Obituary: Paul Bird

Patrick Reyntiens
Wednesday 12 May 1993 00:02 BST

Paul Bird, painter: born London 13 February 1923; Vice-Principal, Central School of Art and Design 1961-83; married 1965 Diana Roseveare (died 1969; one daughter); 1969 Margaret Bennet (two sons; marriage dissolved); died London 5 May 1993.

THE LIFE of the painter Paul Bird was an example of how varied, devious almost, the development of an individual of note has necessarily to be nowadays. Bird's experiences stretched from the Royal Navy to Bath and Walter Sickert, to the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield. Truly a catholic upbringing.

War has its vagaries and it was the young Paul Bird, accidentally evacuated to Calne, in Wiltshire, and then enrolled in the Bath School of Art (as it was then) under Clifford Ellis, who contacted the by that time extremely aged painter Walter Sickert. Sickert had also been, in a certain way, 'evacuated' to Bath. This haphazard contact decisively influenced Bird's attitude to drawing for the rest of his life but he was not content merely to be an offshoot of Sickert's brilliant method, influential though it proved to be. Soon he was drafted into the Royal Navy and his experience in life was widened by travel in India and the Far East.

The end of the war saw Bird studying at the Institute of Education, Bloomsbury, and he attended the original and challenging series of seminars advanced by Nikolaus Pevsner on medieval and Renaissance architecture at that time. No one who was present at these will ever forget them, and the imaginative perspective provided by Pevsner was added to foundations laid by Bird's initial contact with Sickert. Soon afterwards Bird found himself in Bath again, this time teaching in the Bath Art Secondary School. He happened to be very close to the Polish painter of genius Peter Potworowski, and experienced a breakthrough in painting by examining and eventually adopting Potworowski's theory of colour which he refined to his own use.

Bird's own paintings were figurative with a transposed sense of colour, not simply a naturalistic one. His drawing was important to him, he was always able to teach people to draw quickly and well; it was an accurate way of drawing, based on the objective observation of areas of light and shade, very much in the manner of Sickert.

But if the arts were foremost in Bird's enthusiasm and inquiry, his spiritual Odyssey was by no means over. The influence of Jacques Maritain, especially through his most influential book, L'Art et Scholastique, was paramount. Reading Maritain sent Bird further back in inquiry to the source of Scholasticism, St Thomas Aquinas. In the study of Thomism, Bird was converted to mainstream, Catholic Christianity. This vision of reality, which influenced him for the rest of his life, may, obliquely perhaps, be backed up by two quotations which were among his favourites. From William Blake came, 'If the doors of perception were cleansed, the whole of nature would appear to man as it is, infinite.' Bird saw the mystical side of this passage and, needless to say, made very different use of it to that adopted by Aldous Huxley, who employed it as part of his argument for the use of drugs to heighten perception. The second quotation is from Cezanne: 'Drawing and painting are not distinct; everything in nature is coloured - when colours have their richness, form has its plenitude - the more the colours harmonise, the more precise the drawing becomes.'

For a short time in the early Fifties Bird was Head of Painting at Bretton Hall Training College, in Yorkshire, but the insistence of his inquiry into religion impelled him in 1953 towards the peace and integration of the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, in Yorkshire, where he remained a lay brother for the next eight years. His stay there was yet another step towards his complete maturity. After the quiet of the community it seems a surprise to find him teaching in the Royal College of Art, in London, under Robin Darwin. He taught drawing in the Film and Television School. But this was soon to be capped by his appointment to the Central School of Art and Design as Vice-Principal in 1961, and it is in this later capacity that a whole range of friends knew him best.

Bird - although infinitely flexible in his personal approach and in his interest in the welfare and teaching of the students - was never known to go back on his acquired authority, based on an amalgam of St Thomas, Cezanne, Sickert and Blake. The experience of the Central, spread over 22 years, developed his perceptions concerning art and education, and these were to be crystallised and put at the disposal of others in the course of a series of summer schools in 1983-93 entitled 'The Art of Seeing'.

A reluctant reader in his youth, Paul Bird in his middle years was a conscientious and wide reader. He lately refined his library to books mainly on Western mysticism from Dionysius to Eckhart, and latterly had read Eastern Indian and especially Tibetan mysticism. To his collection of mystical literature he added a few dozen books on his favourite painters. The fruit of his reading and of his practice was an unforgettable experience when given in lectures and seminars to his chosen students.

(Photograph omitted)

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