Obituary: Michael Rothenstein

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Michael Rothenstein, painter: born 19 March 1908; ARA 1977, RA 1983; married 1936 Betty Desmond Fitz-Gerald (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1957), 1958 Diana Arnold-Foster; died Stisted, Essex 6 July 1993.

MICHAEL ROTHENSTEIN was a popular and brilliant print-maker as well as an excellent painter, and one of the central figures in the renaissance in British print-making that took place just after the Second World War and through the Fifties and Sixties.

He grew up in the most supportive and propitious circumstances imaginable for a budding artist, as the younger son of Sir William Rothenstein, an exceptionally cultivated and sociable painter, portraitist, and ubiquitous man-about-town who knew everyone in the world of art and literature in the Nineties and the first two decades of this century. Michael's elder brother, John, whom Michael loved and respected all his life, studied art history, became director of a public gallery in the United States, returned to England in the late Thirties with a beautiful and elegant American wife, Elizabeth (who later wrote the most tenderly perceptive study of Stanley Spencer, a Rothenstein family friend), and directed the Tate Gallery with great taste and courage for nearly three decades.

If we accept the frequent probability of children's rebelling against the lives and pursuits of their parents - or at least their parental environment - Michael Rothenstein's early years might well have destroyed any burgeoning of a creative disposition. But as a child and as a young man, he actively enjoyed the not affluent but very comfortable style of an artist's household in which Augustus John, Wyndham Lewis, Edward Burra, Stanley Spencer, David Jones, Edwin Lutyens or the young Henry Moore were received and he often rubbed shoulders at supper or tea parties with Walter de la Mare, Barnett Freedman or Robert Graves. Groups of students over many years from the Royal College of Art, where Michael's father was Rector, were also received in the Rothenstein household. All this was in those decades following the First World War that saw the flowering, after such hideous destruction of young lives and hopes, of so much talent in British painting and sculpture.

Hospitality for art students in the fairly plain-living and unpretentious Rothenstein menage was moderate but not mean. Lady Rothenstein often dispensed large tumblers of milk among dumbfounded students - naturally hoping for beer or sherry - whom she, accurately, thought were hard up and poorly fed. Attending a Rothenstein soiree as a student with his future wife, Elizabeth, the painter Cecil Collins remembered the anxious young Michael Rothenstein's saying: 'Do go and say something interesting to father; he's bored.' The already Surrealist-minded Collins duly obliged but was by no means sure that his observations were well received. Will Rothenstein was a sometimes brusque but invariably kindly man, as courteous to students even in disapproval as he was to family and friends.

Like his brother John, Michael extended this innate courtesy and thoughtfulness for others to everyone around him, students, friends, patrons, critics or art dealers, all through his life. The brothers also shared a slightly Edwardian formality of speech, a meticulous assembly of words and phrases into a kind of benign formal overture, as it were, to the person addressed, which could be misinterpreted as pomposity. Both brothers had too much humour in them to be pompous. Almost verging on the archaic by mid to late century, their manner of speech was merely a reflection of an underlying warm attentiveness, amounting to genuine respect, to those around them. Like John, Michael showed always a real thoughtfulness for others that appeared at times to be almost too self- deprecatory, too modest, but the basic amiability was quite unaffected.

Michael Rothenstein's early aptitude and relish for drawing and painting fantasy scenes as well as observed images of everyday life were revealed quite early, even as a small child. He did not react against art or his family, but went on to study at the Royal College of Art, where Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious were among some older students one or two of whom eventually became close friends and near neighbours in Great Bardfield, in Essex. His cultured and compulsively cosmopolitan home, and the family trips to Dieppe, to Paris, or other holiday destinations in France or unspoilt country retreats in England or Wales, can only have been a stimulus for the young artist.

It is very probable that a constructive retreat into drawing and painting provided refuge or at least a relief from the profound shyness and nervousness that afflicted Rothenstein from his earliest years. In later life, always instinctively gregarious when not working and hugely enjoying the company of affectionately cherished friends, he contrived a quite robust bonhomie in public, smiling and laughing uproariously at jokes, but this easier late manner was achieved only with difficulty in earlier years.

On a trip to the still innocent and untouched Brittany in the late Forties, Elizabeth Collins on holiday with the Rothensteins and Cecil Collins, remembers Michael walking slowly across a busy road in the country totally immersed in a book, never looking up. When remonstrated with he replied that it was the only way he could cross the road. He lived always in the country in England, very simply as an artist, but hugely enjoyed trips to London. Hopeless at practicalities outside his studio, he depended totally on the practical arrangements and good sense of two loving and gifted wives. In his youth, Michael Rothenstein suffered from a long and wretched illness, myxoedema (thyroid deficiency), that caused an acute depression that persisted for some years. For a fundamentally nervous and introspective man who also loved his family and friends as well as the visual delights of the physical world, this must have caused considerable anguish, but Rothenstein gradually surmounted the withdrawal from life and became on the surface, at least, decidedly serene and cosy, the only word to describe his friendly, attentive, gossipy presence. He was always keen to discuss new departures in art, or, most decidedly, in technique.

It was not until the post-war period that Michael Rothenstein's characteristic range of imagery, partly through his paintings, but largely through his resourceful experimentation as a print-maker, became familiar in exhibitions: boats and harbours, tractors and farming implements, cockerels and other birds and animals, trains, signals, milk floats, weather vanes, semi-abstract domestic interiors, all kinds of motifs from the everyday world, transformed by the artist's vision into hieroglyphs, crystals, wheels, circles and crosses, horses and barns, seen through windows - and richly expressionist scenes taken from the Notting Hill carnival when the artist in his eighties showed no sign of diminished artistic vitality. A catalogue raisonee of Rothenstein's prints was published earlier this year by the Flowers East gallery, and numerous prizes were awarded to Rothenstein's prints in Biennales and special graphic exhibitions in Europe and the US.

Rothenstein gave to British art a particular liveliness and joie de vivre, a relish for the physical world and a sensual flair for colour and texture in both paintings and prints that went beyond the coolly measured aptitude for design that distinguishes the work of his friend and near-contemporary Edward Bawden. Much of his technical facility and inventiveness was acquired through time spent working in the post-war period with SW Hayter at his celebrated Atelier-17 in Paris, but this experience only honed the edge of his imaginative energy.

There is a kind of trustful innocence and light-hearted idealism, praising the domesticated physical world and loving its 20th-century visual language, that is oddly affecting in Rothenstein's best work. It comes from the purity of vision and spirit of rededication shared by most of the notable British artists who were young just after the murderous 1914-18 war. Michael Rothenstein kept its faith alive.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments