Obituary: Felix Kelly
Wednesday 06 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.
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