OBITUARY : John Christopherson

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The Independent Online
John Christopherson was a painter of small dreamlike townscapes that combine an almost naive intensity with great sophistication. He was also a knowledgeable, modest collector and connoisseur of antiquities, tribal objects and post-war art.

Born in Blackheath, London in 1921, Christopherson began his working life at Shell-Mex House in 1938, when Jack Beddington, the director of the publicity department, was pioneering the use of modern art in advertising. After a long wartime illness Christopherson worked at County Hall in London, choosing for his office wall a print of Paul Nash's Wood on The Downs; Nash's primeval landscapes and magical moons were later to have a lasting influence on Christopherson's own paintings.

In 1950, while working as a civil servant at the Geological Museum in South Kensington, he became interested in the French Art Brut movement and corresponded with Jean Dubuffet, who offered encouragement when Christopherson himself began to paint.

John Christopherson felt that his life in art did not really begin until 1950 when he met Jacob Epstein and started to visit West End galleries - he said that it was a revelation that "such a magical world co-existed on the same level and at the same time as the boring, prosaic one of rationing, coupons and the civil service", and he determined to enter it. His annus mirabilis was 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain. This was when his tastes and interests were moulded and when he found his vocation. In 1959 he resigned from the civil service and became a full-time painter.

Christopherson was once described as a petit maitre, a modest accolade that pleased him, although he always craved greater recognition. He once wrote to me describing his fantasy self, "a poet and dreamer who in some miraculous way managed to claw his way to the summit of the art world". This was only half in jest: he often wrote of his frustration at what he perceived as his lack of recognition - he wanted to join his heroes in the artistic pantheon of 1950s greats. His 1975 painting Wall and Graffiti is a homage to his heroes, with the names of painters, jazz musicians, photographers and writers poignantly inscribed into the heavily worked and textured surface.

From boyhood he was fascinated by the idea of antiquity. He was always interested in ancient stones, pavements, mosaics, archeological sites, walls and buildings which had gradually changed and been eroded by time. Walls with faded posters and graffiti particularly attracted him - he treasured and identified himself with what he described as the "forlorn poetry of the unregarded".

Christopherson's pictures linger in the memory. His image world is a distillation of cultural debris sifted with poetic intensity. His pictures are a microcosm of his tastes and obsessions. Each small painting is haunted by a sense of deja vu, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The subtle depths of layers of glazes are incised with the mysterious markings of a private language.

Terence Mullaly once described how his works "convey the impression of a world frozen in a dream". George Melly, writing about pictures he purchased for the Arts Council Collection in 1979, wrote that Christopherson's "point of departure is some discreet corner of the urban townscape. He imposes a melancholy geometry, transforming it into a city deserted by its inhabitants who have left behind them, their only monument, some reticent graffiti. His colour is as private as his imagery. His pictures whisper. They are worth listening to."

In 1958 Christopherson married his wife Anne, also a painter. After living in Blackheath until 1962, they moved to Hampstead Village, then returned to his native Blackheath in 1967. Both locations provided the subjects for many of his mature paintings. In Blackheath they lived in an architect-designed modern house which they filled with 1950s furniture and their collection of African masks and post-war paintings and sculpture.

In his home, as in his paintings, Christopherson created a private world, a collage of his time and tastes. It was his refuge, the place where he would paint and listen to jazz or the music of Debussy and Ravel. He would communicate with fellow jazz buffs via the radio programme Jazz Record Requests, and one of his imaginary alter egos was an authentically existentialist "jazz fiend". He read widely, fuelling his imagination from such diverse writers as Aldous Huxley, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, the Sitwells, Cecil Beaton, James Agate and Denton Welch.

Christopherson hated to use the telephone and was an avid letter writer, corresponding with an eclectic circle of people who shared his various interests in art and music. His letters were characterised by their complex mixture of poetic charm, boyish jokes, nuggets of information and gleeful gossip combined with an almost uncontrolled venting of spleen at whatever was the current focus of what he called his "anxiety neurosis".

He was of Cornish ancestry and regularly visited St Ives, home to many of the British artists of the 1950s that he admired. However, his main influences were really from the Continent: artists such as Tapies, Brancusi, Giacometti, Fautrier, Burri, de Stael, Poliakoff, Richier, Wols, Balthus and Veiera da Silva. In England he particularly admired the works of Ben Nicholson, Eduardo Paolozzi, William Scott and his old friend Alan Reynolds. He once said: "I like a painting that hangs on a wall, or a sculpture that stands on a stand . . . nothing much that has happened since the 1950s really interests me." The post-war years are usually thought of as a time of austerity, but Christopherson found that "the bleak world of Giacometti and William Scott was good enough for me".

He haunted the London salerooms, and often could be found sitting through Modern British art sales at Sotheby's, carefully noting down results. He collected and collated infor-mation as well as paintings and objects and delighted in passing on his carefully garnered, sometimes arcane knowledge. On Saturdays he liked to visit the Portobello Road market, and until his health failed, would usually finish his day in Notting Hill Gate with a visit to England & Co, shyly producing his latest antiquity from his equally ancient shopping bag. It was usually a piece of the Chinese jade he had collected for many years; he loved those early ritual objects that reminded him of simple abstract sculptures.

Always an obsessive man, his last years were blighted by the increasing severity of his depressive illness. By 1994 his visits to central London had ceased and he had stopped painting.

Christopherson exhibited his work from 1961, showing often at the Leicester Galleries, the Marjorie Parr Gallery and Agnews. In 1989 he showed his predominantly abstract paintings and collages from the 1960s at England & Co, where he continued to exhibit regularly. His last exhibition was a retrospective in December 1995 at the Woodlands Art Gallery in Blackheath. In 1997 there will be a memorial exhibition at England & Co.

Jane England

John Christopherson, artist: born London 25 July 1921; married 1958 Anne Watson; died London 24 August 1996.

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