Obituary: Cecil Kennedy
Thursday 29 January 1998
Once considered one of the lesser genres, still-life painting has in recent years been elevated to its rightful status as a complex and thoughtful, as well as aesthetically pleasing, form. How we portray and perceive the simple objects in our midst tells a great deal about the age.
In the 17th century, the golden age of tulipomania and still-life painting, Dutch merchants would invest their entire fortune on a tulip bulb. Flower painting as such became a highly prized form, memorialising these ephemeral wonders.
Building upon this grand tradition of the Old Master still-life, Cecil Kennedy was one of the foremost flower painters of the 20th century. He blended the technical accuracy of a botanist with a distinctively modern use of colour and atmospheric lighting, making the form all his own.
The Kennedy family offered an encouraging and talented artistic milieu; Cecil's grandfather, his father and four of his uncles were painters. His grandfather was a landscapist who befriended the Barbizon painter Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot. Later Kennedy shared a creative and emotional relationship with his wife Winifred Aves. She created many of the floral arrangements he painted. The couple were avid collectors of antique clocks and furniture and mid-18th-century Waterford vases, the latter of which appear in many of the paintings.
Kennedy was profoundly affected by the time he spent in Antwerp during the Second World War while serving with the British Army. It was then that he began to emulate the extraordinary balance of meticulous technique and exuberant coloration which has been championed within the Flemish School since Peter Paul Rubens. His acquaintance with Old Masters in European museums was combined with close friendships with contemporary Flemish artists.
From the age of 24 Kennedy exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy and the Royal Hibernian Academy, and later at the Royal Academy in London, the Paris Salon, and with eminent private societies and dealers. He achieved not only critical acclaim but was awarded a silver medal in 1956 and a gold medal in 1970 at the Paris Salon. He also showed at the Fine Art Society from the 1950s through to the 1970s. His many private patrons included Queen Mary, the Duke of Windsor and the Astors.
Cecil Kennedy had a great knowledge of a variety of plants and their range of compositional and colouristic appeal. He portrayed both the most exotic hybrids, such as snakehead irises, and the most hardy common species, including grasses, wildflowers and fruits. He often created quartets of pictures in which he carefully selected blooms particular to each season.
In some works, Kennedy sought exuberant complexity through a spectrum of chromatic hues and different floral types reminiscent of the voluptuous works of Jan Van Huysum (1682- 1749) and Rachel Ruysch (1664-1750). He also experimented with the expressive possibilities of all-white arrangements.
In compositions of several blooms of a single flower type he combined the scrutiny of the botanist, comparing different exemplars of a single species, with the symbolic expression of the humanist, offering insights into mortality and beauty.
These works often focus on species whose names have particular symbolic import, most notably in the paintings which celebrate the roses Innocence, Mme Butterfly and Peace. The Peace rose, "the rose of the century" was named to commemorate the end of the Second World War.
Kennedy's eyesight began to deteriorate in the late Eighties and he took the difficult decision to stop painting. Nonetheless, he was recently celebrated in a retrospective of contemporary flower painting, "Three Flower Painters", held at the Richard Green Gallery in 1997. Green characterised him as the most exquisitely detailed and artful flower painter of his generation.
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