Portraits of the artist as a closet transvestite - a look into the tortured world of Percy Kelly

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The Independent Online

The letter which began it all could hardly have been more succinct. Joan David, a retired scientist and art collector, had been impressed with some watercolours by the Cumbrian artist Percy Kelly at a friend's house in Windermere and wrote, in January 1983, inquiring of him if any were for sale.

The letter which began it all could hardly have been more succinct. Joan David, a retired scientist and art collector, had been impressed with some watercolours by the Cumbrian artist Percy Kelly at a friend's house in Windermere and wrote, in January 1983, inquiring of him if any were for sale.

The reply, which arrived by return of post in a home-made, hand-painted envelope beginning "Dear Miss David", exceeded all her expectations.

Etched across a watercolour of the street from where Kelly posted his letters was a message in immaculate script thanking her for the compliment - and promising a painting. It was signed: "...Sincerely and kindly, Bob Kelly".

This was the beginning of a 10-year correspondence which has revealed the story of Kelly, a brilliant artist with works hanging in the House of Lords, who lived with the solitary consequences of being a closet transvestite and who died in confused and poverty-stricken old age.

"I have a feminine side to my character which has been and still is a curse," he confessed to Miss David in his third script. "No doubt if I had been normal I might not have possessed the same creative spirit." The agonies were worlds away from the experience of Grayson Perry, the Turner Prize winner who was fêted for his transvestitism only 20 years later.

Miss David, who died four years ago, only met Kelly five times before he died in 1993, but her patience prompted him to pour out his memories and agonies in more than 1,000 letters. These have now been published by the art collector Chris Wadsworth, providing the first complete picture of the artist.

Kelly's skills had propelled him into a circle of artists including L S Lowry and Sheila Fell and the company of George VI, before his watercolours were displayed in the National Gallery in 1963.

But "PK" had been born into a terraced, lower-class existence in Workington, Cumbria and first pursued a career as a postman. He even played football for the town in the mid-Fifties under Bill Shankly.

It was after a period at the War Office during the Second World War - where records show he met and talked art with Churchill - that he pursued his art and became emboldened about his transvestism and his female persona, Roberta.

The letters show how it brought an abrupt end to his first 10-year marriage, when his working-class wife came home to find him sitting by the fireside dressed in women's clothes. His second wife, Christine, who left a doctor husband and eloped to Wales with him, tried to help by lending him clothes, but life was unbearable in a small community and they left for a remote part of Norfolk.

The letters show Kelly was also deeply depressive and wracked by an insecurity about his work which - though he could never admit it - prevented him selling to the prestigious galleries and buyers who pursued him.

His house was cluttered to the point where he had nowhere to work and his lack of income condemned his family, which included Christine's three children, to penury. In 1983 she walked out on a house stuffed with thousands of pounds worth of paintings, and never saw Kelly again.

His correspondence with Miss David began a few weeks later, when he was almost suicidal. He lays bare his self-absorption and worries, amid painstaking, beautiful images of flowers, houses, roads, ships and landscapes created with watercolours, charcoal, even blackberry juice.

His feminine side - "the swing," as he describes it - excites and frightens him throughout. It leads him to change his name by deed poll to Roberta Penelope Kelly in 1985, then change it back again seven years later. "My situation is hopeless because I cannot make friends openly," he tells Miss David in January 1984. "I have only gone out as Roberta once during the past few weeks and I must say being Bob I feel far less lonely during the day."

The book coincides with an exhibition of the letters at Castlegate House gallery which Ms Wadsworth runs in Cumbria. "He just loved women's clothing and felt cheated that he could not wear lovely colours and shapes," she said. "As Roberta, things are fluid and feminine in his work while as Bob, he maintains a strong, dark element."

Kelly's letters continued when he fell ill with throat cancer in 1992. "It would be nice to have company for a while," said the last. "But then I am better on my own, so it is best."

'The Painted Letters of Percy Kelly', by Chris Wadsworth, Historical Publications, £30. An exhibition of the letters runs at the Castlegate House gallery, Cockermouth until 6 October.

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