Nicholas Horsfield

Leading Liverpool painter

The painter Nicholas Horsfield was one of the most influential figures in the arts in the North-West. A southerner by birth and education, he spent almost his entire professional life as artist, teacher and art administrator in the contrasting and rival cities of Manchester and Liverpool. His role as the Arts Council's regional officer for visual arts in the North-West between 1948 and 1956 gave him an unrivalled understanding of the thriving Lancashire art scene. Between 1956 and retirement in 1982 he taught at Liverpool College of Art.

Nicholas Horsfield, painter, teacher and arts administrator: born New Malden, Surrey 21 January 1917; Arts Council Regional Officer, Manchester 1948-56; Lecturer, Liverpool College of Art 1956-82; married 1955 Brenda Buchanan (one son, two daughters); died Liverpool 27 May 2005.

The painter Nicholas Horsfield was one of the most influential figures in the arts in the North-West. A southerner by birth and education, he spent almost his entire professional life as artist, teacher and art administrator in the contrasting and rival cities of Manchester and Liverpool. His role as the Arts Council's regional officer for visual arts in the North-West between 1948 and 1956 gave him an unrivalled understanding of the thriving Lancashire art scene. Between 1956 and retirement in 1982 he taught at Liverpool College of Art.

He was born in New Malden, Surrey, in 1917, the son of a naval officer. He was educated at Charterhouse School before going on, at the recommendation of the painter Keith Baynes, a distant relation, to the Royal College of Art in London. Horsfield's early still-life and portrait paintings revealed an accomplished use of structure, tone and rich colour.

A short teaching spell in Leipzig was followed by Second World War service in India and the Far East. Horsfield then resumed teaching at Dover College, but his knowledge of art history and his diplomatic skills predisposed him for a post as an arts administrator and he moved north to take up the Arts Council post in Manchester. There he fraternised with painters such as L.S. Lowry, Alan Lowndes and Harry Rutherford, with the Manchester Guardian art critic, John Willett, and with gallery owners such as Margot Ingham and Andreas Kalman. Horsfield sent his own work in to annual Manchester Academy exhibitions at the City Art Gallery. He also organised several important surveys of British and continental modern art in the region.

Despite Lowry's spectacular rise to national prominence during the early 1950s, Horsfield did not embrace the local industrial landscape as a theme. Swayed by his friend Willett, who was arguing that Liverpool art had a more challenging avant-garde edge, Horsfield began looking closely at the assortment of abstract or surrealistic artists on Merseyside. Artists like Arthur Hallard, George Mayer-Marton or George Jardine seemed to him more relevant to the wider international scene. In 1956 Horsfield moved to Liverpool and began teaching at the local art school, soon to witness ferment and innovation in the form of students such as the future Beatles Stuart Sutcliffe and John Lennon.

Horsfield's own painting, however, seldom embraced local subject matter. His rare Liverpool street view Mount Street (1957) was donated by John Moores to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. In common with many northern artists, he looked south for sources of inspiration. A confirmed Francophile, he gravitated to Willett's house in Normandy at Le Thil, near Dieppe, where he painted intermittently for the rest of his career. Deeply sensuous in its lush handling of paint and richness of colour, Horsfield's partially abstracted landscape painting reflected his love of French art, whose history he knew intimately.

While his teaching career restricted the amount of time available to him for painting, Horsfield did benefit from several sabbaticals. The first of these, in 1953, was spent near Dieppe and yielded another Walker picture, Le Poliet Cliffs (1954). Other sabbaticals in 1961, 1967 and 1973 resulted in series paintings based on natural motifs like cliffs, rivers or woods in northern France or Poland.

Horsfield served as President of the now defunct Liverpool Academy between 1960 and 1965. He enjoyed several solo shows in his adopted city, notably at the Bluecoat Chambers and in 1997 at the Walker Art Gallery.

In 1984 he held a large exhibition at the Château Musée in Dieppe and at the Camden Arts Centre in London. Together with the poet Adrian Henri, and the painters Arthur Ballard and Richard Young, Horsfield was responsible for an intellectually rigorous Merseyside arts scene that responded on its own terms to such developments as Pop Art and other late modernist movements after 1960.

Horsfield's own way forward in his later career was to innovate in terms of reworking Old Master themes. The teaching of art history and life drawing in the later years had an impact on his work, in which a more visible accord between drawing and painting was apparent. Using a variety of graphic media, Horsfield made copies of early Cézanne portraits, of Tintoretto's St George and the Dragon and of Géricault's romantic Raft of the Medusa. In the 1970s he learnt etching, and pulled prints at a press installed by the Sandon Society at the Bluecoat Chambers.

Horsfield was a social man who enjoyed pub life. He was also a family man and lived with his wife Brenda in the Liverpool suburb of Crosby. At coastal locations like Blundellsands and Hightown near his home, Horsfield found long stretches of sand dunes beneath large skies. The light and mood here inspired a "local" phase in his landscape oeuvre.

His status as a leading Liverpool painter was confirmed by his 1997 Walker retrospective, after which he dedicated his time to helping younger artists and supporting new local initiatives.

An exhibition of Horsfield's work, "The Figure in Paintings and Drawings", continues at the University of Liverpool Art Gallery until 29 July.

Peter Davies



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