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Eric Huntley RSW  1927-1992

 

Dad (Eric), me and mum 1969

1972 - Painting with Dad in the garden....

the hats were an important accessory!
     
     

It's in the genes. I grew up around painting and I don't remember ever wanting to do anything else.

It was deeply saddening for me to lose my father at just 25 - he being just 64.  He lived to see me begin my life as a painter but only just, and hardly a day goes by without me wondering what he would make of how I've progressed. I take comfort in the knowledge that he had great faith in me - it wasn't always deserved! - and I am proud to now tell his story, the story of a dedicated, caring teacher and a true paintaholic.

In the summer of 1994, a commemorative exhibition of Eric's paintings was held to celebrate his life and work. The following text was produced for an illustrated booklet which accompanied the exhibition. It was written by good family friend, ex-pupil of Eric and gifted Art Historian Edwin Bowes. Sadly, Eddie is no longer with us either. However, as a staunch supporter of my father and great admirer of his work, I know he would be delighted to have his words included in these pages.

The Copyright of all Images and Text on this page remains that of Rowan Huntley and the Huntley and Bowes Estates.

 
Through All the Wide Border
A commemorative Exhibition of Paintings
21 July - 10 September 1994
Berwick-upon-Tweed, North Northumberland
 

Eric Huntley RSW, Artist and Teacher

 

'A Paintaholic'

On more than one occasion Eric Huntley would describe himself as 'a paintaholic'. It is a term which blended wit with characteristic self-awareness and lucidity to convey a most important message - that for him the painting of pictures was no mere pastime. In 1983, only two years after his early retirement from full-time teaching - as Head of the Art Department of Berwick Grammar / High School - his addiction led to elected membership of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours. Several exhibitions throughout the Borders and Lowland Scotland were to follow. Three shows of recent work were held in Edinburgh. Reviewing one, Edward Gage, the art critic of The Scotsman said that Eric should paint larger and, more importantly, "not undervalue his talents". Other well-wishers pressed him to increase his prices, but any form of self-exaltation seemed to Eric to be deeply distasteful. In his adopted native town (Berwick upon Tweed) over the years he showed only a handful of works - and one had to be quick! In a moment they would be gone - snapped up by one of a growing number of eager enthusiasts who longed for a more comprehensive showing. The present exhibition is unique in being representative of all periods of Eric's progression. By including some student work, drawings and earlier oils, as well as the beautiful gouaches of the last ten years, it commemorates the career of a popular, hardworking teacher and a highly-regarded Border artist.

Cornfield Edge

Discovery of the Countryside

What makes a painter of Landscape? Certainly Eric was not born a countryman. The second of three children of a consultant engineer, he grew up in Low Fell, Gateshead. At the time of his birth in 1927 this could be described as a suburban environment for there were open fields not far away. But his first exposure to real countryside only occurred in 1939/40 when, as a war-time evacuee, he had the good fortune to be sent to Askrigg in the Yorkshire Dales. He was billeted with a gamekeeper. Forty years before the advent of its televised celebrity there was then an authenticity to the rural scene and I believe the impact of this stay was disproportionate to its length. Later, Eric always claimed to have settled in Paxton by accident but recollections of Askrigg - its setting in a broad river valley, its narrow lanes waiting to be explored by an impressionable new arrival from the city, its high, coarse-textured, dry-stone walls which hid colourful or semi-wild gardens - all surely played some part in influencing his subsequent decision on where to settle. (Surrounded by a high stone wall, the old orchard at Paxton never lost its appeal as a subject for painting until ruined by development). Moreover, in Wensleydale, limestone walls of lesser height define boundaries of agricultural enclosure, creating shape and abstract pattern. From Ellerkin Scar above Askrigg  these walls are seen to zig-zag rather that 'snake' their way across the vista. It is largely a landscape of straight lines. Meanwhile, flat-topped Addlebrough, directly opposite, can be seen to bear some resemblance - that of an undernourished kinsman, perhaps - to the greater bulk of Cheviot viewed across the Merse from the garden of Eric's home at Paxton.

Design, pattern, a sense of mass, clearly delineated structure within the landscape and strong feeling for a particular locality... much of what may later be seen to be the most characteristic of Eric's work received its first stimulus at this time. (He had just entered his teens; it was war-time and, to heighten further the senses in that summer, the fate of the country hung briefly in the balance). And yet, the system of agriculture in the Dales and the supply of local building materials dictates that it is a less colourful landscape than that of the Merse. Eric's discovery of colour - one of the chief joys of his work - did not come till later.

Whiteadder Winter, Dark Valley

Departure from 'Euston Road'

The discovery was not made in a painting room at college. In 1946 Eric enrolled as a student of painting at King's College, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (then part of Durham University). In the studios a stimulating atmosphere was engendered not merely by the presence of a number of former service men, newly returned from the war, but by the coming together of a group of particularly committed teachers. Eric always spoke very warmly of this gathering which included Sir Roger de Grey (who only recently retired as President of the Royal Academy) and Quentin Bell, together with the late Christopher Cornford (1917-1993) and Sir Robin Darwin (1910-1974). But it was the late Sir Lawrence Gowing (1918-1991) who was to exert most influence on Eric's work. He was appointed Principal in 1948 and through his agency Eric absorbed  something of the spare aesthetic reasoning which underpinned the art of Sir William Coldstream (1908-1987). Together with Graham Bell and others, Coldstream who, incidentally was born in Belford, established a teaching school in the Euston Road in London in 1937 where Gowing himself studied. It is necessary to know a little of the background to this short-lived venture to appreciate Eric's stance as an artist, to understand his debt to Gowing, and to recognise, for want of a better word, his 'method'.

Developments in Art in the last 15 years or so have led to renewed interest in the school. 'Euston Road' arose out of feelings of antipathy towards both surrealism and abstract art in Britain in the 1930's. Coldstream, the key figure, felt that a realist approach was a prerequisite  if the artist was ever to re-establish "broken communications between the artist and the public" 1. But what rendered his work mildly revolutionary was the degree of rigour which he brought to the ostensibly simple task of painting from nature. Looking - really looking - was what it was all about. (Years later, Eric jotted down with approval some words from Terry Frost, a very different kind of artist: "If you think you know before you look, you cannot see for knowing"). There could be no truck with imagination in Euston Road; no attempt made to recreate 'atmosphere' within a landscape. Coldstream and Bell aspired to a most severely objective mode of representational painting. Constant measurement was one means of fostering a coolly detached 'anonymous' appraisal. Preoccupied as he was with "putting things in the right place"2 Coldstream's students, including Gowing, were taught, as Stephen Spender recalls, that "there are no lines in nature"3. Instead, key points were plotted across the surface of the canvas and their position continually checked and re-checked. Any portrayal of the transient or ephemeral was thereby rendered impossible. There was no place for what Eric called 'the happy accident' and little feeling for paint as substance. Nor, having been trained at the Slade in 'the Velasquez-Manet tradition'4 of tonal painting was Coldstream any colourist. Meanwhile, Sickert's influence could be identified in a choice of subject matter that was often drab and mundane - frequently, but not exclusively, drawn from the urban environment. Accordingly, although in some of his best work Coldstream occasionally achieved a rather muted lyricism, much Euston Road painting in its earliest, purest manifestation could only be described as somewhat arid. Its lasting value for Eric lay in its probity.

From the Old Orchard, Paxton

To begin with Gowing painted in a manner similar to Coldstream but he, like others, discovered "the personal limit of how far calculated analysis can reach"5. Gowing's was an altogether more passionate temperament. His response to the subject was intensely personal. For him, the application of paint to canvas was a pleasurable activity and he was by no means immune to the delights of colour. He had a first-class mind and possessed the ability to enthuse others - none more so than Eric who inherited precisely the same joint aptitude.

A World of Colour

A few of Eric's student paintings are featured in the present exhibition. There are some early likenesses of family members - those most convenient and long-suffering of models - in which the heads have a 'carved', rather faceted appearance. Their convincing solidity is dependent upon precise judgement of the exact tone of each accurately placed, frequently square brushstroke. (See, for example, Portrait of the Artist's Father.) A remark by Robin Darwin, Gowing's predecessor, afforded Eric particular pleasure. "You have a natural eye for tone" Darwin said - but some months later a second remark by Chris Cornford provoked a crisis. Cornford berated him for finding painting "too easy" - easy, that is, in the sense of 'approaching slickness'. Eric himself described what happened next:

"From then on....I began to search for an approach to painting which was not "too easy". It was not until my final year when I 'discovered colour' that I understood how necessary the search was. What came 'too easily' to me was painting from observation - life, still-life, landscape - in what I came to see was a remarkably accurate tonal way. My "natural eye for tone" was, unless I could channel it, a built-in disability - a blinding danger. Literally blinding: preventing me from seeing. The moment of revelation came through an absurdly trivial meeting. Not on the Damascus road with a momentous 'happening' - but on a country lane. Surrounded by the traditional stimulants of the painter - spring sky, sunshine and shadow, trees and hedgerows - I kicked an empty Woodbine packet...I picked it up with disbelieving delight. Pale, slightly blue-green; and mauve; and orange - beautiful! Absolutely beautiful. I looked around. There was the blue-green in the verge - and a host of other magical greens; and mauves, oranges, blues yellows, browns, greys... I had looked at them all before, time and time again, and never seen them. Such - after living in such a world, and painting with 'colours' - was my discovery of colour... My painting - "too easy" - would never be the same again" 6.

A painting of Rooftops, Low Fell must serve to illustrate the point of transition. (For want of a better example, perhaps. Over the years, Eric gave away many fine early works which remain untraced.) His description of this 16"X20" canvas, "My attempt at Euston Road"7, conveyed his realisation that the essay had not been entirely successful. True, he has chosen an unprepossessing urban scene, utterly uncharacteristic of his later work. The tonal range is suitably low and narrow. Yet there is a clarity and sharpness to the lines of the interlocking rooftops that is alien to Euston Road. Above all, his burgeoning interest in colour is apparent in the bottle-green/cherry-red colour harmonies around which the painting is partly built.

National Service

As was only to be expected, Eric graduated with First Class Honours in the summer of 1950 - Coldstream was his External Examiner - and in the following year was awarded his Diploma in education with a Distinction in Practical Teaching. These accumulated skills were put to good use during two years National Service in the army which followed. After basic training he joined the Education Corps. It is a measure of e commitment which he brought to every task that in such a short army career he attained the rank of Staff Sergeant; but what is infinitely more interesting and important is that he taught map-reading. Could anything have been more pertinent? Dealing as it does with the positioning of the self in the landscape in relation to other measured or observed features, it is the one discipline which must instil a feeling for location. But there were few opportunities for outdoor sketching let alone any more developed forms of painting. Those which did arise Eric seized upon with alacrity and, even in a world of khaki and camouflage, he succeeded in finding colour. For proof, simply look at the modest little picture of A Soldier Reading.

Whiteadder from Fox Covert

Stained Glass

On his 'demob' in 1953 Eric went to work for a year or so with LC Evetts, the designer of stained glass. Though he completed only one finished window, in St George's, North Shields, he later agreed that, subconsciously, the experience had probably exerted a sway almost as powerful as that of post-war Euston Road. We shall surely have reason to pause later in front of more than one 'sous bois'.

The influence of Gowing is apparent, certainly; but consider the varied shapes and patterns set up by the overhanging branches. Are not similar rhythms present in the leading of a window? (Indeed, Doris Easton, whom Eric met at college and married in 1954, recalls a few experimental paintings in which black lines were even used to outline form. Utterly untypical of Euston Road, I imagine the style must have resembled some form of faceted 'cloisonnisme'.) Of course, stained glass windows are admired primarily for the potency of their colour. Eric ceased to deal with pieces of coloured glass - but he built upon this unusual experience and, in later gouaches, developed n ability to handle colour of an astonishing chromatic range. Black, he totally renounced.

Off-Shore Gale

A Born Teacher

"Those who can, do: those who can't, teach". Eric's career gives the lie to a saying which he himself was fond of quoting, but it is not to belittle his work as an artist to say that he was a born teacher. Even after his retirement he continued to conduct less formal classes and it is to regretted that he did not commit more of his thoughts on the subject to paper.

In January 1956 he took up the position of art master at Berwick Grammar School and settled in Paxton. As I have tried to explain, I do not believe  that he found the village 'quite by chance'. Yet I fully accept his subsequent reluctance to leave for, as well as an unspoilt appearance which it then had, Paxton lies almost on the border between England and Scotland and I believe that the best of Eric's later paintings manifest 'the best of both worlds'.

my own earliest recollection of Eric as a teacher dates from 1961. To use an entirely accurate word - though one which, as we entered secondary education, neither my classmates nor I would then fully have understood - Mr Huntley was perceived as a particularly 'humane' member of staff. it was not so much rumours as known, for example, that each year he would lose his temper - but only once with one luckless individual in the whole school. Less au fait than my colleagues with the Theory of Probability, I was caught one day indulging in a bout of 'abstract expressionism' - not on my own painting but on that of a neighbour. Eric's (genuinely) uncommon wrath conveyed a most important first lesson; that 'art' was a serious business in that what was produced had value - even to an outsider. if that was the case, I go round to thinking, next time, why not attempt to produce something 'better'?

Each of Eric's many former pupils who have gone on to make a career in art would have a different, doubtless more lucid, tale to tell of how their interest was first awakened but all would be in agreement that Eric was an inspirational figure - "a motivator", as one recently described him to me. He was tireless in offering guidance and encouragement once he had spotted the slightest glimmer of interest or talent. He would lend, or even give away, his own paintings and was always happy to begin, or continue, a discussion after the final bell had sounded. His pipe would be brought out and lit; clouds of 'St Bruno' would begin to rise; otherwise there was little  indicate that the day was officially over. Remarkably, too, one former pupil recalls meeting Eric again at a show in Edinburgh after a break of eighteen years. "I don't suppose you remember me," he began. He go no further. Of course Eric did - and carried on a conversation as if there had only been a one day gap!

Inevitably, the training which he had received influenced Eric's own teaching. He continued to stress the importance of looking and seeing and encouraged several pupils to apply to Scottish colleges where the tradition of figurative art remained strong. A volume of press cuttings and notes reveals his anxiety as dramatic upheavals in the teaching of the subject took place in the late 60's. but he was y no means hostile to change as is clear from the following remarks: "It is the nature of art that it must be continually changing and evolving. There can be no question of having a strictly defined syllabus which is repeated year after year...'Art' and 'Drawing' are taken to be synonymous, when, in fact, there are whole areas of the visual arts which are nod dependent at all on 'drawing' in its accepted sense"8.

Other Artistic Influences

Although the touchstone of Eric's interest remained the artist's close involvement with the actuality of landscape - Surrealism accordingly remained his one true 'blind spot' - Eric admired the work of many figures whose handling of paint was quite unlike his own. Sometimes, for example, he would speak of his admiration for the work of Turner - but not Turner's large landscapes rooted in the Classical tradition, nor his early topographical works. Instead, he praised his 'colour beginnings' - those near abstract washes of colour where. as Eric put it, Turner was just "playing himself". Similarly, he greatly admired the earlier works of Ivon Hitchens, appreciating the 'musical' qualities inherent in his work, his unusual wide horizontal compositional format and the poetic suggestion of his titles (which he sought to emulate). But on a deeper level he understood, like Patrick Heron, the way in which Hitchens, in trying like Cézanne to 'realise his sensations before Nature', "achieves not an imitation of natural appearances, but a 'harmony parallel to Nature'"9. This seemed to Eric to lie very much at the heart of the matter and he later wrote trenchantly that Hitchen's later wok of the 60's and 70's "demonstrates the dangers of what happens when too much notice is taken of what others are doing... The challenges brilliantly met in the 40's and 50's were not even acknowledged in the later work"10.

Literally 'Closer to home', he praised the work of Earl Haig - a fellow Borderer who had also studied under Gowing - and his admiration for Gillies led him to seek out the artist's studio a Temple, Midlothian. But, of all Scottish painting, he responded most passionately to the note of almost desperate conviction in the work of Joan Eardly, especially those pictures executed 'en plein air' in the fields high on the cliff tops above Catterline. (Look at Old orchard, Paxton: Seeding Thistles, with its 'Eardlyesque' high horizon line and expressive brushwork in the foreground. One feels that Eric has 'immersed' himself in the landscape in much the same way that Eardly did.)

Technique

Throughout the 60's, at the end of every school holiday, but especially the longer summer break, two, or at most three new paintings by Eric might appear n the art room wall, displayed in narrow white frames. In a year he might produce less than half a dozen for, at this time, he used oil paint on canvas, working out of doors or from pencil sketches done on the spot. The garden was a favourite subject but there were corners of the village he would return to again and again. Occasionally he would bring a fresh eye to a Border view steeped in romance - Scott's view is an obvious example - but more often he was content simply to tuck himself away at the edge of a field. subjects were everywhere. One didn't sit around and 'wait for inspiration'.

Oil paint is itself slow drying, but the technique Eric used at this time was additionally time-consuming and restrictive. After roughly drawing in the simplified shapes of the composition in dilute oil paint he would begin work at 2 or 3 different locations on the canvas, corresponding to different features in the landscape or points in space. The 'pitch' of the first mark made on the white, virgin canvas was of crucial importance for it established the colour scheme of the entire painting; everything related to it. And I remember him saying this if one saw a particular colour - a blue-violet, say, beneath a bush - then one should get it down straightaway for at a second glance it would have disappeared. In this way such remarkably colourful pictures as Paxton from Honeybrae, 1959, were produced. Each was built up stroke by stroke. Fresh colours were constantly mixes and laid adjacent to earlier ones. To preserve the freshness of the stroke no reworking was deemed permissible. Gradually the pattern of marks would mesh together in a style somewhat reminiscent of the late Cezanne. (Eric admired the latter's "patient masonry". Cheviot, one could say, as his Mont St. Victoire - Cawderstanes, his Chateau Noire). But although he used large, square bristle brushes, several days would be required to bring even a 16"x20" to completion. The disadvantages of such an approach were manifold. of course the weather might change but, more fundamentally, the corn might be cut and the field ploughed before the picture was finished.

It was in 1970 that Eric first used gouache on paper though, prior to this, he had produced some striking stage designs in poster colour for the School Operatic Society. Without question this new medium allowed his talent to find it's truest expression. He abandoned oil paint with its more restricted palette and, for more than 20 years, worked almost exclusively with vivid gouache, sometimes applied on top of an acrylic underlayer. His reputation was built upon paintings produced using this technique.

For a long time opaque body colour (gouache) has been regarded as the somewhat less capable, poor relation of pure watercolour - 'the English medium par excellence'. however, developments in the last 30 years or so, such as the invention of 'Aquapasto', have greatly enhanced the range and versatility of this aqueous paint. Thickly textured, almost tactile surfaces can be built up using the knife (an implement Eric often used) as well as the brush. The work can be done quickly too, and, if spirit varnish is applied to the finished painting, the already vibrant colours grow dramatically in in intensity. Eric made full use  these new possibilities - generally working on a small, concentrated scale. The lesson that 'big is not necessarily best' was one which he felt had still to be learnt by many modern painters.

Subject Matter

All the paintings which you see on the walls around you give a consistently true, readily comprehensible account of the appearance and mood of the particular locality in which Eric chose to put down roots in a very positive sense almost 40 years ago. (The very best, such a the large view of Whiteadder Braes: Cawderstanes, 1979, are surely distinguished by something deeper;  in the words of Paul Nash, "a mystery, an enchantment, which cannot be analysed".) Around 1980 h discovered Pembrokeshire - by no coincidence the landscape where Sutherland found growing his gnarled, deep-rooted tree forms. Such splendid pictures as Sutherland's Oaks: East Cleddau No 2 were a result but Eric rarely strayed further south than Lindisfarne or further north than the coastal village of Burnmouth. Instead, he stressed the importance of really getting to know one's surroundings. A true involvement. One more cliché, perhaps, but for this kind of artist familiarity breeds the opposite of contempt.

The Eildons, Autumn Morning

Eric possessed a most remarkable visual memory, but, in the first instance, I repeat, it all boiled down to looking. A searching kind of scrutiny - reminiscent, again, of Cezanne. Noticing new colours brought about in a familiar landscape by seasonal change or by a peculiar Northern light which varies almost from hour to hour; observing the precise form of trees stripped bare of their leaves in winter. Only after many years did Eric feel that it was safe to use the camera as an aid which latterly he often did.

Not infrequently, it is the sky which forms the subject of these paintings; always it establishes the mood of the scene with complete conviction. But Eric would undoubtedly have agreed with Ivon Hitchens's remark at "it is not the subject, but the problem that the subject sets which is so fascinating"11 for, like him, he would return again and again to certain favourite motifs. More than 20 paintings of the same Two Larches were produced before he found there was "nothing more to discover, nothing more to say"12 . Similarly, on a more ambitious scale, he relished the 'sous bois' as a subject of unending interest - an enthusiasm which is reflected in a poem he wrote entitled The Brushwork which begins: "This green in the shallows/Under dark foliage overhang/Is emerald amber./The moving water flows/From dazzling, cloud-reflected white/Into this rich shade/Yet stays itself, unchanged and clear./Mind tells me so/But senses not". He especially loved a wood in early spring whilst light was still able to penetrate the leafy canopy to reach the forest floor or the rock-strewn stream. Tweedside Wood - Near Mertoun is a splendid example rendered all the more striking by a characteristically bold composition based on a steep diagonal with a central oval of distant light. (Significantly this mimics the shape of the artist's, or the observer's eye.)

Later in the summer the foliage would grow heavy and shapeless and Eric would begin to long for winter-time when, at a stroke, the snow revealed the kind of unimagined, new geometry of precise interlocking shapes and skeletal forms which he found so fascinating. As compensation, however, throughout the year, there were always fresh flower studies to tackle. These he painted for relaxation. He talked about "doing his scales" - suggesting that he thought of these primarily as colour exercises - yet these too manifest a firm underlying natural geometry.

An Unshakeable Belief

In October 1990 Eric was diagnosed as suffering from inoperable cancer. Despite being in considerable discomfort, he continued to paint until just before his death in February 1992. I believe he was sustained by a simple, unshakeable belief: that no matter what the future holds in store in the form of brightly flashing electronic gadgetry, ordinary people will continue to find pleasure in merely making marks on paper or canvas, pushing around a wonderful substance called paint, tentatively, even clumsily to begin with, until that magical moment when 'the painting takes over'. I further believe that, in the course of a dedicated life, Eric Huntley ably fulfilled what must surely be the main task of the artist and teacher: he helped to open the eyes of those around him - not merely the eyes of those fortunate enough to have been his pupils, but of others too who, perhaps, for the first time, bought a painting.

Please look very carefully at these beautifully wrought, luminous works of art. You will be rewarded next time you venture long a Border road. you may even find yourself echoing Eric Huntley's exclamation: "Thank God I can see!"

Edwin Bowes

NOTES

  1. 'Painting' by William Coldstream, in Art in England, ed RS Lambert, Penguin Books, 1938, p 102.

  2. Ibid, p 103.

  3. Stephen Spender, Introduction to Arts Council Exhibition Catalogue, Lawrence Gowing, London (Serpentine Gallery), 1983, p7.

  4. Coldstream, ibid, p 99.

  5. Lawrence Gowing. Introduction to Exhibition Catalogue, Patrick George, London (Serpentine Gallery), 1980, p 6.

  6. Notebook entry dated June 1983.

  7. Remark made in conversation with the author.

  8. Typescript, 'Berwick Grammar School Art Department', circa 1970.

  9. Patrick Heron, Ivon Hitchens, Penguin Books, 1955.

  10. Letter to the author, 8 January 1990.

  11. Foreword to South Bank Centre Touring Exhibition, Ivon Hitchens, Forty-five Paintings, London (Serpentine Gallery), 1989, p 5.

  12. Typescript, circa 1969.

 

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