were however closer to toys than to Lewis's mechanical tyrants. Despite early recognition Sumray abandoned painting in 1953, destroying all works in his possession, and dedicated his time to developing a printing business.

His workshop and engraving studio in Fitzroy Street was technically innovative, developing the flexographic process for wallpaper printing and packaging materials. South of Fitzroy Street, in Soho, he became a familiar figure at such haunts of artists as Muriel Belcher's Colony Room.

Financially secure, he moved in 1968 at the request of his wife, Pat - who came from a West Country naval family - to St Ives, where, after a 20-year hiatus, he resumed painting. He revisited an old theme in Lovers (1971), the double act peering back at the spectator with the touching pathos of early Picasso and articulated with the sharp lines and cylindrical anatomy of Léger and Helion.

Perhaps recognising the problematic nature of earning a living from painting alone, this intellectual cockney with a bluff, lovable exterior and a street-wise disposition alighted in Cornwall entirely on his own terms. In 1980 he became a full member of the Penwith and Newlyn art societies, exhibiting his complex and detailed crowd scenes in eclectic exhibitions. In 1981 he was selected for a Tolly Cobbold touring exhibition which visited museums in Oxford and Cambridge before coming to the ICA, London. In the same year he enjoyed solo shows at the Newlyn Orion Gallery in Penzance and at the Montpelier Studios, London.

A Penwith Society retrospective in 1984 was well received and the catalogue for his Falmouth Art Gallery retrospective in 1997 contained eulogies from friends such as the poet Al Alvarez and the BBC journalist Brian Barron.

Sumray's compositions contain the inscrutable and distanced quality of a dream, the mysterious figures summarised by Alvarez as "emblematic, like the kings, queens and jacks in a pack of cards". (Like Alvarez, he was a keen poker player.) From the male perspective at least, the subjects contain an offbeat, blatantly sexual symbolism, the sturdy thighs and voluptuous bodies confronting the spectator - who is reduced to voyeur. The rhythm and ornamental richness of decorative detail recall Mark Gertler and Stanley Spencer.

The sombre, melancholic realism of Sumray's early portraits contrast with the purely imaginative concoctions of the later dancing women, circus performers and peopled interiors. There was however, an underlying rhythmic energy common to both early and late work, the early pictures recalling the Vorticism of Jacob Kramer, Wyndham Lewis or C.W. Nevinson, the later figure compositions closer to William Roberts.

In latter years Sumray lived in a flat overlooking Porthmeor beach, not a bad fate for an artist from the East End with a keen feeling for social justice. (When last year he moved to a large suburban house in nearby Carbis Bay, he felt sadly estranged from the bustle of the sea front.)

Within the art life of St Ives he championed the cause of the underdog and the neglected, among whose ranks this talented and distinctive outsider belonged.

Peter Davies

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