Obituary: Kenneth Rowntree

Richard Calvocoressi
Wednesday 05 March 1997 00:02 GMT

Collectors of the King Penguin books, begun during the Second World War under the editorship of Nikolaus Pevsner, may remember with gratitude and delight no 43 in the series, A Prospect of Wales. Published in 1948, it contained a text by Gwyn Jones, and reproductions of some 20 watercolours and a cover by Kenneth Rowntree. The illustrations show Rowntree at his best: taut, economical, with a feeling for the geometry in landscape, whether innate or imposed.

Rowntree's Wales is a hard-edged world of slate and stone, of country chapels, miners' cottages, abandoned lead works, hill farms, remote schools and dry-stone walls. His eye for the ordinary and overlooked is as sharp as it is for the less familiar. Lettering, incised on tombstones or colourfully inscribed on shop fronts, is lovingly recreated; traffic signs, telegraph poles and other man-made structures become equally arresting elements in the composition.

Rowntree's gift for evoking a particular place had been fully exploited between 1940 and 1943 when he was one of more than 60 artists commissioned by the Government and financed by the Pilgrim Trust to record the face of England and Wales before development or wartime destruction changed it beyond recognition. "Recording Britain", as this remarkable project came to be known, covered a total of 36 counties. Rowntree concentrated on capturing the essential character of old buildings and interiors in Bedfordshire, Essex, Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Wales. (He was born in Yorkshire and lived from 1942 to 1949 in Essex - at Great Bardfield, where Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious had shared a house in the Thirties and where Bawden continued to live until long after the war.) A recent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which assumed responsibility for the 1,500 or so watercolours in the "Recording Britain" project, revealed that Rowntree's choice of quirky subject matter and keen sense of design made him the ideal interpreter of some of the more unusual aspects of our built heritage.

After the war, Rowntree's topographical interests led him to collaborate with Clough and Amabel Williams Ellis on their "Vision of England" series, illustrating the volumes dealing with Norfolk and the Isle of Wight and designing the cover for Sussex (which had illustrations by his friend and Essex neighbour Michael Rothenstein). In 1951 Rowntree painted murals for the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion at the Festival of Britain. His love of English vernacular art was behind his undertaking later in the decade, while teaching at the Ruskin School of Drawing, to paint portraits of the decorated barges belonging to Oxford colleges. "As he was painting one of them," a friend recalls, "it began to move. Kenneth was at first puzzled, thought his drawing incorrect, then discovered it was actually sinking. They were so old that they have disappeared now, but Kenneth painted most if not all of them."

Kenneth Rowntree was born at Scarborough in 1915 into a Quaker family. He was educated at Bootham School, York, and trained at the Ruskin School of Drawing, where he was taught briefly by Eric Ravilious, and at the Slade School of Fine Art in London. With his wife Diana Buckley, later the architectural correspondent of the Guardian, he lived for the first couple of years of the war in the Lawn Road Flats in Hampstead, designed by Wells Coates in the International Style.

After the war he taught painting at the Royal College of Art. In 1959 he was appointed to succeed Lawrence Gowing as Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University, one of the most progressive art schools in Britain, where the teaching staff included Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton. He held this post until his retirement in 1980. It was at Newcastle that he became receptive to various modernist idioms, such as assemblage and constructivist forms, and incorporated them in his own work. In the 1960s he collaborated with the architect Erno Goldfinger on coloured-glass screens for the entrance halls of the Ministry of Health building at Elephant & Castle. Between 1946 and 1970 he had five one-man exhibitions in London. In the last two decades of his life a number of retrospectives were held in the north of England, usually with incisive catalogue introductions by the current Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle, John Milner.

In the Sixties, Rowntree was a member, together with Quentin Bell and Claude Rogers, of the committee set up to look into university applications in fine art. In his Elders and Betters (1995), Bell recollected:

We met for dinner and usually managed to transact some quite useful business before the first course was eaten, but thereafter Kenneth and Claude began, in a jovial way, to abuse each other, to raise their voices and to dissolve in uproarious laughter. When the other two . . . professors finally staggered away in opposite directions they agreed that any remaining business should be dealt with by me.

All who knew Kenneth Rowntree will testify not only to his abundant enthusiasm for life and its pleasures, but also to his hospitality, generosity of spirit, and conspicuous modesty about his own achievements.

Kenneth Rowntree, artist and teacher: born Scarborough 14 March 1915; married 1939 Diana Buckley (one son, one daughter); died Hexham, Northumberland 21 February 1997.

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