Yankel Feather: Painter whose work was suffused with images of his Liverpool childhood and later life in Cornwall

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The Independent Online

The lyrical and colourful figure, still life and landscape paintings of Yankel Feather slowly but insistently made their mark during a long career when he interacted with L.S. Lowry, Terry Frost – a lifelong friend – and some of the best-known and most popular post-war British artists.

Relying as much on a sharp visual memory as on a natural graphic facility, virtuoso paint handling or poetic colour, this wry observer of people and places produced soulful evocations of an impoverished childhood on Merseyside. There were also sumptuous still lifes and atmospheric coastal landscapes of south-west Cornwall, where he lived for 20 years, and many other places trodden by Feather's restless feet.

Feather was born in Liverpool in 1920, one of seven children, and grew up in rough and cramped circumstances near the docks at the bottom of Parliament Hill. He only met his absentee father, an Austrian immigrant, once, but inherited from him the artistic inclinations that budded first at Harrington Road School then at a Jewish secondary school. Later, he followed his sister Leah, who had married a soldier, to London; using the newlyweds' Bexleyheath base he studied part-time under the renowned potter Heber Matthews at Woolwich Polytechnic between 1937 and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Feather returned to Merseyside during the War, where he worked at Rootes Aircraft Factory, and was conscripted into the Highland Light Infantry, leading to spells in Glasgow, London and Bournemouth. Art formed a salutary thread throughout, Feather having adopted the brush well before the War in response to large, academic and classical pictures at the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool. Also relevant to an art education based more on observation than technical practice was the inspirational spectacle of major works by Rembrandt, Velasquez and other old masters encountered during visits to the Tate and National Galleries in London.

Feather's penchant for the old masters was soon to be complemented, indeed replaced, by an appreciation for modern art, particularly the post-war St Ives landscape abstractionists, with many of whom Feather interacted. "Later I found Ivon Hitchens and Roger Hilton, and from 'the big one', Francis Bacon, I gather strength," he wrote in revealing, unpublished autobiographical writings.

Hitchens, whose work Feather briefly collected, provided luminous canvases that picked up the subtlest natural effects such as slivers of light on the marine horizon or passing shadows across undulating topography. Feather's natural virtuosity was such that he dashed off with the cheek of a copyist a blue period monochrome, an effortless grisaille or multi-coloured impressionism shot through with characteristic blues, greens, ochres and purples. Influences aside, Feather's visions were always based on personal experience and the observation of a gentle satirist.

His greatest rapport – with his friend Terry Frost, whom he met while visiting St Ives in 1947 and came to know shortly after in London – was, however, more personal than artistic. Frost described Feather as late as 2002 as "a genuine artist who is now sailing with the wind behind him," both in acknowledgement of a 60- year career and a friendship lasting almost as long. Feather's late beached boats series inspired by the seafront at Hove, where he lived from 2002, was a pertinent metaphor of retirement and dignified obsolescence. They veered away from Frost's quayside cubism and abstraction, Feather composing in more conventional, though hardly academic, fashion while still emulating Frost's zigzagging rhythmic force. They also confirmed the importance of the sea to the Liverpool-born painter who, after leaving his native city in 1977, where he had owned a nightclub and operated as an antiques dealer, lived near St Just in south-west Cornwall for 20 years and then, after a short urban, landlocked interlude in Dulwich, in Brighton.

Feather's exhibiting career was spasmodic, reflecting a fitful output compromised by dreary hotel and telephone operator jobs. It was only after "retiring" and joining the Cornish artists in the late 1970s – where he associated with similarly figurative painters like Rose Hilton and Mary Stork – that his output became consistent and, as time wore on, prolific.

Feather did, however, enjoy occasional significant solo shows that augmented ongoing and regular appearances in the Liverpool Academy exhibitions at the Walker and at the Newlyn Society of Artists in Cornwall. His work, at once stylistically eclectic yet individualist, provided a refreshing antidote to the assumed avant garde clothes donned by the likes of Arthur Ballard, Adrian Henri and Sam Walsh on Merseyside. At Newlyn his work cohered with that of Gill Watkiss, Hilton, Bob Bourne and Ken Symons, who proposed him for membership of the Newlyn Society.

Feather exhibited at the legendary Helen Lessore's Beaux Arts Gallery in London during the 1950s, at the Salthouse and New Millennium Galleries in St Ives during the 1980s and 1990s and, after the market took off after 2000, at Zimmer Stewart Gallery, Arundel and the GX Gallery, Dulwich. The latter hosted several near sell-out shows, one of which was opened by Cilla Black, one of Feather's erstwhile teenage clients at his much frequented club, The Basement, at the turn of the 1960s.

Feather's Liverpool roots cast their shadow both socially and professionally. Inspired by Lowry, whom he met at the Walker Art Gallery and visited at Mottram during the mid-1960s, Feather contrived from memory evocations of his working class roots. His later pictures of boys playing football on dockside waste land or of the vast edifices on the Mersey front, shared the documentary nostalgia of Lowry's mills and terraced streets. Feather also showed with perverse pride a coveted but damaged painting slashed by an irate John Lennon, whom Feather, an acquaintance of Brian Epstein, had evicted from The Basement. Another acquaintance, Peter Brown, an employee of the Beatles' organisation Apple, invited Feather into Savile Row premises in 1970 where he saw the break-up of the Beatles at first hand. Ringo Starr was one of many notable Liverpudlian owners of Feather's exuberant, poetic work.

Openly gay, but never camp, Feather enjoyed two later partners, Bill King and Terry Arbuckle, his sexual orientation overridden by a vision of human tenderness. The male nude in a series of Keith Vaughan-inspired works, or the female head in deft portraits replete with the caricatural charm of Raoul Dufy, stood out as metaphors of hope, solace and, above all, an indomitable joie de vivre.

Peter Davies

Yankel Feather, painter: born Liverpool 21 June 1920; member, Liverpool Academy of Art, Newlyn Society of Artists; died 18 April 2009.