Norman Adams

'Spiritual' painter who became Keeper of the Royal Academy

Tuesday 15 March 2005 01:00

Norman Edward Albert Adams, artist: born London 9 February 1927; ARCA 1951; Head of the School of Painting, Manchester College of Art and Design 1962-70; ARA 1967, RA 1972; Lecturer, Leeds University 1975-78; Professor of Fine Art and Director of King Edward VII College, Newcastle University 1981-86; Keeper, Royal Academy 1986-95; Professor of Painting, Royal Academy Schools 1995-2000; married 1947 Anna Butt (two sons); died London 9 March 2005.

The painter Norman Adams had suffered from Parkinson's Disease for some years. While illness eroded his faculties and ability to communicate, his inner life seemed to clarify and strengthen.

On the evidence of, especially, the huge watercolours that he produced increasingly from the early 1990s onwards, mostly with biblical titles, his inner world became a luminous chamber. As he weakened physically, the ambition that had driven his life - to chart his inner being through visual metaphors and also his sensual life in nature, with the precision of a visual poet - gained a surge of strength. I am sure that when he was young this is what he would have wished for at his end. To carry on painting finally demanded too much of him. Friends urged him to believe that he might paint again. But, when he realised that he had no more to give us, the living, then death was prepared for coming in at the door.

Adams also suffered from a sense of being overlooked in his later years. He was only partly assuaged by assurances that his time would come. "Britart" hit at a particularly unfortunate moment for him, at the latter part of his career devoted to "easel painting", when he should have been collecting its rewards. "Art is about anything but 'sensation'!" he exploded when in 1997 the Saatchi-inspired exhibition at the Royal Academy took "Sensation" for its title.

He had always to face the misunderstanding and air of embarrassment confronting a "spiritual" painter in our excessively secular, Western society, which is quick to resent what it considers authoritarian piety, or self- conscious religiosity. To a degree, Adams courted misunderstanding by accepting church commissions - these were his few opportunities to work on a very large scale that one part of his daemon demanded. He had always found sustenance in the Western Catholic and Protestant traditions, in Eastern mystical thought also.

Apart from the temporary unfashionableness of the spiritual, we mostly expect our artists to be unruly or anarchic outsiders, not fulfillers of church commissions, or professors, as was Norman Adams.

He was born to working-class parents in Walthamstow, London, in 1927. He attended Harrow School of Art, marrying Anna Butt the year after he left, in 1947. Being a "conscientious objector" to National Service, he worked as a farm labourer, beginning family life in a primitive cottage. This brought him the support of the Communist critic John Berger, until, as Adams put it to me once, "the religious thing kicked in". He attended the Royal College of Art from 1948 to 1951, leaving with a Bronze Medal for painting. His first solo exhibition was at Gimpel Fils, to be replaced as his dealer by Roland, Browse and Delbanco (now Browse and Delbanco) in 1953.

This seems the seedbed of a metropolitan artist, but in 1956 at the time of the birth of their first son, Jacob, the Adamses purchased a detached cottage and garden in Horton-in-Ribblesdale, near Settle in the Yorkshire Dales. The seller remarked that this part of Yorkshire was "a terrible place to live" and that she had to "sleep with a gun under my pillow". Despite departures and wanderings, despite his great, native love of London and its seminal artists, especially William Blake and Turner, Horton was the lifelong pivot of Adams's being, where he was happiest and most creative for the longest period. The cottage was named "Butts" after the maiden name of his wife, suggesting immediately a strong muse-attachment.

His earliest work - before Horton - was rich but dark, heavily impasted, the imagery that he was working towards not consistently or clearly expressed, as one would expect. I am convinced that it was Yorkshire, the breadth of its uncluttered views, the clarity of its hill forms, the bird life and flowers, that cleansed his palette, his life, and his spiritual being.

Until the mid-1960s, it was merely the summers that he spent in Yorkshire. By then his second son, Benjamin, had been born, in 1958, and Adams had been appointed Head of Painting at the Manchester College of Art. In 1970, following his dispute over the direction being taken by colleges of art, he resigned his post to live permanently in Horton.

There was also his first visit to the Outer Hebrides in 1963 ("the most beautiful place I've ever seen", he said) and trips to Italy in 1966 and 1967. These experiences lightened his art and spiritual outlook still further. The Adamses bought a small house - a "shieling" - on the tiny Hebridean island of Scarp in 1969, visiting there over the following 10 years.

None the less, it was fundamentally Yorkshire that charmed out of him the side of his art that the majority find most appealing: the small watercolours that he produced in abundance, like leaves from a tree, throughout his career from the 1960s onwards. They are rapidly produced glimpses of nature, in Provence, Yorkshire, or the Hebrides (Adams was quite a traveller), of seas and olive groves, grasped in transience which nevertheless seem more than mere notes of a time of day or season - they are rooted in wider concerns.

To produce no more than these small "visual songs" could never completely satisfy an artist whose whole life was devoted to art. A few months before his death Adams spoke of Mathias Grünewald: "His great altarpiece at Colmar, in the Alsace, and the Arena Chapel paintings by Giotto, in Padua, are the greatest things I know and have always been an inspiration to me."

Norman Adams's more ambitious works seem to many to be too heavily and self-consciously designed. A troubling sense of the academic haunts them. This is pointed up by the academic jobs that he took - the prestigious professorship of painting at Newcastle University from 1981 until 1986 and, after being elected a Royal Academician in 1972, the post of Keeper of the Royal Academy from 1986 until his retirement.

He therefore moved back to London, with returns to Yorkshire until ill-health made them impossible. It is in Butts that I most vividly remember him. The (relatively) large studio that he built would be booming across the fields the music of Wagner or Bruckner. It was the stimulus to his creative ambition - but also a territorial claim, like the song of a blackbird or thrush. When I last met him there he was very frail and almost transparent; the studio itself was like a nest. Within the outer shell, or tree - if you like - of the outstretching music, he had constructed an inner sanctum from a tight circle of large oil-paintings on their easels.

Somewhat like Turner, one of the artists whom he most admired, Norman Adams lived an astutely conducted public and social life, balanced by an especially private one in his studio. This double life was, perhaps, emblemised in the axis of his work, on the one hand the big canvases and public commissions, on the other hand the small watercolours that place him among the finest English artists of his time. It was in his final years that he brought these two parts together, in a series of huge watercolours.

Glyn Hughes

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