Obituary: Tom Carr

David Buckman
Thursday 18 March 1999 00:02

A FEW years before he died, a picture by Tom Carr appeared for sale in an English provincial auction room. It had been done about 60 years before: two nude bathers in a sylvan setting, Stella, the future wife of the artist, and Wendy, who eventually married Carr's friend the artist Victor Pasmore. Carr bought it, but it was not marketable. So he simply added a dog and the picture readily sold in Belfast, where he was by then one of Northern Ireland's most sought-after painters.

It was a typical exercise by this practical and dedicated artist. Asked if he found painting hard work, Carr replied: "Well, yes, but not as hard as cutting the grass." By that time his routine had been established, in the studio from around eight o'clock in the morning until he went to bed, drawing, painting, glancing at his sketchbooks, planning the next day's work. His work was also his hobby.

Carr had been associated with some of the most interesting developments in British painting between the wars. In 1909 he was born into an affluent Belfast family. His parents united the Carr and Workman families, involved in stockbroking, banking, linen manufacture and shipping. His father, also Tom, and his mother, Mary Workman, of the Workman and Clark shipyard, encouraged young Tom to draw and paint. He also won backing from Mary's father, a banker and keen amateur artist, who gave him a box of paints when he was recovering from pneumonia and took him sketching.

Carr's school was Oundle, which he disliked, although he improved his art and learned to shoe horses, a useful accomplishment for a man who was at heart a countryman. He was fortunate in having as art masters E.M. O'Rorke Dickey, a fellow Ulsterman and now an unjustly forgotten artist, and a fine portraitist, Christopher Perkins.

Carr left Oundle in 1926 and with Perkins's family spent three weeks at Cassis, in the South of France. Perkins, Carr and another artist exhibited their sketches in the hotel. Only one was sold - by Carr - to a discriminating member of the Bensusan-Butt family, related to the French Pissarro dynasty by marriage.

Encouraged by the pounds 10 sale, Carr applied to the Slade School of Fine Art in London. From 1927 to 1929 his teachers included Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer. Among fellow students were two to-be-famous Ulster artists, the sculptor F.E. McWilliam and John Luke, later a teacher at Belfast College of Art.

Carr had concentrated on landscape, with Cezanne and Claude Lorraine as particular models. Tonks told Carr, "If you look at any good landscape painters they're also competent draughtsmen. You must learn to draw the figure," and this he did. Carr's son-in-law, the painter Martin MacKeown, remembers him as "an incredibly perfect draughtsman".

Next, Carr's family funded six months in Italy for him, where he stayed with Aubrey Waterfield in his medieval castle at Settignano, outside Florence. Carr visited I Tatti, home of the Renaissance expert Bernard Berenson. He later claimed that when Berenson was away the young people used an old panel by Duccio as a dartboard.

Back in London, Carr rejoined old Slade friends, showing with such artists as Graham Bell, William Coldstream, Lawrence Gowing, Rodrigo Moynihan, Claude Rogers and Geoffrey Tibble. This was a time of experiment. When the Objective Abstractionists held their show at Zwemmer's Gallery in London in 1934, Carr - essentially a realist - was rather oddly slotted in. When he returned to live in Northern Ireland, Carr found a new use for more way-out pictures from that period. This artist, who reckoned a lot of abstract art "rubbish", said that they had been very useful "for re-roofing my beehives".

Carr found association with the Euston Road School of painting, started by Coldstream, Pasmore and Roberts in 1937, more sympathetic. Like his friend Anthony Devas, another excellent portraitist, he was an associate of this group of quiet objective realists.

Settling in Newcastle, Co Down, in 1939, Carr slowly built a reputation. He taught at a girls' school and at Belfast College of Art, but mainly concentrated on becoming a prolific, widely shown painter. Typical subjects were people on benches, by the seaside, children playing, dogs and cats commonly in evidence, all this incidental to the farms, coastline and the Mourne Mountains. From 1955 he lived in Belfast.

Carr's work was familiar at the Royal Academy, and at bodies of which he was a member: the Royal Ulster Academy, the New English Art Club, the Royal Watercolour Society and, as an honorary member, the Royal Hibernian Academy. In 1991 he gained an honorary doctorate from Queen's University, was appointed MBE in 1974, and OBE in 1993 for services to art in Ulster.

When his wife died in 1995, Carr joined his daughter Ann and her husband in Itteringham, Norfolk. Carr was well into his eighties, but this was not retirement. He responded anew to the East Anglian countryside, giving his pictures a fresh lease. To keep himself fit to paint, he began walking a mile before lunch, another before supper, otherwise he "would drop dead". Ultimately, he decided that if he kept up the walking it would sap his energy to paint.

Given Tom Carr's impressive background, his younger brother Sam, the chairman of the publishing firm B.T. Batsford and a keen picture collector, would occasionally seek his advice. It was not infallible. Which should Sam sell, he asked Tom, a Sickert or a Bonnard? Tom ruefully recalled the day when he had advised: "Oh, I should sell the Bonnard!"

Thomas James Carr, painter: born Belfast 21 September 1909; married 1935 Stella Robbins (died 1995: three daughters): died Norwich 17 February 1999.

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