Obituary: Peter Greenham
Monday 13 July 1992
PETER GREENHAM was a figurative painter of great distinction. His work was always based with conviction on traditional practices; it was both scholarly and sensitive and, like himself, totally without showiness or pretension.
In a period when portrait-painting seemed to be at its lowest ebb, his portraits stood out for their beauty of touch, their grasp of form, their sympathetic characterisation. His sitters came to know that the first sitting could mean the start of a long process, sometimes, indeed, to be measured in years; but also that the result would have its own individual beauty, quite unlike any other painter's. Portraits, however, were only part of his output, though he remained fascinated by the challenge of the human head and the relationship between artist and sitter all his life. His small landscapes and seascapes show the same sensitive touch in a more relaxed format, and with a more liberated enjoyment of luminous colour.
The word 'sensitive' can be over-used in the context of English painting, and can imply merely a certain weak charm. Nothing could be further from the truth in Greenham's case. There was always a foundation of searching and vigorous drawing under that subtle touch. He was, indeed, to many people one of the finest draughtsmen of recent times. He had studied under Ernest Jackson at the Byam Shaw school, and held to the principles of Jackson's teaching of drawing all his life. To watch him draw or paint was an eye-opening experience for students. From the most summary of beginnings the form was built up with apparently tentative touches, the contours established, lost and then found again, gradually developing towards a greater precision of statement; in a painting, the tonal relationships and colour emerged similarly from slight indications. Even after many sittings it was always remarkable to see how the surface of his painting remained fresh and lively.
Greenham was elected to the Royal Academy in 1960. He was always devoted to the institution serving as Keeper from 1964 until his retirement in 1985. The Keeper has the responsibility of running the RA Schools, and Greenham showed himself to have great sympathy and understanding for the students. He ran the schools in a manner which appeared relaxed but which actually depended on stronglyheld convictions, for example of the importance of life drawing - this at a time when other art schools were busily abandoning traditional methods. But these principles never prevented him from showing sympathy with students of all persuasions, with the revolutionary as well as the academic, and gaining the affection and respect of them all; and this could be said equally of his professional colleagues.
To see him, a slighty dishevelled but always sympathetic figure, in the Schools corridor or in the foyer of Burlington House, in deep conversation with a student or a fellow painter was to see someone in his element. Perhaps one should say in his second element, for the studio is always the painter's first; but painting is a solitary activity and Peter Greenham had, in spite of a dislike for 'occasions', a warm and humorous sociability, the humour often of a self-deprecatory kind; no one enjoyed more than he did the gossip, the anecdotes, and the play of individuality and character to be found in an institution such as the RA.
Before becoming an artist, he had taken an English degree at Oxford, and had made a living for a time as a schoolmaster. He loved words as well as paint; he was exceptionally well-read and wrote the English language beautifully. He published only one book, on Velazquez, in 1969; but his shorter articles, even his annual Keeper's reports for the RA, were carefully considered small pieces of prose with incisive turns of phrase, and had no doubt been written and rewritten many times, just as his paintings were continually reworked until they satisfied his eye.
He married the painter Jane Dowling, for whose work he always had the greatest admiration. Their marriage was a devoted one, and a real partnership of two artists where each was able to bring something to the other's work.
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