Albert Herbert: Artist of powerful poetic vision

Tuesday 20 May 2008 00:00 BST

The artist Albert Herbert said that "at a certain age you realise what you are and there's nothing you can do about it. . . I just am religious. It's not rational, but if I try to reject or repress it, I have a sense of loss." Acknowledged for his powerful and original poetic vision, Herbert continued a metaphysical tradition in British art that extends from William Blake to Cecil Collins. His idiosyncratic, mystical paintings used biblical stories and religious subjects, but were not exclusively Christian in their meaning – religion was his way of revealing "the inner world of the collective mind". These universal narratives were drawn from a myriad sources, from the Bible to Buddhism, as Herbert discovered images from stories depicted by artists for thousands of years, and renewed them in a quintessentially modern way.

From early in his career, Herbert instinctively wanted to make figurative, emotive, symbolic images. Using stories was his "way of escaping from a private world of self-expression", and for over five decades, he painted surprising, dream-like images. Drawn towards the Catholic Church in the late 1950s, he had an emotional attachment to the imagery and rituals of Catholicism, although an ambivalent attitude to the Church as an institution. His later works – the seemingly naïve, yet highly sophisticated small paintings he produced from the early 1980s – revealed how he constantly transformed himself as he explored "what lies beneath the surface of the mind". Sister Wendy Beckett, the writer and art critic, who championed Herbert's work for many years, commented that his art "comes from so deep in the psyche that it almost forces itself out".

Albert Herbert was born in London in 1925, and grew up in Forest Gate. His "inseparable" childhood friend was Bryan Forbes, later an actor and film director. They met aged eight, and discovered the world of art and literature together, a world completely unknown to their parents. After leaving school, Herbert worked in the picture library of the News Chronicle; and liked the idea of bohemian life in Soho, where he would visit Jack Bilbo's Modern Art Gallery and the Zwemmer gallery and bookshop, or wander nearby to the National Gallery. During an air-raid early in the Second World War, he saw reproductions of drawings by Len Lye in a Surrealist art magazine – the drawings precipitated in him the revelation that "art was about revealing the marvellous".

Herbert had always drawn "compulsively" and in 1942 he started attending Vivian Pitchforth's evening life-class at St Martin's School of Art. Afterwards, Herbert would go home on a blacked-out bus and train, thinking about how he "had totally fallen in love with art and wanted to study full-time which seemed then quite impossible".

His "adolescence was taken away" when he was called up in 1943, aged 18. Serving in the infantry, he survived the second wave of the Normandy landings and the advance into Germany, while three-quarters of his regiment were killed or wounded. Decades later, in 1984, Thames Television made a film, Albert Herbert's War, about his experiences. Late in the war, he was liberated from the infantry by Bryan Forbes to design and paint stage scenery for the "Stars in Battledress" army unit.

Herbert was interested in modern artists like Klee and Picasso; but when demobbed and given a grant to attend Wimbledon School of Art, he absorbed the traditional teaching: John Ward taught precise disciplined drawing, and painting was figurative and tonal, influenced by Sickert and Stanley Spencer. In 1949, Herbert won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, where his friends and fellow students included John Bratby, Peter Coker, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith – the "Kitchen Sink" painters – whose work was a form of social realism recording everyday life. Herbert exhibited with them initially, but was really searching for something more subjective.

Herbert met Francis Bacon when Bacon had a studio at the RCA in 1951-52. Attracted to the emotional significance he found in Bacon's paintings, he used to slip into Bacon's studio to look at his work, saying later that these paintings "were true – they corresponded to my own feelings about life". A slide lecture on "New Realism" given by David Sylvester impressed Herbert greatly, and the paintings he subsequently exhibited in the 1952 "Looking Forward" exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery led a critic to comment that among these "British Realist Pictures", Herbert was "like John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness".

In 1951 Herbert married Jacqueline Henly, a sculpture student at the RCA, and in 1952, a Royal College of Art Travelling Scholarship took the couple to Ibiza in Spain, and later to Paris. In 1953-54, the Abbey Major Scholarship took him to the British School in Rome. Michael Andrews, Derrick Greaves and Euan Uglow were there at the time, and Herbert and his wife became friends with the Italian realist painter Renato Guttuso. Back in England, he taught part-time at Leicester College of Art.

Herbert lectured at Birmingham College of Art from 1956 to 1964. His students were "bowled over" by a London visit in 1959 to see "The New American Painting" exhibition at the Tate Gallery. For Herbert's generation, this wave of American Abstract Expressionism was traumatic – from being regarded as young up-and-coming artists, suddenly "we were too old; we belonged to the past". Herbert always saw himself as something of an "outsider" in the London art world, although he taught and had friendships with many at its epicentre. He became a tutor at St Martin's School of Art in 1964, and was later Principal Lecturer for 21 years (he taught full-time until 1986, and stopped altogether in 1988).

Around 1966 he painted a series of minimal, symbolic pictures of bridges over the River Thames. He recalled that "at that time, to be figurative was in itself a bad thing. My colleagues at St Martin's thought that 20th-century art was essentially abstract. If you hadn't understood that, you had failed to grasp a basic truth. Consequently, I decided that what I had been doing was retrogressive, obsolete nonsense and threw myself into the avant-garde." St Martin's was a centre of modernism – Herbert gave Yoko Ono some teaching, and his fellow lecturers included Gillian Ayres, Leon Kossoff and John Latham.

Feeling constrained by the prevailing avant-garde orthodoxy, Herbert made a series of paintings covered with abstracted, indecipherable texts and experimented with photography. He intuitively wanted to find a way back to figuration and found it in etching, which he worked at intensively over a 10-year period: "I used to creep down to the etching room in the basement at St Martin's and work at these little prints, literary, illustrative, with bits of theology hiding behind childish jokes; all the opposite of what my modernist colleagues were teaching on the top floor." Games with words and primitive graffiti were followed by a series of etchings of Trafalgar Square in which he revealed symbolic, archetypal forms such as "that feminine dome of the National Gallery, and that eternal river flowing at the bottom by Charing Cross".

A visit to a Zen monastery in South Korea in 1976 reawoke his sympathy for Christian symbolism by making him realise that his roots were in the West. He had begun to think of "a much deeper source of imagery which ought to appeal to a much wider audience than the art world – the Bible". He "wanted to make images of people, the way nearly all artists have, back as far as we can see". He looked at children's art and "learned" to draw again: "drawing what I felt and knew rather than what it looked like". When he began to paint again, he had retained a habit of "working small" from making etchings, and the first of these new paintings had an almost savage primitivism. A series of Stations of the Cross started in 1987 for an Anglican church were rejected as "too disturbing", and he did not complete the full series, although they are among his most powerful images and now hang in a private chapel in London.

Herbert did not intend specific readings of his paintings, although he visited some subjects repeatedly: Moses Climbs the Mountain of God, God Speaks to Moses from the Burning Bush, The Nativity, Jonah and the Whale. His paintings became increasingly colourful and enigmatic. Over the last two decades of his life, free to paint full time, he exhibited regularly with England & Co, culminating in a major retrospective exhibition in 2004. It included a small group of works that looked back on his early life, and the prophetically titled Through the Dark Wood to the Sea, "a story of our life to its happy ending out of the wood and into the great sea". The paintings finished during his final illness, of women in idyllic gardens and watching from windows, are inscribed with the words "made for Joy and Woe".

Jane England

Albert Charles Herbert, artist: born London 10 September 1925; married 1951 Jacqueline Henly (three daughters); died Dorking, Surrey 10 May 2008.

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