Keeping it in the family

For more than 100 years the Salamans have been artists. Mrs Alec Guinness is one of them.

John Windsor
Tuesday 17 June 1997 23:02

While Sir Alec Guinness's role in the re-released science fiction fable, Star Wars, is earning millions, his 83-year-old wife, Merula Salaman, is showing her art in an exhibition of work by seven members of her family, that resembles a time-capsule of the Thirties. Only one of Merula's five brothers and sisters is still alive - her sister Chattie. The star of the show, at Gallery 27 in Cork Street, is her brother Michael, virtually forgotten as an artist until the exhibition organiser James Huntington- Whiteley spotted a painting of his in a catalogue of the Arts Council's "Football and the Fine Arts" exhibition of 1953 and traced the surviving Salamans.

During his six years in Paris in the Thirties, Michael exhibited alongside Picasso, Braque, Bonnard and Dufy, but then devoted 40 years, until the year before his death in 1987, to teaching in London art colleges. His work is in no major public collection and no artists' reference book lists him.

Pipe-smoking, cricket-playing, slow of speech, occasionally laconic, he had difficulty finishing his paintings, often stubbornly refused to let others see them, and was temperamentally disinclined to ingratiate himself with the reputation-making London circle that revolved around Read, Penrose and Clark.

His students are his best-remembered creations: the exhibition catalogue contains tributes by Anthony Eyton, Maggi Hambling and Euan Uglow, whose current show is a few doors away at Browse and Darby - the gallery that gave Michael Salaman his first commercial show in 1982, when he was 71.

He did not live to see the end of his second show there, in 1987. Salaman's early work at Gallery 27 is heavy - dark, Renaissance-style tableaux such as "The Deathmaiden" (1934) - whereas his post-war interiors with figures, such as his "Public House, Piccadilly" (c.1955), are from a more varied palette, the paint thickly laid in the manner of the Euston Road school. Areas of colour overlap raggedly or stop short of one another. Unfinished, or hesitant bravura, or simply a style that never matured? The show has no works of his later than 1955.

It is the lonely spaciousness of the Fifties paintings that strikes most deeply - the starkly chequered floor of the Piccadilly pub dominates the picture: the waitress averts her head. In "The Interior (Child Reading)" of 1952, the child, with blank, ill-defined face, sits with book in lap at the far end of a sofa, as if afraid to occupy the space.

One could imagine such lonely characters as socially maladjusted escapees from Salaman's large-scale master-work, "La Petite Kermesse" (1937-8), which shows family members - including his sister Susie, confined to a wheel-chair for 60 years after a stroke at 30 - wearing party hats, blowing squeakers and dancing at an unsettling, Fellini-like fete as the storm- clouds of war gather.

The painting marks the end of a dream - a dream illustrated by other Salaman siblings in earlier, happier paintings of family life. Before the war, such naive "family art" celebrating the lifestyle of the moneyed and educated was a genre in itself.

There is Susie's painted box and Merula's paintings of the four seasons, both showing the big house in Devon that overflowed with artists, actors, dancers and musicians, where father, Michel Salaman, smoked his pipe and was Master of foxhounds and where the children rode on horseback, played cricket and kept dogs and goats.

It is this impression of an artistic family in changing times, more than any single artwork, that gives the show its strength.

Augustus John, Michel's closest friend at the Slade, whose drawings of family members are in the show, used to visit the big house, where he was never short of a bob or two. The Salaman fortune had come from ostrich feathers in South Africa. Such things, as John found out, can never last

Prices: Michael Salaman's paintings pounds 800-pounds 3,000, Merula Salaman's paintings pounds 1,500, needlework pictures pounds 400-pounds 950. Some exhibits are not for sale. The Salamans, Gallery 27, 27 Cork Street, London W1 (0171-734 7595) throughout June

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