Celebrations for Norwich University of the Arts 170th anniversary year continue on 4 November with the opening of a special exhibition in the Gallery at NUA, which also forms part of a very successful partnership with Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery.
Wonnacott and Lessore were at the heart of the critical debate around the centrality of drawing from life in the teaching of art which preoccupied British artists and art schools in the latter half of the 20th Century and which is still relevant today.
John Wonnacott, Watching the Beautiful Woman, oil on board © the artist
John Wonnacott and John Lessore: About Life brings the acclaimed artists and former tutors back to Norwich University of the Arts in an exhibition of paintings and drawings from life. Whilst the Castle exhibition reunites many distinguished works made by the artists during their time at Norwich which were bought by Tate, the Arts Council Collection, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and private collectors, the work on display at NUA explores the practice of these two important artists more fully, including drawings and paintings from the life model which span their careers.
Professor John Last, Vice-Chancellor of NUA, says: “Norwich has for centuries been a centre of creativity, renowned in the past for its textiles industry and the Norwich School of Painters and recognised today for its diverse calendar of cultural events and thriving professional digital creative sector. For 170 years this institution and its graduates have been at the heart of the city’s creative output and we are celebrating over the next year with a programme of events for students, academics, graduates, industry and the public. We welcome the chance for the University to build new links and relationships as it celebrates the past and embraces the future.”
Wonnacott and Lessore were responsible for the development of the Life Room from 1978 to 1985 to re-establish Norwich’s reputation for producing graduates skilled in the practice of drawing and painting from life. It was Edward Middleditch (RA), then Head of Fine Art, who recruited Wonnacott and Lessore for Norwich. Their development of the Life Room was in response to the debate launched by R B Kitaj and David Hockney around The Human Clay exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1976. Middleditch was countering what he perceived as a de-skilling in art education in the 1960s that resulted from the enthusiasm for Abstract Art. He felt there was a decline in the teaching of drawing from life, which he believed was the basis of all art. Wonnacott and Lessore created two Life Rooms in the riverside studios of the late 19th century Art School buildings where all students were trained in basic drawing from observation.
Thanks to the trio of Middleditch, Wonnacott and Lessore (who worked closely with Lynda Morris, curator of these exhibitions) Norwich became an influential contributor to the development of the practice of drawing and painting in a dedicated life room in the early 1980s. They built on a long tradition of figurative painting in Norwich linked to the Dutch influence on Cotman and Crome and their use of the Graphic Telescope, through to Michael Andrews, Jeffrey Camp and Colin Self.
John Lessore, Bacchanal Ute and Bruno, 2001-3, oil on canvas © the artist
Both artists went on to build established careers as painters. In 2000 John Wonnacott was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint the centenary portrait of the Royal Family for the 100th birthday of the Queen Mother and his head of Sir Edwin Manton hangs in the Manton entrance to Tate Britain. John Lessore was commissioned to paint the Paralympians 2014 and the Architects of the Ondaatje Extension for the National Portrait Gallery, Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones.
From lectures and demonstrations in anatomy at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital to specialist lectures on perspective and the mathematical division of a rectangle (for composition), alongside art history lessons taught in front of paintings in museums in order to examine the application of paint, Wonnacott and Lessore with Lynda Morris organised a whole programme which focused students on the principles of Life Room teaching. This was also reflected in Lynda’s exhibitions at the Norwich Gallery which included shows on Sickert, Tonks, Peter Greenham and Norman Blamey as well as Peter Fuller’s Rocks and Flesh.
These exhibitions explore not only the work of these two artists and their contribution to art school practice at this crucial point in its pedagogic history but also examine their position in twentieth century art and the critical reception of figurative painting at the time. It is now widely agreed that artists such as Bacon, Freud, Hockney and Andrews account for much of the esteem in which British painting is held internationally. The role of The New Spirit in Painting exhibition at the RA in 1990 and the polemics of the artistic landscape of the 1970s and 80s are also further explored. The Life Room and the City and About Life are two beautiful exhibitions which bring together work by two different and distinct British artists, connected by a common goal.
The exhibition catalogue, priced £9.99 is available to purchase from both venues and online.
Wonnacott and Lessore are stylistically different, but both use painting to explore memory, anatomy, perspective, drawing and lens-based technologies and share an interest in the traditions of European art since Giotto. Their work has an important relationship to impressionism through Sickert, and his links to Whistler and Degas. John Lessore’s father was an assistant to Rodin and his aunt was Therese Lessore, the artist who married Sickert. His mother’s Beaux Arts Gallery brought him into contact with many painters including Middleditch, Uglow, Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff whom Lessore has painted as well as sat for.
John Lessore was influenced by the Italians and particularly the Venetian Renaissance with its characteristic use of light. He was particularly drawn to the way this light leads to the influence of one colour on another, and to those deep areas of mystery softening the edges of a person or object. The Venetian tradition, through Titian, influenced Velasquez and Spanish painting and through Manet came into French nineteenth century painting. From Sickert’s example Lessore learnt to paint from drawings. His vision is grounded in the humanist tradition.
John Wonnacott works in the perceptual drawing tradition, with the clarity of the Northern Renaissance. He talks about ‘the excitement of vision’ and he is immensely interested in how one sees. He uses small sheets of glass to check the drawing of a view against the drawing of his images over wide angles of vision. He constantly photographs his subjects as part of the analysis of his vision of a subject. He was commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery to paint the Royal Family for the 100th Birthday of The Queen Mother.
Wonnacott and Lessore’s work was celebrated by a number of exhibitions where there was an intelligent challenge to the domination of abstract art: R B Kitaj’s The Human Clay, 1976, Hayward Gallery, Peter Fuller’s Rocks and Flesh: An Argument for British Drawing, 1984, Norwich Gallery, Sargy Mann and Michael Harrison’s Past and Present, Tim Wilcox’s Pursuit of the Real, 1990, Manchester and Barbican, Richard Morphet’s Hard Won Image,1984, at Tate, Timothy Hyman’s In Their Circumstances, 1985, Usher Art Gallery, amongst others.
Although this exhibition originates in its strong connection to Norwich, it explores themes of anatomy, portraiture and figure drawing and the political polemics in the artistic landscape of the 1970s and 80s. A re-examination of figurative painting in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is long overdue and in high demand from the public and younger painters.
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