28 February – 22 April 2012
Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, West Sussex, is delighted to present an exhibition celebrating the centenary of the visionary artist Robin Ironside (1912-1965). This exhibition will be the first museum show of his work for over 40 years.
In his lifetime, Robin Ironside's meticulous, highly-detailed romantic paintings were shown alongside the likes of Paul Nash, Henry Moore and even Francis Bacon. Yet, unlike his fellow ‘Neo-Romantics' John Craxton, John Minton, John Piper and Graham Sutherland, the visionary painter's work has rarely been exhibited since his posthumous retrospective at the New Art Centre in 1966. This exhibition provides a timely reassessment of his artistic legacy and positions him as a leading Neo-Romantic artist and ‘an heir to the visionary qualities of William Blake' (Simon Martin, Curator).
Essentially self-taught, Robin Ironside did not attend art school, unlike his younger brother, the painter and designer Christopher Ironside (1913-1992), though his work reveals an extensive knowledge of art history. After studying History of Art at the Courtauld Institute, and then at the Sorbonne, he became Assistant Keeper at the Tate in 1937 under the director John Rothenstein. But nine years later, after the war, he resigned in order to pursue his passion for writing and painting.
The subjects of his pictures, which owed a lot to John Piper, John Martin and classical sculpture were nearly all imaginary, usually with literary, scholarly or classical themes, and often executed with a magnifying glass. Many of his works contain a young sensitive male protagonist who is probably based in part on the artist himself. The pastoral figure of the reclining youth by a pool, which features in several paintings in the show, such as Satyr offering an Apple to a Spaniel,1946 is a motif in the work of numerous ‘Neo-Romantic' artists during the Second World War, presenting an image of contemplative escape rather than the horrors of modern war.
Ironside, himself, was drawn to methods of escapism throughout his life and there is often a hallucinogenic intensity to his work which reflects his interest in experimenting with mind-altering drugs and later his addiction to the opium-based stomach-settling medicine, Dr.Collis Browne. Once, under the influence of mescaline, he became so captivated by the colours and shapes of a vegetable on his kitchen table that he stayed up until 4 am to draw it - only to discover, on waking, that he had executed a perfect drawing of a cabbage.
In the 1940s and 50s Ironside worked as a designer for ballet and opera, designing the scenery and costumes for Richard Strauss's comic opera Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House in 1947, and with his brother Christopher the sets and costumes for the ballet Sylvia in 1952 (which was recently revived by the Royal Ballet). His understanding of set design is evident in the architectural spaces of some of his other paintings such as Break for Music, 1953 which could almost be a design for a stage set due to the theatrical framing of the space.
Ironside was prone to depression throughout his life and the sense of darkness which is present in many of his works sometimes spills into despair in the 1950s. His painting Death-Bed, 1949-50 presents an abject scene of probable suicide which recalls Henry Wallis' iconic painting The Death of Chatterton (1856). Haunting in its details, the image has a conviction that seems to suggest Ironside may have come close to this point in his own bed-sitter.
Gradually, Ironside who never looked after himself, seems to have burned himself out with a lifetime of non-stop creative activity. He smoked over 60 cigarettes a day, took Benzedrine to keep awake and sleeping pills to sleep, and only rarely had meals - all of which resulted in him getting progressively thinner and giving his eyes a nervous, glittering look. In 1965, aged 53, Robin Ironside died from a heart attack.
Curator Simon Martin, Head of Curatorial Services at Pallant House Gallery says: ‘Ironside's art is a manifestation of an idiosyncratic and singular imagination that belongs to the ‘eccentric' British tradition of Blake, Richard Dadd and Samuel Palmer. His work acts as a bridge between romanticism and Surrealism, the Victorian age and the psychedelic art of the 1960s and 1970s, between art criticism and the practice of painting. The one group into which he neatly fits is perhaps that of the British artistic visionary, and there he has impressive company indeed.'
The agony aunt and author Virginia Ironside, says: ‘I'm delighted that the work of my uncle Robin, with his strange, esoteric talent is finally being given the recognition it deserves. I only wish he were still here to enjoy the forthcoming exhibition at Pallant House Gallery.'