Leslie Worth: Artist who established himself as one of the finest watercolour painters of his generation

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:22

Leslie Worth was one of the finest traditional post-war British watercolour artists, this despite never having had a lesson in watercolour at any of the three colleges of art where he studied.

“I was my own master and pupil – on the whole we got on well together,” he commented; watercolour was for him instinctive. Although best known as a landscape painter and clearly influenced by Turner, his work has its own dash, energy and poetic sense, and he regretted that watercolour painting often seemed too insular and too rooted in the English pastoral scene. He claimed that his ideas came from a variety of sources, including literature, music, or even the sound of storms or seas breaking on the shore. In everything – whether a drawing of Brooklyn Bridge, or of a firework display against a dark Venetian sky – his art is noticeable for its exquisite refinement.

Worth was born in Bideford in North Devon in June 1923. It was Derby Day and the winning horse was Papyrus: Worth liked to regard this as a presentiment that much of his life was to be spent in Epsom and that paper was to be the material of his future work. His early life revolved around the fields and woods of the Tamar (where Turner also drew). His father – of whom he was in awe – was a petty officer in the Royal Navy and frequently away from home. One grandfather was a tailor and the other a carpenter on the estate of Sir Hugh Stukely near Bideford. From them both he learnt the importance of craft and working with one’s hands. His background was generally non-conformist and radical-liberal – views he, too, held all his life.

After attending a small church elementary school, he went at 15 to Plymouth School of Art, and from 1940 to 1942 to Bideford School of Art. It never occurred to him, he said, that he should be anything other than an artist. Failing the army medical he worked in Civil Defence before taking up a place at the Royal College of Art, spending his first two years at Ambleside in the Lake District, where the college had been evacuated. It was here that he met Jane Taylor, his future wife.

The students drew nudes and figure compositions exhaustively: any suspicion of self-expression was frowned on. Worth’s tutors included Professor Gilbert Spencer, Percy Horton and Charles Mahoney (who once gave him a guinea, the only prize he ever received at the college), and among his contemporaries were John Ward, Margaret Green and Lionel Bulmer.

Later he named Keith Vaughan, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and the American painter Ben Shahn as influential.

Graduating from the RCA in 1946 he had a bulging portfolio of life-drawings but little idea of how to support himself.

Wanting to join Jane, who was now teaching at East Dereham in Norfolk, he looked around for work locally and found a job in the studio of Jerrolds, a Norwich publisher, for £4 10s a week. In 1948 Jane and he married.

They were married for 61 years and had four children, living in houses surrounded by their own paintings.

Worth took a job at Epsom and Ewell College of Art, where he was to stay for the rest of his professional life, eventually becoming head of the Fine Arts department. After moving with Jane into a small house overlooking Epsom Common he began to take an interest in landscape. Before long he was exhibiting extensively in both solo and group shows, and when he painted the Common under snow the London galleries Agnew’s, Arthur Tooth’s and Wildenstein’s all sold and wrote back wanting more. He continued to exhibit with Agnew’s for many years afterwards, his shows often centring round themes such as Dante’s Inferno, Japanese poetry, New York streets, the Canadian Rockies and still life.

Worth’s collectors included the Queen Mother, Princess Alice, the Duchess of Gloucester, and the Prince of Wales, who also bought Worth’s pictures as gifts for President Mitterand of France and the President of Hungary.

His paintings appear in the collections of the Admiralty, the Royal Academy, Eton College, the Department of the Environment, the former Greater London Council, and the Arts Club, as well as in public galleries all over the UK and as far afield as the National Gallery of New Zealand. Less well-known than his watercolours are his murals, which he did over the course of 25 years for Ilkeston College of Technology in Derbyshire, for a private house in Weybridge, and for the Holme, a Decimus Burton house in Regent’s Park.

One of Worth’s most interesting commissions was for the National Trust with whom he first worked after the great storm of 1987. One morning in August 1989, he received a phonecall from the Trust to say that nearby Uppark had burnt down the day before and would he like to come and make some drawings. As he drove to the house he became aware of the acrid smell of water on charred timbers and he had a sudden memory of the Plymouth blitz in his childhood 40 years earlier.

Uppark, a perfect late-17th-century mansion overlooking the Sussex downs, was now covered in scaffolding and surrounded by firemen and engines. Worth sat down and worked for four hours; the security staff allowed him to go wherever he wanted – even when he had to balance precariously on joists where floorboards had been removed. The reconstruction of Uppark was the largest operation of the kind which the National Trust had ever undertaken and the drawings Worth did covering its revival over the course of seven years were widely exhibited.

In 1951 Worth was elected to the Royal Society of British Artists on the strength of his figure painting, later serving as the Society’s Keeper in charge of their historic collections. In 1981 he won the De Laszlo Silver Medal for Painting and the Singer & Friedlander/Sunday TimesWatercolour in 1986. In 1957 he was elected to the Royal Watercolour Society.

After he became President of the RWS in 1992, no society supper was complete without one of his long, slightly surreal and self-deprecating after-dinner speeches delivered in a gentle, Devonian accent. A shrewd, gentle and humorous man – and capable of asking awkward questions – he had the misfortune to preside over the Society during a deteriorating economic climate but no one could have steered it through the three years more ably. Always diffident, believing that “work should be its own advocate”, Worth nevertheless gave a great deal of thought to what he was doing and the advice in his The Practice of Watercolour Painting (1977) and his three booklets of 1980 are invaluable for practitioners of the art.

“I was gratified,” he once wrote in a letter, “but couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about – when people enthused over my work I was touched but mystified – it all seemed, and still seems quite commonplace. And now it gets harder – I stand amazed at the end of a work which was so full of anxiety and confusion at the completed thing – as if it was not of my making at all – astonished that there should be so much unity – and hopefully – tranquillity.”

He also wrote haiku and played the classical guitar, receiving lessons from Julian Bream. In recent years he had suffered ill health and had a number of heart operations.

Simon Fenwick

Leslie Charles Worth, painter: born Bideford, Devon 6 June 1923; married Jane Taylor 1948 (one son, three daughters); died Epsom, Surrey 21 July 2009.

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