Obituary: George Sweet

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The Independent Online
George Sweet was a figurative painter in the realistic and painterly Anglo-French tradition. He was widely travelled and widely read, with many interests: he could, indeed, have become an ornithologist, a linguist or a classicist.

He was born in 1909. As a boy his devotion to at least two of these interests was apparent. He was working as a medical student when he heard that Tonks, the formidable Slade Professor, was to retire in two years, and he switched over to the Slade School, for his ambition had always been to be a painter. At the Slade he was a fellow student with William Coldstream and Claude Rogers, who became a lifelong friend.

A period of travel in Europe followed, during which, as a natural linguist, he became fluent in the languages he loved - French, Spanish and Catalan. The outbreak of civil war in Spain brought this fertile period to an end and he returned to England to paint and teach.

His lifelong passion for ornithology resulted in his becoming an accepted authority on raptors, in particular the honey-buzzard and osprey. He contributed on these subjects to the standard work Birds of the Western Palearctic (the first of whose encyclopaedic volumes appeared in 1977). Very late in life, in spite of failing health, he was still prepared to go on bird- watching expeditions with a friend in the New Forest, and looked forward to such outings with undiminished enjoyment.

In quite another field, he gave much of his time in post-war years to the International Association of Plastic Art (IAPA, later IAA, part of Unesco) as spokesman for the visual arts. But his teaching career was the main distraction from his studio from 1938 to 1960. As the head of the Fine Art department at the West of England College of Art in Bristol he had considerable responsibility and influence, bringing a wide and cosmopolitan experience to his students: not many art teachers would have been able to tell them of a meeting with Bonnard, for instance. He retired early, feeling that art schools were changing in ways he was not in sympathy with, and from then on was able to devote himself to his painting.

When he left his study table, littered with papers and books, to go into his painting room - into which few people were admitted - he became a painter who worked with concentration and humility towards a complete "realisation" of his subject, a process based on exact observation of nuances of colour and tone (precision of drawing being taken for granted as essential).

With advancing years, far from relaxing or becoming repetitious, his painting became more expansive, and he embarked on a series of large figure paintings. Those who saw these last works at the Browse and Darby gallery in London - an autumnal harvest - will remember the grasp of solid forms bathed in light, the sense of air circulating round them, the unremitting realism. Three were bought for the Saatchi collection; this must have caused Sweet some wry amusement, as he had never made much concession to the marketing of his work, or the building of a reputation, seeming to prefer keeping his canvases under his eye in the studio.

The high standards he always stood for would at times result in a mildly professorial or didactic manner - a questioning eye, a tendency to correct his friends' French accents - but it was transformed in a moment with an infectious enthusiasm and pleasure at something seen or read. To go round an exhibition with him was to share in this absorption and in his fresh response to things seen, which stayed with him until the very end of his long life.

George Ernest Sweet, artist: born London 20 November 1909; married Audrey Hannam (died 1975; one daughter); died Bristol 29 June 1997.

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