OBITUARY : Terence Cuneo

Arriving at the Mall Galleries in London during the hanging for Terence Cuneo's retrospective in 1988, one was confronted by a huge amount of work still contained in enormous pantechnicons. Inside were paintings of military subjects, a variety of portraits, large canvases of ceremonies at Guildhall; by the time I approached the third wagon it was clear that this was going to be a big exhibition. I glanced into the gallery, which was already full of works hung from floor to ceiling, and there in the middle of this chaos was Terence Cuneo, his daughter and some friends. They were trying to convince the artist that the show was complete - Cuneo wanted to show everything he had borrowed, so as not to upset anyone who had lent works.

It was difficult. One room with a signal-box at the entrance showed his train paintings (he designed the set of stamps to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Great Western Railway in 1985 and even had a train named after him in 1990), another the military paintings, including a large picture of the clearing of a minefield in North Africa - Cuneo later told me to stand before it and blink fast to give the impression of movement which he tried to convey. The other gallery contained his fine portraits and ceremonial paintings. He was a naturally prolific artist. Throughout the show, on every painting, was his signature mouse, often on guard or riding on the back of a cowboy in a stampede.

A detailed and lengthy Who's Who entry mentions Cuneo's upbringing, background and art training (his parents, Nell Tenison and Cyrus Cuneo, a Garibaldi by descent and a pupil of Whistler, were both artists; he himself attended Chelsea Polytechnic and the Slade). But what makes a young artist withdraw from the painting values taught by the Slade to become the traditionalist and commercial artist we know?

Terence Cuneo was always searching for new subjects away from the studio. He first made his mark as a racing artist in the 1920s, with his "Pitwork" series depicting Le Mans and other racing circuits. This was the training ground for future subject matter - the excitement of speed, busyness and movement which would come into his later works of equestrian subjects.

His technique and skill developed when he became a war artist in the Second World War - another field for him to conquer - and later with his many travels to such places as Ethiopia and the Far East. An exhibition of his work soon after the war demonstrated his inquisitive eye. The many military works that came out of the war and later are to be seen in the various messes around Britain: the Royal Artillery and the Rifle Brigade among others.

In America Cuneo was elected an Honorary Town Marshal. He would ride the range and paint a stampede. The little mouse would always be there. When he painted the Bedouin, the desert scenes showed his flair for painting direct from life, his colour capturing the harshness of life. To survive, and to solve different problems, gave him great pleasure.

One challenge was painting delicate detail. This can be seen in his pictures The Visit to Lloyd's of Queen Elizabeth II with the Duke of Edinburgh to lay the Foundation Stone of Lloyd's New Building (1952), The Queen's Coronation Luncheon, Guildhall (1953), and many other scenes from Westminster to Buckingham Palace. Cuneo painted a number of pictures of the Queen, and was the official artist at the Coronation in 1953.

Cuneo's portraits on the grand scale show the artist at his fluid best. His fine equestrian portrait HM the Queen as Colonel-in-Chief, Grenadier Guards (1963) again shows Cuneo the observer, its simplicity of shape and line in contrast to the busy details of earlier paintings. He also painted official portraits of Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery of Alamein, Edward Heath and Col H. Jones VC.

When elected to the Society of Equestrian Artists as its first president, Cuneo gave his complete support, always showing his latest works, whether of his travels or the first viewing of an important commission. At selections for the open exhibitions he would be critical but constructive, finding the good point in a young artist and quick to praise. Cuneo loved story- telling and it often shows in his work. The paintings would be considered in stages - first the shapes and the subject matter, then the detail and the real point of interest. He made numerous preparatory studies and was forever correcting. The final work would be highly finished. Some may find fault in this. But why not just look?

There is always a place for an artist who observes, records and illustrates. The camera can lie, so can an artist to himself, but never to his public. Terence Cuneo was a public man; it shows in his work, the time he gave to many committees and in his universal friendship.

Tom Coates

Terence Tenison Cuneo, painter: born London 1 November 1907; OBE 1987; CVO 1994; author of The Mouse and His Master 1977; married Catherine Monro (died 1979; one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Esher, Surrey 3 January 1996.

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