Liss Llewellyn Fine Art - 20th Century British Art

Arthur Kemp (1906-1968)   BIOGRAPHY

Enquire
 £400 / €462 / US$500  Add to cart
 
Boxing match, circa 1930
Passe-partout (ref: 3454)
Pencil on paper, 14 x 19 cm (23 x 28 cm) framed

 


Provenance: The Artist's son



Arthur Kemp (1906-1968)

The following biography was written by Jeremy Kemp, the artist's adoptive son:


The earliest recollections I have of my Father was more to do with his music than any of his other artistic accomplishments. This is more than likely to be because music fills the home with its audible presence,especially when my Dad played and taught the ‘celo along with my Mother who played and taught the violin and viola.They were also one half of the KERA Quartet,a widely known string quartet and also played with some of the leading orchestras of the day. Dad had played with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra(CBSO) and Mother,under her maiden name of Irene Crowther,played with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra.Mother was incidentally,of her time, the youngest to gain her LRAM. So music had a large part to play in my childhood memories as our homes in both the midlands and north Wales were in part ,practice studios, schools, rehearsal rooms and a popular meeting place for many of their musical friends,many of them being the composers,conductors and principle players of the period.

It was through music that my parents (by adoption) met back in the mid twenties.Mother at that time was playing for the CBSO as well as invigilating for the Royal Acadamy of Music.My Dad,who had studied the ‘celo at the Midland Institute,Birmingham,applied for a post with the CBSO and so they met. Their common ground,apart from their love of music,was that they were both from well established Quaker (Religious Society of Friends) families though from different sides of the social divides of the period. Dad,one of three children,was from a relatively humble background living in Kings Heath,Birmingham and Mother was from Kings Norton ,Worcestershire and the only daughter of modestly well to do small factory and shop owner. My Dad had always had a leaning towards painting and the ‘Arts and Crafts’movement in general and had wished to follow a career as an artist but this had been frowned upon by his father as not being a suitable means by which to earn a living and was therefore encouraged to pursue a career as a musician as there was a measurable earning potential attached with that.So hence the Midland Institute and the ‘celo culminating at the CBSO and my Mother.

My Mother was by then a well established violinist as well as being of ‘independent means’.She understood Arthur’s frustration at not being able to follow his passion in art and was able to support and encourage him to enter the Birmingham School of Art following their marriage in 1934. Their wedding was in the accepted form of a Quaker Marriage,known as a Solemnization of Marriage and the ‘Book of Solemnization’ that Arthur made for the occasion is a beautiful example of some of his artistic talents in painting,illuminated writing and book making. I have had pleasure in showing this book at several Friends Meetings over the years and in the opinion of many Friends this book is a wonderful example of the Quaker way as well as being a work of art.

Arthur managed to complete a three year course at the School of Art in only two years while at the same time completing his Diploma of Education to become a teacher. In 1936 he won the Lucas Award for excellence in Arts and Crafts and having also gained his teaching qualifications was able to become a teacher of art and therefore make a living within the world of art. Teaching,especially to young people, was something that Dad always put great effort and enjoyment into and even when I was a young child some twenty years later it was commonplace for ex pupils to come to tell him how they were getting on. Through marriage to Irene or Rene as she preferred to be known as,Arthur came under the influence of his father in law,George Crowther,an engineer with considerable skills in draughtsmanship and metalsmithing. Over and above their common relationship of father/son in law they became very close friends and Arthur gained an insight into the skills that would have otherwise have been impossible to gain elsewhere.Georges ability in designing and working in metal was rewarded in him seeing Arthur’s advancing skills in silversmithing,many of his pieces winning awards and being commissioned by Churches (one or two Royal ones I believe). One of the most lasting testimonials to this close friendship is the painting that Dad did shortly after the death of my Grandad in 1954 which I have since titled ‘George and I’. In this painting Dad has shown the inter-relationship of their combined influences on each other. Grandad’s professional abilities as an engineer and draughtsman –the callipers and micrometer-leading him to make even the requirements of his hobbies and pastimes such as the shuttlecock and spinning wheel,he was a keen weaver and spinner.The fork or spade handle,he was a keen gardner.A chess piece that he would have turned himself and his fishermans fly-case that held his own tied flies. Interspersed with these things of Grandads were Dads interests as well,a silver chalice, a ‘celo,a set-square to denote the art of draughtsmanship in both paintings and silversmithing. A musical instruments cleff. Central to all this is Grandad himself having earned his ‘wings’ and last but not least Grandads beloved pipe. What an epitaph from one man to another.

Once qualified to teach arts and crafts Dad had no difficulty in being suitably employed as his CV and some testimonials bear out. During this short time before the war Dad was able to consolidate his reputation as a painter,silversmith,musician and teacher all of which he engaged in with great proffiency and enthusiasm .The war brought changes to him as it did to everyone. Both Dad and Mother were in protected occupations but Dad did his share of fire spotting from the higher vantage points around Birmingham and Coventry. Witnessed the destruction and death all around him, saw the bombing of Coventry Cathederal,saw the blitz at its worst when streets of ordinary terraced houses were raised to the ground and their families either killed or homeless. As a Quaker and therefore a pacifiest this only served to solidify his views on the futility of armed aggression and I can only assume that this thought was the foundation of some very surreal murals and paintings produced in the late forties and very early fifties. Neither Arthur or Rene were removed from their own period of personal tragedy during the war.In 1940 Rene was expecting their child. She was engaged to give a recital at Stratford upon Avon and decided to cycle there to conserve her petrol coupons. So off she set with her rather fine example of a Maggini violin strapped to her bicycle,however the long journey there and back to Kings Norton caused her to miscarry and also prevented her in ever being able to bear children. Arthur had very much wanted children and though Rene was maybe not so keen in 1941 they adopted a little baby boy they named Michael. At this time they also moved from my Grandfathers house in Kings Norton to a new home in Rugby,Warwickshire . As he had done before Arthur did much of his silversmithing at home and one of the products used in working with silver is a clear acid and in 1943 young Michael,then a two year old toddler went into Arthur’s studio and drank some of this acid. It took him a long to die in Rene’s arms as no doctor could be summoned. Michael had a teddy called Scottie and after Michaels death Arthur did a painting of Scottie which hung in their bedroom for the rest of their lives,the teddy being wrapped up and put away in a blanket drawer until found by me in 1977 after the death of Rene.

In July 1945,by some private system that I still know nothing about I came into the Kemp household with the already given forenames of Jeremy Raynham.I knew nothing of my adoption until I applied for a passport when I was about 13 years old.I knew nothing of my real mother till my wife and I came to adopt a very young mentally handicapped boy from Maesteg in Glamorgan in 1982 and Barnadoes ,the adoption agency we used,after some very clever detective work came up with a name of Elizabeth Raynham but that is another story.

My first recollection of watching my Dad paint was I think somewhere around Newquay in maybe 1950 or so. I can remember Dad walking along a very dangerous wooden pier in a creek near to the sea. Dad would go back to the same place for two or three days studying the changing light and shadows while Mother and I would amuse ourselves by the car. We had an old steel ammunition box that had a Primus stove in it and a very large wicker picnic basket that strapped to the car boot lid and as long as Dad had plenty of tea and sandwiches everyone was happy! Holidays were special in those days,both parents being teachers we enjoyed the long holidays and North Wales in those days was such a peaceful and picturesque place to be. We were of course so fortunate in that Grandfather had his second home near to Llanystumdwy on his beloved river the Dwyfach where he had quite a useful stretch and there taught me the art of fly fishing. I must have made a comical sight with waders up to my chin and wielding a 14 foot Greenheart fly rod-aged about eight !! It was at that age I was sent away to boarding school and so it was only in the holidays that I was aware of Dad getting out and about painting but in those days it was only in Wales that Dad did paint anyway. Back in Rugby Dad was the head of the Art School and with all what that entailed as well as his silver work and music he had little time to apply himself to painting. He used to say that to paint a worthwhile painting one needed to spend time getting into the subject and he was a little scornful of the ‘artist’ that performed the ‘half hour image’.” Might as well take a photograph,at least that would be more accurate”-he would often say! As a young boy at prep school there was the odd time when my parents might have some musical engagement that took them away and so I would travel to wherever Grandad was at that time fishing,wonderful journeys on the overnight sleeper to Inverness from London to join him on the Spey or the London to Dublin packet via Hollyhead,docking at Dun Laoghaire and then travelling on to Limerick to join him on the Shannon. Not only would my school trunk have a large brown tie-on label with my name and final destination on it but so would I !!

Mostly though holidays were spent at Llanystumdwy and after Grandad’s passing I took up his rods and would accompany Dad wherever he went painting. The nice thing about Wales is that you are never far away from the fish. Mother seemed to take more of a back seat so it was Dad and I then,him with his paints and me with my rods.Off we would go together to magical places. To name but a few – Nantle and Talysarn,Dad loved the raw drama of the old slate workings as well as the better known ones of Dinorwig and Blaenau Ffestiniog .In those far of days health and safety in the workplace was not the issue that it is today so the quarry managers and foremen were quite happy to let Dad wander about painting and I was free to play around as I pleased and for an example I remember workmen up at the old Dorethea quarry taking me down the very precarious chain ladders to the lower blast chambers and feeling the ground heave and shake as the explosives ripped the slate away from the huge buttresses of granite. There used to be a little ‘puffa’(a miniature railway steam engine) called Wendy up there and Dad and I would open up the steam valve and trundle down the track in the upper workings just to end the day with a bit of fun. We would go up the Cwm Ystradllyn where Dad would leave me at the lake while he would trudge up the valley to paint the Moel Hebog. When the fish had finished taking the fly I would pack up and go to join Dad and we would look at what he had achieved and if he didn’t like the result we would go back another day when the light may be different. In the same area, on the upper reaches of the Dwyfor in Cwm Pennant was another favourite place.There is a little chapel at Llanfirangle at the lower end of the valley where a gravestone has written on it,in welsh,’God made the world in six days and on the seventh he gave us Cwm Pennant. Further up the valley is a small stand of old pine trees on the slope leading up to Garenddgoch and a ruined house where Dad often found a subject to paint. Coming down from there or Cwm Ystradllyn next door we would travel over the top gated road to Prenteg, stopping off on the way to have tea with Robin Williams,Hendre Hywell and watch him work his sheep dogs. Another often combined outing would see me left at the old sluice gates across the estuary at Porthmadog to fish while Dad went off to paint further up through the Aberglaslyn and on to Nantgwynant,where views of Cnicht and the Moelwyns never failed to give him a subject to paint. Another painting of his evokes happy memories of days spent down at Borth y Guest and Morfa Bychan and the view across the Treath to Portmerrion,Talsarnau and on a good day Harlech. It was there on the Black Rock sands at Morfa Bychan that at the age of 12 or 13 Dad would let me drive his car, sometimes at quite shocking speeds,up and down the 5 miles of almost deserted beach while Dad worked away at one or two paintings sat comfortably in the sand dunes enjoying the good natural light. It was here that I first became aware of a change of style in Dads paintings.Although,to my untrained eye, he had always done some ‘avant guard’ works especially in some of his murals, here at Borth y Guest he started to use a new technique for the first time. ‘Regatta day at Borth y Guest’ had originally been two paintings in his more conventional form but he had started to fiddle around with them and ended up with one long narrow painting but where all naturally curved lines were portrayed as straight lines therefore giving the depicted seen a triangular effect. Shortly after this foray into a new style he took things a stage further and took a previously finished work-Avenue of Trees,Chwilog- and redid it in this new approach and had great delight in hanging both paintings side by side. These days were rather exciting as sometimes it was hard to tell what the subject was till the painting was finished.

There were so many other places visited, all around the Llyn peninsular and down to Dyffryn Ardudwy and across to Dolgellau where Dad would paint around the Rhinogs and Y Lletyr and I would fish the Lyn Hywell or climb the old roman steps at the head of Cwm Bychan. Further down the coast we would go to Llwyngwrill and Tywyn, where Dad sent me to the Outward Bound school for a summer camp before I joined the much renowned H.M.S.Conway at Plass Newydd up on the Menai Straits. Carrying on down the coast we would get to Borth and back up the Dyfi valley to Machynlleth where a good view of Cadair Idris was to be had from Llyn Can. Across the main road I would amuse myself by hiking up the Mynydd Ceiswyn to the top of Waun-oer and down the Mynydd Dolgoed while Dad found a good point to paint from. It was something of mixture of chance, amusement and a touch of skill that we always managed to meet up at the right time and place for the return journey to Llanystumdwy and a welcome supper and often a quick trout or two on the evening fly. Often we would get home to find friends come to visit,more often than not musical ones from London or Birmingham but often local friends as well come to discuss ,enjoy or influence ‘Matters Art’ with Dad. I remember well a Mr.Pollicoff, a grand gentleman from near Pwllheli,a larger than life character who enthused vociferously over Dads works and was instrumental in getting him to agree to put on exhibitions in Pwllheli. Another ardent admirer was a lovely old gentleman,Mr Kirkhope who had something to do with explosives and he too managed to persuade Dad to put on a one man show in Tremadog I believe. I remember that Dad who was in no way interested in being commercial with his paintings put sold signs on them before the shows even opened! One or two local artists also used to visit now and then and I can remember lively discussions on style,perspective,colour and technique. One painter who comes to mind was younger man than Dad who I thought came from Pentrefellin and used to discuss the practicalities of block colour washes.50 years later when I see the works of Kyffin Williams and compare the dates of their respective works I cant help but wonder if there is anyone who now could throw more light on that one? It was in this period of Dads life that he had the first of his catastrophic heart attacks and strokes. The summer of 1957 saw him have the first major one and I remember only too well watching him struggle back to some sort of normal health. He had a private room with a wonderful view over the old harbour and across to ‘ballast island’ at Porthmadog’s Memorial Cottage Hospital where Aunty Blodwin was matron and commanded a gaggle of nurses,and the doctor too, to care for Dads every need. What wonderful days when Matrons ruled by sheer presence . Dad slowly got back to better health with a remarkable amount of fortitude and slow learning of how to get some use back into his paralysed limbs, he would sit for days trying to draw the various scenes before him from his bay window in what he humorously called his room at ‘Blods Isbitty’. I can remember going one day to Caernarfon with Mother to buy the requirements needed to do some tapestry ,something Dad had never done before. He ,with just a little help from Mother and I, struggled for days to do the needle work necessary to create a cushion cover that he designed himself. That cushion is on my chair as I write this now,when Dad made something it certainly was made to last! I remember one particular day when Mother and I were getting ready to go to see Dad there was a terrible storm and the day went as dark as night and the river was a raging torrent having flooded across our fields to the river side of the cottage. Mrs.Roberts, Tyddyn Du,the farm above us was already flooded out when a tractor arrived from Gwynfryn Plas to see if those up river were in need of help and kindly took the three of us, sat precariously in the tractors back box, up to Plas Talhynbont. Mrs.Roberts,then in her 80’s had little English but one of her few phrases was- ‘well well I never did- isn’t it’, and that in the lovely soft Llyn welsh accent. Dad thought this was immensely funny and it kept him chuckling for days as visitors came to see him at ‘Blods Isbity’. Dad finally left hospital after more than two months but by then I had returned back to Mill Hill School in London and was not home again to Rugby until the Christmas holidays when I found Dad to be much recovered and happily sketching away. It was about this time that he undertook what was probably one of his longest and most technically demanding commissions, he did a few but rarely for a significant sum. He had been asked to do something significant for Rugby College of Techinology,of which his School of Art was now a part. He elected to do a large mosaic measuring some 6ft. by 4ft. This required a very large and heavy polished concrete plinth built into an even larger wooden lifting frame all to lifted through the roof of his garage,that being the only suitable place to do the job. The mosaic pieces,100’s of them he went to Italy to select and order them and when they duly arrived Dad would have to then cut them into the required shapes. A slow and exacting procedure to cut and then fix them onto the base plinth that took up more or less the rest of that year. Dad could no longer play the ‘celo as his fingering had gone, and he did little silver work anyway, so it was that this large mosaic kept him suitably occupied . Again around this time Dad was asked to consider submitting something for the new Coventry Cathedral that was under construction, I know he had some ideas about another mosaic and did draught up one or two designs which were discussed along with John Piper,Graham Sutherland and Basil Spence. I remember his submission of the Madonna and Child was well received but may be it just as well nothing came of it as in the spring of 1960 he had his second and even more debilitating stroke and so back up to ‘Blods Isbity’ in Porthmadog he went. This time the paralysis took away all the use of the left hand side of his body and his speech as well. He really was very poorly this time but once again Aunty Blod pulled out all the stops for him and very slowly he started to regain some of his health. Once again he undertook a mammoth piece of occupational therapy. This time a 5ft.by 3ft. ‘ready-cut’ rug,but with the difference he made and cut his own wool,he didn’t like to make things too easy for himself! That rug is also still in use some 48 years later, albeit a little frayed around the edges now. By the summer holidays I had left Mill Hill and was due to start on the H.M.S.Conway spring term 1961 so there had been various activities arranged for me including a fortnights O.T.C. camp at Thetford followed by another camp at the Outward Bound School, Aberdovey. I think my parents thought I needed some more ‘toughening up’ before joining the Conway, and in hind sight maybe they weren’t so wrong. The Conway in those days struck me as a place that if you could swim,row,sail,climb,box,hit a six or score at least two tries per match you would make a reasonably good ships officer with well taught navigation and seamanship coming a very close second. After all our ships motto was-‘Quit ye like men, be strong’. Not a bad maxim in life to follow I think.

Back to Dad again and by the end of the summer he was back home in Llanystumdwy again and able to have the odd day out with his paints. Now I was on hand to help him set up his board and easel and help him with some of the other chores so that it was possible for him to paint.We got on well together. I loved my Dad and even in those early formative years as a young teenager I realized that he was producing something that in many years to come people would still be able to enjoy. The rest of 1960 seemed to come to a close rather slowly, Dads health continued to improve and I was getting more and more excited about joining the Conway. From my very earliest memories I had always wanted to go to sea, why I knew not as I thought I had no nautical connection whatsoever. Of course my parents knew differently but never enlightened me. 1961 saw more improvement in Dad and for the first time ever the three of us went away for a holiday to the Orkney Islands. I had hired a rowing boat and Dad and I would go of together where he would be quite content to sit and sketch while I did a spot of fishing. Other days we would go off around the headlands and find a suitable subject to paint. I remember one day the wind was so strong that I had to hold the paper down on his board for him to paint or the lot would have been blown away to sea. He still had no use of his left arm and could not walk very well.His speech was affected as well so things were not at all easy for him but we all seemed to manage reasonably well. One unusual and interesting point in that holiday was that Dad again did a double painting of the same subject- this time ‘Yesnaby Castle’. Instead of doing the conventional painting first and then maybe later doing his triangular version, he did things the other way round,but actually painting the subject twice from the same spot, the second one in less wind I may add!

The summer of 1962 saw Dad undertake a long awaited and much planned trip Canada. There had for some years been a hint of a story that a painting of his,hanging in the summer exhibition of the Royal Academy sometime in the mid 50’s had along with others accompanied the Queen on her first tour to Canada. However one of Dad’s paintings had ended up in Canada the upshot of which was an invite to go there,and which was finally achieved in 1962. I was still on the H.M.S. Conway and so,proud in my uniform of a Midshipman R.N.R. I accompanied them to Liverpool to see them off on their way across the Atlantic on one of the great Canadian Pacific liners. Having the ‘right’ uniform on helped in me being allowed aboard to help stow their luggage and while so doing Dad suffered a massive nose bleed caused by high blood pressure. The ships doctor was summoned and eventually the Captain and chief Purser were having to make a decision as to whether or not Dad could sail. I can recall the Captain saying that since Dads little problem had happened aboard his ship it was therefore up to him and his officers to see that Mr.Kemp’s voyage was a safe and comfortable one. In those days when a Captain spoke you said ‘Yes Sir’, something I soon learnt a few months later when I finally went to sea as a young cadet officer with the Royal Mail Lines. However Dad got safely to Canada without further mishap and enjoyed visits to Quebec,Montreal,Ottawa,Winnipeg and finally finishing up in Vancouver where they spent three happy months staying with the Ludfords, friends of theirs from back in 30’s Birmingham. Dad managed a few drawings and one or two paintings but I do remember him saying that everything was so vast over there that he found it difficult to get a sense of perspective.

The next three years I did not see so much of my parents as I was away at sea. Dad made one or two trips to Spain where he seemed to get a new lease of life in his paintings, he enjoyed the quality of light and the new subject matter and I think some of the paintings from this short period were some of the strongest he had done for some time. However by the end of 1966 he was not in very good health again and the next year was one of steady decline. Little new work was undertaken and Dad seemed to spend a lot of time looking closely at paintings done years before and on finding a fault,often only imagined , would want the offending work unframed so he could ‘fix’ it. That may only involve a brush stroke here or a bit more colour there but he was fractious if the alteration wasn’t made. Shortly before the final few months of his life Dad had a form of rally and it was in that short period of time that he did what I think was to be his greatest painting of all. He refused to title it and he jokingly used to say that it was something of a self portrait but was in fact the face of Christ with his crown of thorns and shedding a solitary tear. One can draw ones own conclusions. I was grateful to spend Dads final days with him, right up to the end he maintained an interest in his paintings even telling me how to make improvements where necessary. He had already discussed with me the custodianship of his collection and what ideas he had towards that. However that is yet another sad story and in no way reflects on my Dad.

Dad passed away in February 1968. He had left his body to the medical school in Birmingham and within an hour or so of his death a doctor came to our home to remove his eyes. He would have been so thrilled to know that the next day someone would have their sight restored. What can be more valuable to an artist than his eyes. In accordance with his wishes there was no funeral or internment,Birmingham Medical School politely informing my Mother of the scattering of his ashes in their Garden of Remembrance some weeks later. In my humble opinion his paintings are his Epitaph.


Copyright © Liss Llewellyn Fine Art. All Rights Reserved

See all works by Arthur Kemp