Percy Kelly at Abbot Hall

”I cannot paint for monetary gain. I would rather starve than sell one piece of my work but I know when I depart this world, people will stop and wonder at the beauty and truth of what I have portrayed.” Percy Kelly 1918-

Percy Kelly Fellside, Caldbeck, Cumberland 1968 (picture source: Abbot Hall website)

As well as the main Uwe Wittwer exhibition the Abbot Hall Gallery in Kendal are also showing their collection of works by Cumbrian artist, Percy Kelly. I’d never heard of him before but was bowled over by the paintings and prints on display.

Kelly was born into a working class family in  Workington in 1918. His ability at drawing became apparent early on.  Nevertheless, like most working class children before the war he didn’t have chance to attend college and so he left school at 14 to go to work for the Post Office. During the Second World War he served in the Royal Signals where his skills as a draughtsman were used in producing maps. After the war he returned to Cumbria and eventually went on to formally study art at Carlisle Art College in the 1960’s when he was in his 40’s.

He would probably be more well known if he had been prepared to sell his work. Although he was incredibly prolific, he only held five exhibitions during his lifetime and he held onto his paintings, sketches and prints, refusing to sell them.

Many of the drawings and paintings of Cumbrian towns and industrial landscapes are reminiscent of LS Lowry in that they feature bleak industrial landscapes. But the similarity ends there. Kelly’s pictures are extremely well drawn and less primitive than Lowry’s and are devoid of people, which is probably a reflection of his eccentric character. And he worked mainly in watercolours rather than oils.

But he didn’t only paint and draw industrial landscapes. He turned his hand to a variety of styles and techniques, reflected in the works on display at Abbot Hall which included bleak landscapes, a monochrome print of a fish and a painting of two Geisha’s which could easily be mistaken for an original Japanese print if it wasn’t for the view of Workington prominently visible through the window in the background!

There’s a slideshow of a selection of his works on the Guardian website here, some works exhibited at an exhibition at the Signature Gallery in Kendal here and some examples of his work from the Castlehouse Gallery in Cockermouth here. They give an impression of the range and variety of styles and techniques he adopted.

Included in the Abbot Hall exhibition were a sample of lavishly illustrated letters that he had written. They were really watercolours and drawings which he had written on. He seems to have been a very prolific letter writer and corresponded regularly with a number of people. There are currently two books available that feature a range of these letters.

This is an example of one, from one of the books, that’s featured on the blog “After the Artist’s Way”.

Other examples can be seen on the blog here.

There’s a number of articles about the artist and his work that have been published in the National press including the Guardian, Independent and the Spectator. And a few blog posts, including this one.

Kelly was incredibly eccentric to say the least. But he was a very talented artist and his work deserves to be more widely known.

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3 thoughts on “Percy Kelly at Abbot Hall

  1. Pingback: Not so grim up north? | Down by the Dougie

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