Join me in celebrating Father’s Day via modern British paintings in UK public collections.
The Family of 1945 by John Turner (1916-2006) marks the change from adulthood to fatherhood, as a couple dote on their young baby. Turner was born in Belfast. He studied at Belfast School of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art. He returned to the former as a teacher for over twenty years and was elected a member of the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts.
In this painting, the three members of the family are presented as one unit. The mother encloses the child in her shawl, whilst she in turn is enclosed in the arms of the father, whose half-seen face is in shadow. His position is one of support and protection, his over-sized hands reaching down to his partner’s lap on one side and allowing a peek at the baby on the other. Her position is one of tender absorption in the child she cradles. The rhythmic forms of the father’s fingers are repeated in hers, his shirt sleeves, the shawl which falls between her knees and in the gathers of the draped material on which she is sitting. The contrast in scale of the parents’ feet emphasises their different roles, hers gently crossed, his thrust out in defence. Side lighting places the focus on the white triangle at the centre of the composition, which stands out within a muted palette. The painting was purchased by Ulster Museum, part of the National Museums of Northern Ireland in 1945, shortly after it was completed.
A later stage of fatherhood is depicted in Self-portrait with Jonathan of 1967 by John Bellany (1942-2013). Bellany was born in Port Seton, a fishing village on the East Lothian coast. He trained at Edinburgh College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. In 1964 he married Helen Percy and their son Jonathan was born the following year.
In this solemn self-portrait, Bellany shows himself as artist and father. A palette is gripped by the thumb of the hand with which he holds his two-year old son on his lap. They are placed within the context of their family heritage in the fishing industry of Port Seton. A male and female worker, representing parents and family elders, stand over them and the day’s catch. It is displayed on a boat whose name, presumably relating to Eyemouth forty miles along the coast and PLN (port, letter and number) code are partly visible. Artist and son gaze directly and unsmilingly at the viewer, proud of who they are, continuing the family line, referring to past, present and future generations. Bellany thus respectfully acknowledges their shared ancestry, by the means available to him in his alternative, publicly declared profession. Self-portrait with Jonathan was purchased by Glasgow Life with the help of the National Acquisitions Fund in 1986.
Paternal pride in a growing family is celebrated in The Family at Polperro of the mid-1930s by Bernard Fleetwood-Walker (1893-1965). Born in Birmingham, Fleetwood-Walker trained at Birmingham School of Art and later in London and Paris. A key figure in the Birmingham art world, he combined his own practice with teaching. He was active in many exhibiting societies and was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the St Ives Society of Artists, amongst others. In 1920 he married Marjorie White and their sons Colin and Guy was born in 1921 and 1923 respectively.
The Family at Polperro is a bravura family portrait, set on the beach at Polperro on the south east coast of Cornwall. Fleetwood-Walker regularly took groups of his students from Birmingham School of Art to the area, accompanied by his wife and sons. Each member of the family is lovingly and carefully depicted. Marjorie is in the centre of a complex composition, physically linked to all the others. Everyone is relaxed in each other’s company, their poses open, their clothing informal. The beach setting where sand meets rocks, gentle light and muted colours combine to create an idyllic image of this stage of family life, painted by the father. Following Marjorie’s premature death, Fleetwood-Walker presented the painting to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in her memory in 1939.
In contrast, Portrait of the Artist’s Father of about 1940 by Veronica Burleigh (1909-98), is a daughter’s homage to her father. Born to the artists Charles and Averil Burleigh in their purpose-built studio-house in Hove, Veronica was taught by them before attending the Slade School of Fine Art. During a long and prolific career she specialised in portraiture, exhibited frequently and lived for extended periods in Africa.
Burleigh was serving in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force when she painted Portrait of the Artist’s Father. It shows him aged about seventy, absorbed in realising a passage of clouds in a landscape work, holding a large palette and multiple brushes, whilst smoking a pipe. He is surrounded by other works of art hanging at various heights on the wall behind him, as well as casually propped up against it. A complicated seated pose of crossed legs, one arm crooked, the other outstretched and a crumpled formal outfit are realised with confidence. Particular attention is paid to the depiction of the hand holding the paintbrush and the smoke rising from the pipe’s bowl, with the greatest care given to the description of her subject’s face. It is an accomplished, affectionate portrait of an artist at work, by a grown-up daughter, of her much loved, ageing father.