Obituary: George Chapman

Robert K. Meyrick
Wednesday 03 November 1993 01:02 GMT

Kenneth George Chapman, painter and printmaker: born London 1 October 1908; married 1937 May Codlin (one son; marriage dissolved 1943), 1947 Kate Ablett (two sons, one daughter); died Aberaeron 28 October 1993.

IN 1953, George Chapman made a journey through the coal-mining valleys of South Wales and discovered the Rhondda Valley where, he said, 'I realised that here I could find the material that would perhaps make me a painter at last.' He returned to paint the valleys over the next 10 years and there followed a period of considerable success. He staged more than 20 one-man exhibitions; his paintings and prints were purchased by public collections throughout Britain and abroad, met with widespread acclaim and featured on television programmes for Anglia and BBC Wales. Huw Weldon's Monitor programme on Chapman was screened twice on the BBC in 1961 and later in the same year at the Venice International Film Biennial.

Chapman was born in East Ham in 1908, the son of a superintendent on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. He attended Shebbears College in Devon, where his profound deafness hindered his education, and in 1924 went to Gravesend School of Art. He joined Crawford's in 1928 to train as a commercial designer under Ashley Havingden. During the 1930s he worked on numerous advertising campaigns for Jack Beddington at Shell- Mex and also for London Transport, working alongside Graham Sutherland, John Nash, John Piper, Barnett Freedman and John Betjeman. Whilst he enjoyed a comfortable life, there was little satisfaction for him in graphic design, and in 1937 he gave up a successful career to become a painter; first as a student at the Slade, but then, after a year - persuaded by his friend Barnett Freedman - at the Royal College of Art, studying painting under Gilbert Spencer.

During the Second World War, Chapman taught at Worcester School of Art, his deafness exempting him from active service. He returned to advertising in 1945, working for Beddington at Prentice, Colman and Varley. Two years later he married Kate Ablett, whom he had met on a visit to Norwich School of Art. In 1951 they left London and moved to Great Bardfield in Essex and he began to teach graphic design at the London College of Printing, Central School of Art and Colchester Art School. At Great Bardfield Chapman took an active part in the thriving artistic community that included Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Michael and Duffy Rothenstein, John Aldridge, Bernard Cheese, Kenneth Rowntree and Marianne Straub. He contributed regularly to their famous 'Open House' exhibitions, at a time when he was making various experiments in painting in search of technique and subject matter.

From 1953, he rented a studio in the Rhondda. Artists have been drawn to Wales for a wide variety of personal reasons, each bringing preconceived ideas determined by their own social and cultural background. They came in search of the picturesque, the sublime, the romantic and the pastoral but hardly ever to depict the effects of industrialisation. There can be no doubt that the period of success Chapman enjoyed as a painter and printmaker could have been sustained, confirming him as one of the leading postwar British artists of his generation, had his debut not come at a time when the intellectual debate between the advocates of realism and those of abstraction was at its most fervent.

His first one-man show in London was at the Piccadilly Gallery in 1956, the year that saw the swan-song of 'Kitchen Sink' realism when Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch, Jack Smith and John Bratby were chosen to represent Britain in the Venice Biennial. In that same year the Whitechapel Gallery heralded the arrival of Pop Art with its exhibition 'This is Tomorrow' and the Tate staged an important show of American abstract expressionism. Chapman shared the radical left-wing politics of the so called 'Kitchen Sink' painters and found in the Rhondda Valley what Greaves and Middleditch had found in the industrial landscape of Sheffield, Joan Eardley in and around the Glasgow tenements and LS Lowry in Salford. The industrial landscape had been of little concern to artists between the wars many of whom, fearful of the disfigurement of the countryside by roads, industry and suburbanisation, depicted pastoral scenes of a Britain that had never existed.

Chapman's pictures of the Rhondda are a record of a particular place and time, not a topographical record, but a mood inspired by the character of that place - a record of the people of the mining communities and their homes. The people who inhabit this harsh environment are depicted with genuine affection, they are an integral part of its make-up. Observed as they go about their daily routine, the women hang out the washing or totter with a heavy shopping bag, the children play with scooters and hoops in the street, the old men gossip on a bench, feed the pigeons and, on occasion, are caught popping into the Gents. 'I love it all with a deep sense of gratitude,' Chapman wrote.

As a committed socialist his sympathies remained with the working class. In his formative years as a painter in the 1930s, he had witnessed large-scale unemployment, poverty and unrest. Chapman always insisted, however, that the creative driving force was primarily visual and not driven by a reaction to capitalist society, its destruction of the countryside and exploitation of the working class. 'My job as an artist is to make things as they are. Providing I do my job properly, the social comment, if such a thing is needed, will come over itself,' he wrote. It is not the glorification of the miner that Chapman celebrates, but his industrial community. By observing and recording the particular, Chapman avoided sentimentality or monumentalisation. In 1957 he was awarded the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales and in 1960 St George's Gallery Prints published the Rhondda Suite of etchings, undoubtedly among the most important prints ever to concern themselves with the industrial landscape of Wales.

Forty years on, and with only a short hiatus during the 1970s, Chapman continued to paint the Rhondda, recording the changes that have occurred there since that first dark, wet day in 1953 which transformed his vision. Throughout the 1960s the ever fickle art market shifted its attention to Pop and abstract painting. This undermined Chapman's confidence in his work and he began to doubt his ability to create. In 1964 he moved to Aberaeron, gave up painting and severed ties with his galleries. He did not return to the Rhondda unti1 1980, with a commission for a new painting. He worked with excitement, in a fervour of renewed confidence. The resulting one-man show at the Reynolds Gallery, Plymouth, in 1981 was opened by Huw Weldon.

Chapman painted the Rhondda until the last - he had a new painting on the easel at the time of his death. He had taken on the challenge to paint the 'new' Rhondda which had lost none of its former appeal for him. The paintings still focused on the relationship between the people and their environment, attempting to understand how they have adapted to the upheavals of the last two decades.

It has been a delight for me to know George Chapman as a friend in his last six years and to have played a part in the revival of interest in his work which culminated in a retrospective exhibition in 1992 at the Goldmark Gallery in Uppingham. Sitting with George for hours at a time in his studio, listening to him recalling with affection and humour the times spent working in the Rhondda, I was moved by his undiminished affection for the mining communities of south Wales. 'It's a visual history of a locality,' he told me, 'a simple record of what's down there. It's a love affair, you know.'

(Photograph omitted)

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