Obituary: Victor Pasmore
Monday 26 January 1998
Victor Pasmore was the last surviving great British artist of his generation. Known first for his very lyrical and poetic landscapes and figure pictures, his conversion to abstract art in 1948 was one of the most dramatic events in post-war British art and, to begin with, caused great dismay to many of his admirers; but he went on to become a major figure in the international abstract movement. Characteristic of all his work was a natural gift for lyrical expression on the one hand and a tendency to theorise about the nature and purpose of painting on the other.
He was born in Chelsham, Surrey in 1908, the son of a distinguished doctor, and began to show exceptional talent for painting while still a pupil at Harrow (experimenting at that time with a form of Impressionism). However, the sudden death of his father in 1927 obliged him to earn his own living, and on leaving school he worked for over ten years as a clerk in the Public Health Department at LCC County Hall, and was only able to paint in his spare time. He attended evening classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, visited the Tate and exhibitions in dealers' galleries, and began to familiarise himself with 20th-century art, especially the work of Braque, Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard, sometimes even painting with reproductions of their works spread out on the floor around him. He became friendly with a number of young painters, including William Coldstream and Claude Rogers, and in 1937 collaborated with Coldstream and Rogers in opening a School of Drawing and Painting first in Fitzroy Street and then in the Euston Road which became known as the Euston Road School.
Having become dissatisfied with his own attempts at a sort of Fauvism, he joined with Coldstream to pioneer a return to naturalism, and the pupils were taught to paint from the model without recourse to stylisation. Sickert, Degas, Cezanne (but not the late Cezanne) and Bonnard were the recommended exemplars. Then in 1938 the patronage of Sir Kenneth Clark enabled him to give up his job at County Hall, and devote his whole time to painting and teaching.
The Euston Road School closed soon after the outbreak of war, and in 1940 Pasmore married Wendy Blood, herself a painter. She served as model for a number of pictures of this period, which in their delicacy and sense of dreamy reverie reflect the happiness of their life together. After a brief spell in the Army in 1941-42, he suddenly deserted and went home to paint. He was put in prison and only released through the intervention of Coldstream and Sir Kenneth Clark. Out of prison, out of the Army, and living at Chiswick by the Thames and a little later at nearby Hammersmith Terrace, he embarked on a series of views of the river, somewhat in the spirit of Whistler and Turner.
While reading the writings of the great Post-Impressionist painters such as Cezanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh, he was interested to note that some of the ideas they expressed were far in advance of any of their paintings ("Colouristic painting is entering a musical phase", wrote Gauguin, for instance), and decided to follow up the implications of these ideas. His later Hammersmith paintings - the view of Thames-side gardens in mist or under snow, the figure pictures and still lives - were made as a systematic exploration of Post-Impressionism from Cezanne to Seurat including shifting viewpoints and the use of pointillist dots. These experiments reached their peak after his move to Blackheath in 1947, when he began to introduce a few shapes which were completely abstract and subject nature to arbitrary patterning and stylisation.
Feeling that he had reached a dead end and that his paintings were becoming neither one thing nor the other, he decided in 1948 to make a fresh start with abstract art, and to explore all its possibilities in a completely scientific way, finding out what happened when one started with a square or a spiral and so on. He read the writings of Kandinsky, Mondrian, Arp and the other pioneers of abstract art, but was entirely uninfluenced by the post-war Parisian and American abstract movements, which were still unknown in Britain at the time. His example was followed by a small group of artists who were pupils or friends of his, such as Kenneth Martin, Adrian Heath, Terry Frost and Anthony Hill. Some of these artists were later to become, like him, the nucleus of a British Constructivist movement.
Pasmore's earliest abstract paintings were very painterly and (except for the spiral compositions) rich and glowing in colour, and in some works the square and spiral motifs were still deliberately used to evoke an impression of landscape with a horizon line. However, before long this illusionistic treatment of space began to disturb him, and in 1951, the same year as his spiral mural on the outside wall of the Regatta Restaurant at the Festival of Britain, he decided to give up painting entirely, at any rate for the time being, and concentrate on making reliefs. The earliest of these were made out of painted plywood and had a painterly, hand-made character, but he soon went on to make ones which projected both forwards and to the sides, and which incorporated sheets of transparent perspex: works with the impersonal finish and precision of machine production.
One of the effects of this development was that it brought his works into close relation with modern architecture. In 1955, soon after starting to teach at Newcastle (as Master of Painting at King's College, Durham University, from 1954 to 1961), he was appointed consultant architectural designer to nearby Peterlee, to collaborate with two young architects on the design of the south-west area of the New Town. Their work there - and even the town plans - bears the strong imprint of Pasmore and is related to his paintings and reliefs. In its elegance of design, human scale, and integration of buildings with the landscape, it still ranks as one of the most successful architectural developments of the period.
He began to make a few paintings again towards the end of the 1950s, experimenting at first with different types of "basic" form in a rather bare, austere way, but did not become fully involved with painting again until about 1964-65 (the year of his large retrospective at the Tate). It was only after his purchase of a house and studio in Malta in 1966- 67 that his paintings became fully liberated once more, in the glowing Mediterranean light. Working with ever-increasing freedom, pouring and spraying paint, using a range of gorgeous colours, adding black lines and marks of an almost oriental refinement, he recaptured all the lyricism of his early period. And he continued working at painting and prints, right up to the time of his death.
Pasmore was a man of great elegance and charm, who could also be extremely obstinate. But without an element of cussedness it is hardly likely he could have achieved so much.
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