Obituary: Robert Medley

Click to follow
Charles Robert Owen Medley, artist: born 19 December 1905; Chairman, Faculty of Painting, British School at Rome 1966-77; CBE 1982; RA 1986; died London 20 October 1994.

Robert Medley was one of the finest English painters of the century, a draughtsman of extraordinary gift and versatility, a theatre designer of distinction, and an inspired teacher and art administrator.

He was a man much loved by a remarkably wide circle of friends, and remembered with admiration and affection by generations of ex-students, especially those he taught during the lively post-war years at Chelsea College of Art, or who enjoyed the creative excitement he generated as Head of Painting at Camberwell during the Sixties. His manner, which could seem sometimes to verge on the imperious, masked a sweetness of nature and an affecting and modest uncertainty. He was absolutely lacking in pretension and maintained to the end a radical and democratic disposition; he was angrily contemptuous of the mean moralities and pernicious politics,of the Eighties and of their presiding spirit. His hatred of hypocrisy and cant, and his love of human diversity, were fuelled alike by his experience of a homosexual life, the greater part of it shared in a loving, if sometimes tempestuous, partnership with Rupert Doone, the dancer and theatre director, who died in 1966.

Medley was born in 1905 into a cultured and liberal Edwardian professional family. His father, Charles Medley, was the most distinguished copyright lawyer of his generation, a friend thereby of many of the leading writers of the day, George Moore, Harley Granville-Barker, George Bernard Shaw among them. Passionately committed to the arts, he advised the first Lord Leverhulme in this respect, and he himself formulated the terms of foundation of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham. Proud and austere, he was formal in his dealings with children, and somewhat remote from them. Medley's characteristic reserve, so easily pierced, may be traced to a childhood in which the spontaneous display of feelings was discouraged.

From his mother who had studied art and drew well, he seems to have inherited his creative intuition and his emotional temperament.

Medley went first to school at Langton in Dorset, where he loved the countryside but hated the lack of privacy, the conventional curriculum and the demands of team games. He was already introspective and prone to the self-doubt that made him later so diffident and scrupulous an artist. At 14, after mercifully failing to get into the Navy as an officer cadet, he was sent to Gresham's School, Holt, in Norfolk, a new 'progressive' school. His education there was haphazard, much interrupted by accidents, and academically undistinguished. At Gresham's, it was to Medley that the precocious Wystan Auden became most intensely attached. He was the friend recalled in Letter to Lord Byron who 'one afternoon in March at half-past three' provoked Auden for the first time into verse. Later when Auden was at Oxford and Medley at the Slade, they were, briefly, lovers. They remained friends until Auden's death.

At 15 Medley had already decided that he must become a painter. In January 1923 he enrolled at Byam School of Art. Dissatisfied with the academic regime there, he left after a year to join the Academy Schools; in the spring of 1924 he moved on to the Slade, where he was taught by the redoubtable Tonks. But his essential education as an artist took place elsewhere; at Leon Underwood's studio classes behind Olympia, also attended by Henry Moore and Eileen Agar; at Meninsky's classes at Central School; at Bloomsbury soirees at the Stracheys' house in Gordon Square, in talk and gossip with Roger Fry, Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell. These were the great years of the Diaghilev Ballets Russe seasons at the Coliseum, where he encountered for the first time the work of Picasso, Derain, Stravinsky and Bakst.

'Unfinished at the Slade,' as he later put it, Medley left in 1926 to join Rupert Doone, whom he had just met and at once fallen in love with, and who was dancing with Diaghilev in Paris. Here he frequented the art cafes of Montparnasse by night, whilst continuing his education by day; mostly in copying at the Louvre. Poussin became a passion, and Watteau's great Gilles assumed the force of a personal icon; it 'expressed, in the most elegant and poetic terms, a view of life that was profoundly Stoical'. Art and ethics were to be deeply entwined in Medley's practice as an artist thereafter: he has exemplified for our time the idea of the artist philosopher.

Medley was frequently in Paris over the next few years, but at home in London be became a member of the London Group, and his first one-man show was at the Cooling Galleries in 1931, the year he began teaching part-time at Chelsea. For six years after 1932 Medley largely subordinated his career to that of Doone who was now engaged on the extraordinary adventure of the Group Theatre. Medley designed sets and costumes for most of Doone's productions, including all those of the Auden-Isherwood plays. His passages on the Group Theatre in his autobiography Drawn from the Life (1983) remain the best accounts of an important chapter of English theatrical history. His paintings of the period are accomplished and various, but give little indication of what was to come.

Medley's war was spent almost entirely in Cairo as a camouflage officer, with occasional sorties into the North African theatre of action, and journeys to Persia, Syria, Palestine and Algeria. He developed a passion for Arabic art, and an abiding love of the people of the Middle East.

Major Medley returned in 1945 to teach at Chelsea, and the house he shared with Doone in Cathcart Road became a lively centre of artistic life in post-war London. Among their closest friends could be numbered some of the best artists and writers of the day, Ceri and Frances Richards, Francis Bacon, Kathleen Raine, George Seferis, Keith Vaughan. Among his students were Elisabeth Frink, John Berger and Robert Clatworthy. As an artist the war had enabled him to clear the decks for new beginnings.

His first post-war paintings are poetic essays in mythologizing, marked by a brilliant eye-catching colourism, but it was with the 'Cyclist' paintings of 1950-52, one of which won a major prize in the '60 Paintings for 51' Festival Exhibition, that Medley came into his own. From now on his progress was to be one of systematicly eliminating stylistic mannerisms and programmatic approaches to picture-making in favour of an absolute authenticity and truth to inner experience.

Medley in his maturity always opted to do the difficult thing, insisted upon 'deepening the game' in Bacon's phrase. The cyclist paintings, Arcadian evocations inspired by absolutely modern moments in contemporary streets and parks, were succeeded by Medley's beautiful 'Antique Room' series, painted after he had returned to the Slade to take over the Theatre Design section.

These were elegiac meditations on a classical world of the imagination, just as the Gravesend paintings that followed in the late Fifties, of workers in an industrial landscape, were Medley's modern recapitulation of the classic themes of figures in architectural settings.

Medley had a retrospective at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, in London, in 1963, and a further one at the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, and on tour, in 1984. This year he won the Charles Woolaston Prize of pounds 25,000 for the most distinguished work at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.

Medley's work became increasingly non-figurative, and in the mid-Sixties he turned for a while to a hard-edge abstraction that reflected his desire for order and structure in painting. In the last 20 years his painting returned to a painterly figuration of great psychological penetration, whose touch and gesture propose always the impossibility of fixing the image: a technical correspondence to the difficulties of establishing an emotional truth of relation in life itself.

These were difficulties Medley habitually overcame, for his ability to touch people's lives at the very centre, and inspire love and admiration from those who knew him, was legendary. In his life as in his art he was a man of exceptional probity.

(Photograph omitted)