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School of Art
Obituary, The Independent
In 1953 George Chapman, at the age of 45, made a journey through the coal-mining valleys of south Wales and discovered the Rhondda Valley where, he said, 'I realised that here I could find the material that would perhaps make me a painter at last'. He returned to paint the valleys over the next ten years and there followed a period of considerable success. He staged more than twenty one-man exhibitions, his paintings and prints were purchased by major public collections throughout Britain and abroad, they met with widespread critical acclaim and featured on television programmes for Anglia and BBC Wales. Huw Wheldon's Monitor programme on Chapman was screened twice on the BBC in 1961 and later in the same year at the Venice International Film Biennial.
Kenneth George Chapman was born in East Ham on 1st October 1908, the third child of Jane and William Chapman, a Superintendent on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. He attended Shebbears College in Devon where his profound deafness hindered his education. In 1924 he went to Gravesend School of Art. He joined Crawford's in 1928 to train as a commercial designer under Ashley Havingden. During the 1930s he worked on numerous advertising campaigns for Jack Beddington at Shell-Mex and also for London Transport working alongside Sutherland, Nash, Piper, Freedman and Betjamen. Whilst he was to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle there was little satisfaction for him in graphic design and in 1937 he gave up a successful career to satisfy a burning desire to become a painter; firstly as a student at the Slade but after a year he was persuaded by his friend Barnett Freedman to transfer to the Royal College of Art, studying painting under Professor Gilbert Spencer.
During the war George Chapman taught at Worcester School of Art, his deafness exempting him from active service. He returned to advertising in 1945 working for Jack Beddington at Prentice, Colman and Varley. Two years later he married Kate Ablett who he had met on a visit to Norwich School of Art. In 1951 they left London and moved to Great Bardfield in Essex. He began to teach graphic design at the London College of Printing, Central School of Art and Colchester Art School. At Great Bardfield George took an active part in the thriving artistic community that included Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Michael and Duffy Rothenstein, John Aldridge, Bernard Cheese, Kenneth Rowntree and Marianne Straub. He contributed regularly to their famous 'Open House' exhibitions, at a time when he was making various experiments in painting in search of technique and subject matter. In 1952 he made his first etchings in Michael Rothenstein's studio.
From 1953 he rented a studio in the Rhondda. Artists have been drawn to Wales for a wide variety of personal reasons, each bringing preconceived ideas determined by their own social and cultural background. They came in search of the picturesque, the sublime, the romantic and the pastoral but hardly ever to depict the effects of industrialisation. There can be no doubt that the period of success George enjoyed as a painter and printmaker could have been sustained, confirming him as one of the leading post-war British artists of his generation, had his debut not come at a time when the intellectual debate between the advocates of realism and those of abstraction was at its most fervent. His first one-man show in London was at the Piccadilly Gallery in 1956, the year that saw the swan song of 'Kitchen Sink' realism when Greaves, Middleditch, Smith and Bratby were chosen to represent Britain in the Venice Biennial. In that same year the Whitechapel heralded the arrival of Pop art with its exhibition This is Tomorrow and the Tate staged a major show of American abstract expressionism. Chapman shared the radical left-wing politics of the so called 'Kitchen Sink' painters and found in the Rhondda valley what Greaves and Middleditch had found in the industrial landscape of Sheffield, Joan Eardley in and around the Glasgow tenements and Lowry in Salford. The industrial landscape had been of little concern to artists between the wars many of whom, fearful of the disfigurement of the countryside by roads, industry and suburbanisation, depicted blissful pastoral scenes of a Britain that had never existed.
George Chapman's pictures of the Rhondda are a record of a particular place and time - not a topographical record but a mood inspired by the character of that place - a record of the people of the mining communities and their homes. The people who inhabit this harsh environment are depicted with genuine affection, they are an integral part of its make-up. Observed as they go about their daily routine the women hang out the washing or totter with a heavy shopping bag, the children play with scooters and hoops in the street, the old men gossip on a bench, feed the pigeons and, on occasion, are caught popping into the 'Gents'. 'I love it all with a deep sense of gratitude' George once wrote.
As a committed socialist his sympathies remained with the working class. In his formative years as a painter in the 1930s he had witnessed large-scale unemployment, poverty and unrest. Despite interpretations of his paintings that have suggested otherwise, George always insisted that the creative driving force was primarily visual and not driven by a reaction to capitalist society, its destruction of the countryside and exploitation of the working class. 'My job as an artist is to make things as they are. Providing I do my job properly, the social comment, if such a thing is needed, will come over itself' he wrote. It is not the glorification of the miner that Chapman celebrates, but his industrial community. By observing and recording the particular Chapman avoided sentimentality or monumentalization. In 1957 he was awarded the Gold Medal for Fine Art at the Royal National Eisteddfod of Wales and in 1960 St George's Gallery Prints published the Rhondda Suite of etchings, undoubtedly among the most important prints ever to concern themselves with the industrial landscape of Wales.
Forty years on, and with only a short haitus during the 1970s, George continued to paint the Rhondda, recording the changes that have occurred there since that first dark, wet day in 1953 which transformed his vision. Throughout the 1960s the ever fickle art market shifted its attention to pop and abstract painting. This undermined George's confidence in his work and he began to doubt his ability to create. In 1969 he moved to Aberaeron, gave up painting and severed ties with his galleries. He did not return to the Rhondda until 1980, with a commission for a new painting. He worked with excitement in a fervour of renewed confidence. The resulting one-man show at the Reynolds Gallery, Plymouth in 1981 was opened by Huw Wheldon.
George painted the Rhondda until the last - he had a new painting on the easel at the time of his death. He had taken on board the challenge to paint the 'new' Rhondda which had lost none of its former appeal for him. The paintings still focused on the relationship between the people and their environment, attempting to understand how they have adapted to the upheavals of the last two decades.
It has been a delight for me to know George as a friend over the past six years and to have played a part in the revival of interest in his work which culminated in a retrospective exhibition last year at the Goldmark Gallery in Uppingham. George was a caring, warm and unassuming man who will be sorely missed by his family, friends and the generations of young students who have benefited from his teaching. Sitting with George for hours at a time in his studio, listening to him recalling with affection and great humour the times spent working in the Rhondda, I was moved by his undiminished affection for the mining communities of south Wales. 'It's a visual history of a locality' he told me 'a simple record of what's down there. It's a love affair you know.'
George Chapman, painter and printmaker, born 1st October 1908, died peacefully at his home near Aberaeron on 28th October at the age of 85. He is survived by his wife Kate, and children Paul, Robin, Nicholas and Harriet.