Obituary: Professor Carel Weight

Carol Courtney
Friday 15 August 1997 00:02 BST

During Carel Weight's tenure as Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art he received an unexpected letter from the Queen asking him to join a select party of guests staying overnight at Windsor Castle. Noting the invitation was dated 1 April, Weight assumed it to be an April Fool. Typically, he did nothing about it for a while but nevertheless worried quietly until he eventually discovered that the summons was absolutely genuine.

The incident reflects some of the ambiguity of Weight's position and his ambivalence about his own value. On the one hand Weight's career as a painter is an astonishing success story in which he carved an independent and highly individual reputation whilst finding a market for his work that remained undiminished from his first exhibition at the Cooling Gallery in 1933 to the present day. Alongside this, he held for 16 years one of the most prestigious teaching jobs in Britain, spanning a period when the RCA's reputation was at its zenith.

Yet at the same time Weight rarely received serious critical attention and was, to a great extent, overshadowed - in publicity terms at least - by the golden generation of students whom he taught and whose work often seems to bear almost no relationship to the values he held dear.

Weight's beginnings were inauspicious. He was born in London in 1908, in Paddington. His father was a bank clerk and his part-German mother a chiropodist and manicurist with a high-society clientele and pretensions of her own. (Known to his family by his first name, Victor, Weight owed "Carel" to one of his mother's Dutch clients who told her, "I'll make it worth the child's while when he grows up if he bears my name." The man left England in 1910 and was never heard of again.)

Mindful of her career, his mother farmed her only child out to foster- parents in an impoverished household at World's End, allowing him home for weekend visits during which he endured intense criticism, particularly from his father. Whilst a room was set aside in the parental home for a live-in maid, there was no bedroom for Carel.

Although he acknowledged that his parents did have great affection for him, it was for Rose, his foster-mother, that the young Weight's deepest feelings were reserved and his sensitivities to the hardships of her life - she was "in service" and later suffered greatly through illness - perhaps foreshadowed the empathy for female vulnerability that is so often the subject of his mysterious, high-anxiety paintings.

In the neighbourhood of Rose's house, Weight encountered children too poor to wear shoes and characters such as the shell-shocked "Engine Joe" who would jabber among the children, believing himself to be a train. At school there was a further terror in the form of a tyrannical master who threatened to thrash Weight if he used the word "um" again whilst reading aloud. The inevitable happened, and the blow the child received possibly did less damage than his feeling of humiliation of which he remarked almost 80 years later, "That had a great effect on me really. I became very frightened of all sorts of people and it took a long, long time to break myself of it."

Unsurprisingly, Weight endured nightmares all his life, many of which fed into his paintings. When, in the 1950s, he sought a setting for The Day of Doom, a painting in which he wanted to express the prevailing atmosphere of threat from the atom bomb and the beginnings of the Cold War, he thought back to the time in his life where he had been most afraid and settled on a fire he had witnessed in Fulham when he was three or four years old.

Perhaps the decision to jettison the name Victor in favour of Carel was an indication of the inner assurance which complemented the fearful side of his personality. Sidestepping his mother's ambition for him to become a singer and his parents' certainty that to become an artist necessarily meant starving in a garret, Weight joined the Hammersmith School of Art in 1926, where the training was so formal that there were no mixed-sex classes and one fellow student was expelled for speaking to a female model.

It was in this environment that Weight began his lifelong friendship with Ruskin Spear. An important influence at this stage was their teacher, James Bateman, who had himself been taught by Tonks at the Slade, and who instructed his own students in compositional laws based largely on an analysis of Piero della Francesca. Weight enjoyed this approach but his independence was soon to assert itself and he resisted Bateman's urgings to make his figures realistic and was quick to recognise the limitations of his tutor's own work.

When Bateman moved to Goldsmiths' he encouraged Weight to continue his education there and it was here that the young painter met Helen Roeder, who was to be his partner for the rest of his life. The level of Weight's thirst for companionship at this time was caught in his reminiscences in a 1991 interview: "It was very, very lovely to have somebody who was thinking in a similar way to you and with whom one could discuss all sorts of exciting things."

Between 40 and 50 of Weight's early canvases were lost when a bomb destroyed his studio in the Second World War and he was, briefly and unhappily (and somewhat hilariously), put on active service before Kenneth Clark rescued him by appointing him an official war artist. The combination of warfare and suburbia as a mix Weight might have dreamt up for himself and it was characteristic that he should make a series of paintings centred on an incident in which the zebra house at London Zoo was bombed, allowing one animal to stampede the local streets chased by an attendant in an Austin 7.

In this case the series of paintings Weight produced had a strong element of documentary truth about them, but they fit absolutely into his later work in which witches and lions, ghosts and fairies, populate south London or the landscapes of Sussex and Dorset. (One of Weight's war paintings, showing passengers fleeing from a bombed bus, was rejected by the War Office on the grounds that it depicted the British public in a state of panic.) Weight was later sent abroad, where he worked in Greece, Italy and Austria, and his letters home to Helen were published by the Camberwell Press in 1988.

Once he was demobbed, Weight combined teaching posts with a determined concentration on his own painting, completing a series of works based on views of the Thames, many of them from Gravesend. A painting of this period, The Return of the Prodigal Son, contains many elements that were to make up his distinctive language, setting a biblical story alongside the towpath at Hammersmith Bridge: "I wanted it to be a really convincing story and I wanted it to be as contemporary as I could get it." The painting is one of the rare instances where Weight's figures are running towards one another rather than in flight from each other.

Despite his many friends and the immense amount of affection he inspired, Weight's sense of isolation never left him. Speaking of his painting The World We Live In in 1991, he said, "It's just two people. They may have been in love with each other, I don't know. But they've been very close but it's all come to nothing. They're just two solitary figures. That's very much my theme. It's similar to my diploma picture in the Royal Academy, The Silence. I think love and all that sort of thing is rather superficial. You can love people, but it doesn't bring you any closer to them."

Despite his recognition of the limitations of human relationships, Weight numbered among his many friends the painters Edward Bawden and John Nash (with whom he would go on rather grumpy painting holidays) and Julian Trevelyan and Mary Fedden (with whom he spent holidays in France, dressed rather formally and demanding that Mary cook meat and two vegetables for him at lunchtime before she and Julian skipped off for a picnic by the river and swimming), Stanley Spencer and L.S. Lowry.

Similarly, he formed close and lasting friendships with many of his students and the sympathy he showed to them was undoubtedly a measure of the pressures he had felt himself. He had no wish for disciples and his strength as a teacher seems to have been in allowing other painters to follow their own instincts, offering gentle encouragement where he could. He thoroughly enjoyed his heady Royal College days and was proud of the fact that he was the first person to see David Hockney as a blond: "He was a brunet. One day I was walking rather early in the morning in the college and coming out of the gents was this gorgeous golden-haired figure. It was quite a surprise. Unlike most blonds, he remains blond to this day."

Denying any desire to dye his own hair pink or green, Weight nevertheless cut a path that was utterly his own. Apparently without jealousy in the face of his students' greater success, he continued to show at the Royal Academy every summer, where he had a steady and growing following (and where he was given a retrospective exhibition in 1982), and maintained his regular pattern of commuting by bus between his home in Clapham and his Putney studio - the landscape that was to Weight what Cookham was to Stanley Spencer - building a vast body of work that has yet to be properly assessed.

Cathy Courtney

Carel Victor Morlais Weight, artist: born London 10 September 1908; RBA 1934, Hon RBA 1972; staff, Royal College of Art 1947-73, Fellow 1956- 97 (Senior Fellow 1984-97), Professor of Painting 1957-73 (Emeritus); ARA 1955, RA 1965; CBE 1962; Hon RWS 1985; CH 1995; married 1990 Helen Roeder; died London 13 August 1997.

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