Obituary: Frank Ward

David Buckman
Monday 02 November 1998 01:02 GMT

THE EPITOME of a self-effacing English gentleman, Frank Ward was the last person to promote himself as an artist. Less modesty and more push would undoubtedly have led to his considerable abilities as a portrait draughtsman and painter being more widely recognised.

He was a reluctant exhibitor, who lacked the career promotion of a single gallery. When he did exhibit, at the Royal Academy, the New English Art Club, Cooling and Chenil Galleries, and latterly with his wife at Compendium 2 Gallery and in Brighton, it was to critical acclaim. In 1952, the perceptive Daily Telegraph critic T.W. Earp singled out Ward's Family Group from 350 exhibits at the Chenil's "Artists of Chelsea" show, for its "fine plastic qualities".

As with many such men, underlying reserve was a quiet determination. Thus, when, as a penniless, fresh-from-the-country student at the Royal College of Art in the early 1930s, Ward decided that his future wife Kathleen Walne's pictures had singular merit, he carted them around the posh West End galleries until he arrived at the Wertheim Gallery, and success. The charismatic, idiosyncratic Mrs Wertheim had no shortage of talents wanting a place on her walls, and they had to get past her formidable assistant Biddy McNay who, Kathleen remembers, could "down you with a look".

Ward insisted on leaving Kathleen's vibrantly colourful pictures. "It was an awful chance," he later told me, "but as soon as Mrs Wertheim saw the work she got in touch, took it right away and wanted to know where Kathleen was." It was the start of a lifelong friendship, which ended with the Wards' nursing Lucy Wertheim in her final years.

Kathleen Walne moved from Ipswich, where she and Ward had met at the School of Art, worked in the Wertheim Gallery, lived there with Lucy and in 1935 was given her own show. For a provincial girl wearing part-schoolgirl clothes it was an eye-opener to be in the Burlington Gardens space which at various times exhibited Christopher Wood, Henry Moore, Leslie Hurry and Mervyn Peake and where visitors included George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Margot Asquith and the leading critics.

Frank Ward was as much a stranger as Kathleen to this world. He was born in 1914 in Stradbroke, a remote Suffolk village, where his father, George Rowell Ward, an elder of the local Baptist chapel, "provided top-notch grocery to all the elegant people of the neighbourhood". Frank was the fourth of nine children and had a happy childhood. Both parents were sympathetic when he wanted to be an artist.

Frank's father took him to see W.O. Hutchison, who had a house at Letheringham, nearby. Hutchison, who became Director of the Glasgow School of Art and President of the Royal Scottish Academy, encouraged Frank to continue as an artist, and he attended Ipswich Art School from 1931 to 1933, having won an East Suffolk Scholarship. Under the tuition of Archibald Ward, A.W. Bellis and Leonard Squirrell, he proved an outstanding student.

Archibald Ward was concerned that Kathleen's crush on Frank Ward - she had "seduced him with cream doughnuts", having got to know him by borrowing his rubber - would undermine Ward's studies. They would sneak day trips to London on the Grey-Green coach to see exhibitions and continental films, once dining at the Monseigneur, "a swanky restaurant in Piccadilly where Lew Stone and his band were playing".

The only meal Frank and the gymslipped Kathleen could afford was a mushroom omelette. "I didn't like the mushrooms, so I lumped them all on Frank's plate. He thought that was dreadful. To add insult to injury, I left an old three- penny bit under the plate as a tip. That was all we'd got between us. So we had to walk all the way back to King's Cross to get the coach, and didn't speak to each other the whole way home."

Ward attended the Royal College of Art from 1933 to 1936, for his diploma under the charismatic Sir William Rothenstein, with Percy Horton and Gilbert Spencer among his teachers. From 1936 to 1938 he studied for a teaching certificate at Goldsmiths' College School of Art, taught part-time at Clapham Art School and began to be noticed as an exhibitor.

He and Kathleen were married in 1938, the year he joined the staff of Wilson's School, Camberwell, a boy's grammar school. Apart from the war years, he was with Wilson's until 1974. When the school moved to Wallington, Surrey, he designed its new gates.

Frank and Kathleen began married life in one room in the King's Road, Chelsea, "with a gas ring to cook on, mice in the sugar bags and no money". Among neighbours who became friends were Kathleen Garman, model and secretary to the sculptor Jacob Epstein - and eventually the second Lady Epstein - and their son, Theo Garman, a painter. It was a friendship that continued after the war, to the time of Theo's tragic death, in 1954. As painters, he and Ward had much to discuss. Ward's work is included in the Garman-Ryan Collection, in Walsall.

After the war, in Epstein's studio, Ward met Winston Churchill. They had encountered each other before in very different circumstances during the Allied advance through Italy, when Ward was serving with 6 Army Group Royal Artillery (6 Agra). 6 Agra saw some of the fiercest fighting. Its story is told in The Guns of 6 Agra, published at the end of the campaign and profusely illustrated by Ward.

His sketching was mainly linked to topographical preparations for heavy bombardments, often under cover of darkness. "The drawings had to be exact. If not, your friends might be killed," he recalled. The Imperial War Museum holds some of his wartime sketches, bought by the War Artists' Advisory Committee when he was in Italy. One of the best is of Churchill with Brigadier Julian St Clair Holbrook, 6 Agra's commander. Holbrook allowed Churchill to fire a round, the Prime Minister autographing the shell "with his personal greetings".

When hostilities abated, Ward used his time to enquire about the manufacture of Black Oil, a substance he had found mentioned in a French manual on formulas and techniques of the Old Masters, for long his bible. The oil had given these earlier artists' works a translucent quality. Later, Lady Epstein, at whose villa in Italy the Wards stayed, helped with further contacts.

Reinstated at Wilson's School, Ward eventually persuaded the chemistry master to brew this dangerous concoction. "The mixture had to be, the book said, `cooked for several hours to at least 300C', and if one drop of water got in there could be a violent explosion." Thus it was made, they survived, and Frank Ward continued to use the treasured substance for years.

David Buckman

Frank Clifford Ward, artist and teacher: born Stradbroke, Suffolk 5 March 1914; married 1938 Kathleen Walne (one son, two daughters); died Brighton, East Sussex 13 October 1998.

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