Obituary: Felix Kelly

Felix Runcie Kelly, painter: born Auckland, New Zealand 3 February 1914; died Devon 3 July 1994.

I EARLY became acquainted with Felix Kelly and his paintings, for, when I was four, he came to my parents' home to make sketches for a pair of paintings they had commissioned of the 18th-century Gothick one-time rectory in which we lived.

Felix later dined out on the story that when he arrived - unusually for an artist rather early and in a racy open Triumph sports car - I went out to meet him in the garden, invited him into the house, showed him into the

sitting-room and explained that my parents were still in their bath. The handsome, dashing, young- looking artist was vastly amused it seemed, for his laughter resounded throughout the house. I, of course, was flattered beyond measure by his huge appreciation. We became friends for life.

Kelly was a continuing visitor to the house and I always looked forward to these visits, to his humour and charm and to his anecdotes deriving from his frequent visits to far places. He was very indulgent to the young.

Kelly was born in comfortable circumstances in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1914. He left for London in his twenties and worked as a graphic artist in advertising until the opening of the Second World War. He then enlisted in the RAF and was commissioned as a navigating officer. His first one-man show was held in 1943, at the Lefevre Gallery, and was a great success. Commissions came his way almost immediately. A slim volume showing his paintings was published in 1946 with an introduction by Herbert Read. That prime publicist for the Modern Movement was, nevertheless, clearly beguiled by these romantic visions conjured by Kelly.

His experience in a large advertising studio undoubtedly sponsored his innate versatility. His post-war projects ranged from book-illustration to stage design. He was responsible for sets for Old Vic productions and for the stage adaptation of NC Hunter's novel A Day by the Sea in 1953 starring Sybil Thorndike and John Gielgud. And a notable act of friendship was his four-volume series of illustrations for the 'At Home' books by his friend Elizabeth Burton dealing with the domestic interiors and furnishings of the Elizabethans, Jacobeans, Georgians, and early Victorians.

Kelly's paintings during the Thirties and Forties were influenced by the Surrealists, a fact which probably aroused Herbert Read's interest in the young artist. As commissions increased, Kelly recognised that his patrons preferred their domiciles to be depicted as romantic rather than surreal, with the result that this trait in his work became less marked. I suspect that had this influence persisted Kelly's work would have received more critical attention.

Thereafter he painted portraits of the houses of the rich in Britain and in the United States and his work was always in demand. Understandably so, for the mystical, evocative ambience which he bestowed upon these houses was enormously appealing to his discerning clientele. When compared with Kelly's luminous canvases the work of other artists specialising in domestic architecture (with one or two exceptions) pales into pedestrian insignificance. One of the last of his paintings, that of the Prince of Wales's house in Gloucestershire, Highgrove, was also one of his best.

Happily, some of Kelly's most beautiful paintings are open to public view. These are the set of murals he painted for George Howard, owner of Castle Howard, the wonderful Vanbrugh house in Yorkshire. In 1940, when the house was occupied by a girls' school, a great fire destroyed its south front. Forty years later, after Castle Howard had been cast as Brideshead in the television dramatisation of Evelyn Waugh's novel, George Howard used the fees derived to recreate a garden hall on the south front. He had long been a patron of Kelly's and visualised a special room designed by the architect Julian Bicknell to house a set of Kelly murals on panels.

This highly imaginative concept is a delight for thousands of visitors: its success delighted Kelly, and especially George Howard. Each panel depicts a building- in-a-landscape, possessed of what Howard rightly termed 'a heartbreaking nostalgia in their never- never-land appeal'. He liked Kelly's inclusion of a motor-launch lying in the water at a foot of a slope - a portrait of Howard's own 1924 mahogany and brass Thames dayboat.

Kelly invested all his paintings with that 'heartbreaking nostalgia' without playing any fancy tricks with architectural verisimilitude. How he managed this puzzled and delighted his contemporaries and will doubtless intrigue generations to come. They are a unique memorial to the golden age of English domestic architecture and also to their perennially modest creator.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Recruitment Genius: Project Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This privately-owned company designs and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Officer

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen at th...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - London - £40,000 + Bonus

£36000 - £40000 per annum + Bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...