Obituary: Patrick Symons

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The Independent Online
Patrick Stewart Symons, painter: born Bromley, Kent 24 October 1925; teacher, Chelsea School of Art 1959-86; ARA 1983, RA 1991; died Paris 30 October 1993.

PATRICK SYMONS was a draughtsman of the utmost rigour. He would check and check again measurements and proportions. Endless correction and adjustment were needed; the process forward, he said, was entirely a matter of correcting. He excelled in painting dense woodland scenes, spacious landscapes and still life. No one living had greater control over the tapestry of leaves.

Symons was born at Bromley, Kent, in 1925, and educated at Bryanston, in Dorset, where he was taught by Elizabeth Muntz. For her he retained a great affection and kept a portrait bust by her in his garden in Dorset (until it was stolen a year ago). After service in the Navy he studied at Camberwell under John Dodgson and the Euston Road painters. Symons's independence was already evident: he showed a singular understanding of the mathematical and geometric properties of classical composition. He copied the Baptism of Piero della Francesca and analysed its structure afresh.

From 1953 he held important teaching posts at Camberwell, St Albans and Chelsea, where he ran the foundation course. He divided his painting time between London and Dorset. At Ryme Intrinseca he converted a Victorian school building into a studio, where he hung the big Dorset landscapes which, year after year, he worked on according to the seasonal and weather opportunities.

Symons was a slow and methodical worker. His method required limitless patience. The formal designs of his paintings are not immediately evident but they always provided him with the certainties on which he could depend. His recent group paintings, whether of cows in a farmyard or people in a room, show a masterly in-depth organisation. His painting Mary Iliff's Viola, which won the picture of the year award at the Royal Academy in 1990, is based upon a regular pentagon within a rectangle containing it. The picture was 16 years in the making.

Preliminaries were important. Symons made numerous preparatory drawings. Drawing he regarded as pure composition and in this way built up the formal structure of his paintings. He sought for what was more particular in a subject, using no formulae. The leaves of a tree were painted as leaves of that particular tree, whether alder, ash or willow. The results are pictures of great charm, impeccable organisation and a feeling of settled permanence in the natural world. They had a radiance and texture of unusual richness.

Some of Symons's virtues as a painter sprang from his love of botany. In this field his knowledge was encyclopaedic. To cross a field with him was a revelation. I once walked with him across a field near Bath; before we reached the edge he had named over 40 different wild plants. This intimacy with nature extended to the sheep and cows in his work. Every one had a name, as can be seen in his Sheep in Yetminster Churchyard, where the names are inscribed at the foot of the drawing.

Another great enthusiasm was music. At Ryme Intrinseca a cello and cello music on a stand suggested continuous music-making. Symons befriended many musicians and painted and drew them in action, whether it was a cellist practising or a trio or quartet rehearsing. His friend Euan Uglow drew a picture of Symons himself practising the cello. Symons was well-known at the Wigmore and Conway Halls and spoke knowledgeably about musical interpretation.

Patrick Symons's generosity to his friends was unbounded. A wonderful host, he extended material help wherever it was needed. He was a great support to young artists launching their careers. His unexpected death, in a street accident in Paris, comes as a great shock. He was accompanying a party of students on a visit to the Barnes Foundation exhibition at the Musee d'Orsay and would have returned home next day.

(Photograph omitted)