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On this page you will find information on the mentors, peers and colleagues of Richard Plank.

Malcolm Hughes

Malcolm Hughes (1920-1997)

“Malcolm Hughes was that rare thing among British artists: a creative thinker who openly rejected individualism and sought to foster collective strategies for the production and display of works of art. His anti-Romantic stance, and his desire to found his practice on clear, systematic procedures, led him at early stage to take up the tradition of geometrical abstraction: more precisely, he followed the example of the small group of British abstract artists which had coalesced in the 1950s, and chose to make “constructions”.

For over 30 years, he continued to explore this path, employing his meticulous craftsmanship to make reliefs and paintings which invariably combined an underlying logic with an intense physical presence. Yet he never forgot that constructivism was, historically and in principle, an international movement. No British artist did more, over this period, to foster the international connections implicit in the common heritage of European Modernism.


His training as an artist began in Manchester, at the Regional College of Art, and continued at the Royal College of Art, where he was one of the students selected to assist in the painting of large-scale murals in the Law Courts, and inclined in his own work to Socialist Realism. By the mid-1960s, he had begun to develop his own constructive idiom, and was showing at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, as well as contributing to the Salon des Realites Nouvelles in Paris.

In this period, he also laid the foundation of his career as a teacher: he taught on a part-time basis at the School of Architecture, in the Polytechnic of Central London, and at Bath Academy of Art, as well as at the Chelsea School of Art, where the constructive artists John Ernest and Anthony Hill were among his colleagues.
His own style, as an artist and group organiser, came clearly into view when he co-founded the Systems Group in 1969 with Jeffrey Steele, and began the extensive process of practical work and discussion which culminated in the Arts Council “Systems” exhibition of 1972-73. Hughes was anxious that this show should not be a mere re-enactment of earlier displays of geometric abstract art: he and his exhibiting colleagues, who were drawn from diverse backgrounds and a wide age-group, collectively committed themselves to extending their range by using new materials and working on a large, in some cases environmental scale. Hughes’s own contribution was a tranquil room, bordered on four sides by impeccable white reliefs.

His commitment as a teacher also intensified at this stage. Arriving at the Slade School of Art on a part-time basis in 1970, he took over the running of the Graduate School from William Townsend in 1973, and designed the new graduate programme, involving experimental studies, for the move into the Pearson Building in 1975. The intellectual vitality and sense of adventure generated by this new development left their mark on a whole generation of Slade postgraduate students. Heady ideas were circulating in the early 1970s. But he took care to introduce the practical possibility of fine art computing. Students like Chris Briscoe went on to make a career in this domain; others of a very different bent, like the painter Christopher Le Brun, have testified to the strong impact of his teaching and example.

Hughes had been appointed Reader in Fine Art in 1976, and was to leave his post at the Slade only in 1983. His retirement enabled him to redouble his commitment to his own creative work. He himself (aided by the considerable technical expertise of his son, Chris) produced computer graphics of great delicacy and refinement. He also created a memorable one-man exhibition for the old premises of the Annely Juda Gallery in 1989, and a further one (shared with Alan Reynolds) for the new gallery in 1996. The combination of painting and relief, and the effect of colour transparency achieved through laying one tone over another, made this last show as fresh and distinctive as anything that he had done previously.

Throughout this period, however, Hughes reaffirmed the collective basis of constructive art work. Between 1984 and 1989, he formed part of a group of younger artists who took their title from their small gallery in the East End, Exhibiting Space. With the artist Jean Spencer, his companion for over 25 years, he travelled extensively throughout Europe, following the networks set up by their joint participation in the international Arbeitskreis group, and showing work in Germany, France, Switzerland and Eastern Europe. An evening with Malcolm and Jean was not only a gastronomic treat, but an opportunity to come up to date with this unique and flourishing movement of constructive artists, which transcended national frontiers.

Malcolm Hughes must inevitably have come up against the entrenched scepticism about constructive and systematic art which is still to be found among British critics and curators. He was never offered the chance of a major retrospective exhibition. Over the last two years, however, a sequence of events heartened him: the fine show “Testing the System”, organised at Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge, in autumn 1996; the illuminating retrospective of the great Swiss constructive artist Richard Paul Lohse, shown first at the Annely Juda Gallery and later at Kettle’s Yard in 1997; and finally the splendid symposium organised by the composer Michael Parsons, Jean Spencer and Gary Woodley at Kettle’s Yard on “Patterns of Connection in art, music and science”.

To patterns and connections such as these his creative and personal life had been dictated.”

Stephen Bann. Obituary of Malcolm Hughes. The Independent, Thursday 25th September, 1997.

Use of this obituary is gratefully acknowledged.

Gwyther Irwin

Gwyther Irwin (1931-2008)

“Gwyther Irwin, who has died aged 77, was an artist of great originality and invention. He first came to wide critical notice in 1958, in the Three Collagists show at the old ICA in Dover Street, London, and would continue to make collages throughout his working life. Although he would always consider himself a painter, the working method he developed through his collages would inform everything he ever did.

Irwin’s statement in the 1979 biographical directory Contemporary British Artists tells us much: “In the past I have made collage, assemblage, constructions and paintings, using the backs of old posters, string, wood-shavings, cardboard, matches, nails, wood, cloth, paint and so on, but I am currently working with oil paint on canvas.” He went on to describe his “invariable” working method. “I write the pictures. Starting at the top left-hand corner I work along, adding individual ribbon-like unit to individual unit until I reach the right-hand edge. I then return to the left-hand edge and repeat the process until the bottom right-hand corner is reached, some 400 hours after beginning … I watch with wonder and excitement as the colours and marks, falling from my hand as if propelled by a source of guidance other than myself, slowly spread across the surface.

What he did not mention is the riskiness that goes with so painstaking a process, a kind of game-playing, with its own strict rules of rhythm, pattern and structure, that determines an outcome of which the player is but the agent. Yet, acceptance of such risk was entirely true to Irwin’s character. Cricket was an abiding passion – with its happy combination of gentle ritual, chance and personal skill and commitment – and golf too; more than a passion, poker was for a while for him a much-needed financial resource.

For all its particularity, Irwin’s was in broader terms a very English sensibility, in just that intuitive ability to reconcile rigorous abstract pictorial systems and structures to atmospheric suggestion, especially of landscape. If he was never quite one of the modern St Ives School of Ben Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, “quite” is the operative word. A proud Cornishman himself, he would readily concede that he was necessarily the creature of his own personal visual experience, both immediate and historic.

Irwin was born at Basingstoke, Hampshire, but grew up at Trebetherick, on the north Cornish coast. He was educated at Bryanston school in Dorset, where the painter Roger Hilton was briefly the art master, before going on to art school in London, first to Goldsmiths College and then, from 1951 until 1954, to the Central School at Holborn. The 1950s were the crucial years in the development of later 20th-century modernism, and while many of Irwin’s contemporaries fell under the growing influence of abstract expressionism and the New York School of Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and the rest, Irwin, no less sympathetic to the abstract, was drawn rather more to the currency of the European avant-garde – to art brut, Tachisme, graffiti and the found image, and the continuing legacy of surrealism.

In those early days, he took his material, quite literally, from public advertising hoardings, not in the imagery they carried but in, as it were, the archaeology of posters laid layer upon arbitrary layer, a thick, dank mass that at first he would strip away himself on furtive night-time expeditions: later, it would be delivered openly to the studio by the bale. From this came those first collages, constructed strip by torn strip, row upon row, to draw a strange beauty from the rough tears, the arbitrary overlays and the rotted damage thus inherited. The critics were enchanted: “The patience, the subtlety, the muted gradations of every effect combine to produce an atmosphere of studied beauty,” said the Times in 1959, of his first solo show at Gimpel Fils; Irwin “cannot put two pieces of torn paper side by side without creating an atmosphere of poetic tenderness”, John Russell wrote in the Sunday Times in 1963.

Continuing critical success seemed assured: the Paris Biennale came in 1960; the Venice Biennale, with Joe Tilson, Bernard Meadows and his old teacher Hilton, in 1964. In the same year he figured prominently in Private View, a sweeping survey of the contemporary English art scene, by Bryan Robertson and John Russell with photographs by Lord Snowdon, and was included in the Tate’s major international review of the painting and sculpture of the previous 10 years.

But Irwin’s career was to prove of an all-too-typical English sort. By the end of the 1960s, the shows had dried up, and he was teaching at Corsham, Hornsey and Chelsea. In 1969, he became head of fine art at Brighton College of Art, where he remained until 1984. Retirement brought something of a renewal of critical interest in his work, even as he addressed himself to it with a renewed energy. Gimpel Fils gave him a retrospective in 1987; there were shows at the Redfern Gallery in the early 1990s; and he was included in important survey shows of the 1950s and 60s at the Barbican (1993) and Tate Britain (2004).

Sadly, that general revival came just as Irwin was beginning to become too ill to enjoy it – indeed latterly to be aware that it was even so. As Alzheimer’s disease took an increasing grip, so the work slowed and, by the late 1990s, ceased altogether, the later shows, and his critical rehabilitation, taking place without his knowledge. A large retrospective planned for next year at the Lemon Street Gallery in Truro must now be his memorial. He will be remembered as a man of irrepressible, often unpredictable energy, fun and spirit, and of great charm.

He died at home, not at Tooting Bec, south London, where he had lived and worked for many years, but at Foredore, his family’s old house at Trebetherick, which is now a nursing home. He is survived by his wife, Elizabeth Gowlett, whom he married in 1960, and their two sons and a daughter.”

William Packer. Obituary of Gwyther Irwin. The Guardian, Wednesday 29th October, 2008.

Use of this obituary is gratefully acknowledged.

Roy Grayson

Roy Grayson

“Roy Grayson became my personal tutor when I arrived at Brighton College Of Art in 1970. After a two year Foundation course at Harrow College Of Art, I had been taught, very well, the basic disciplines of drawing & painting. The use of the eye and the hand. In what might be termed a ‘figurative’ sense’. By the time that my first tutorial with Roy had finished, I had become aware of a door opening onto a new world. It was one I was happy to enter. It was Roy who began the long, slow process of the artistic education of my brain, and how to insert that in prime position between my eye and my hand. The dawning realisation that it was the most important factor of all. It was Roy who, on looking at a couple of paintings that I had started, simple repetitions of lines, asked if I was aware of the work of American artist, Sol LeWitt. I made it my business to soon become aware of it. It is hard to overstate the debt I owe him.” Richard Plank

Anthony Hill

Anthony Hill

Anthony Hill was born in London in 1930. He studied art at St. Martin’s School of Art and the Central School of Art between 1948-51. As a student he worked primarily as a painter and was interested in Dada and Surrealism. He shifted his focus somewhat in 1950 when he began experimenting with collage.

In 1951 Hill, Kenneth and Mary Martin, Adrian Heath, Victor Pasmore, and Robert Adams began actively forming a group through which they could promote their common interest in Constructivism.

Constructivism originated in Russia and sought to align art more fully with industrialization through geometric abstraction. Though the English Constructionists never were a group in the formal sense of the word, they did exhibit together, influence and support each other, as well as publish their own publications, like Broadsheet for example.

In 1953 Hill abandoned color and worked exclusively in black and white. Many of the Constructionists group within which Hill was working had already done the same in an effort to escape decoration and to make their work more precise, ordered and mechanical. His works by this time had become streamlined and minimalist, and often featured a composition of black geometric shapes on a white background.

Hill continued to work in paint until 1956, at which point he began experimenting with relief. Transparent and opaque plastic sheet, rubberized cloth, tape, silver grey and black anodized aluminum, and other materials appear on his canvases. In 1957 he actually gave up painting all together and dedicated himself to his relief works. By 1959 copper sheet, brass angle, zinc and stainless steel appear. These early relief works are composed of right angles and have strong vertical and horizontal emphasis.

In 1961 Hill organized Construction: England: 1950-60 at the Drian Gallery. This was to be the last group exhibition of the London Constructionists. The group members had achieved all they could together and no longer needed to depend on one another the way they once had.

By the beginning of the 1960s Hill had generated a strong interest in mathematics and made more conscious efforts to incorporate mathematical values into his art. Though his mathematical research took up an increasing amount of time during this decade, it was also a time of great artistic success for Hill.

He exhibited in several major group exhibitions, had three solo shows, and contributed articles to important journals and publications. In addition, the Tate Gallery, the Arts Council, the Gulbenkian Foundation, the Stuyvesant Foundation, the Kroller Muller Museum and a number of private collectors all purchased Hill works, and he edited the anthology Directions in Art, Theory, and Aesthetics (DATA).

In 1970 Hill made the first of his Co-structures, a series of freestanding geometric construction made from various materials. In the 1980s Anthony Hill created a pseudonym, Achill Redo, under which he returned to his student interest in Dada and surrealism and created collage works that would otherwise have been seen as a major departure. The Tate Gallery keeps Anthony Hill and Achill Redo separate in their archives.”

Copyright © 2010 · Richard Saltoun. (We gratefully acknowledge Richard Saltoun for use of this article.)

David Whitaker

David Whitaker (1938 – 2007)

“Tutor, friend and quiet inspiration.” Richard Plank.

“The work of David “Whit” Whitaker, who has died of pneumonia aged 68, is instantly recognisable. Using straight lines, simple shapes and a palette of just seven colours – two yellows, cadmium red, magenta, viridian and two blues – he explored a seemingly unlimited range of optical effects.

The resulting oils and watercolour paintings shimmer with colour and combinations of colour. The effect is almost hallucinatory, forcing the viewer to walk backwards and forwards, or side to side, to try and make sense of what he is seeing. Over the course of Whitaker’s career, this near obsessive, single-minded pursuit amounted to an astonishing technical achievement.

Whitaker was born in Blackpool. His flair was obvious from childhood, and at 13 he was a student at Blackpool and the Fylde school of art. He stayed for six years until, out of financial necessity, he moved in the late 1950s to London, to work in graphic design, a career which did not suit him. So he resigned and took a job as a milkman; the early start left him the rest of the day to paint.

From 1962 to 1966 Whitaker was a mature student at the Royal Academy Schools, gaining a distinction in painting. He also moved from his earlier landscape paintings – frequently of the north Yorkshire moors and dales – into abstract art. Later, he began to win awards, including, in 1973, on Bridget Riley’s recommendation, the Mark Rothko memorial prize, which enabled him to travel in the US.

Whitaker had also held the first of many one-man exhibitions. Among the venues for these were Kingston upon Thames Museum and Art Gallery, the Serpentine Gallery in London and the Galerie Poll in West Berlin. With a family to support, in 1984 he joined Wimbledon School of Art’s painting department, retiring as a senior lecturer in 2001. He was a generous and supportive teacher, committed to his students and, exceptionally, successful in balancing his own work with his teaching. Indeed, the time with students gave him opportunities to conduct colour workshops and projects close to his heart.

Whitaker’s art draws upon Byzantine painting, Leonardo, Goethe, Ruskin, Cézanne and the American abstract painter Kenneth Noland, as well as the colour theorists Michel Eugène Chevreul and Johannes Itten. He created each work with the precision of a mathematical diagram, stencilling each layer between the strips of tape so that he could be said to be almost painting blindly, never totally confident of what the outcome would be. He admitted that sometimes he was almost sick with nerves when he peeled off the tapes to discover whether he was going to be pleased or disappointed with a painting. In the worst event, he would scrape the canvas down and begin again.

Despite this apparently cerebral approach, Whitaker claimed his true inspiration came from the “world of images that comes from inside us” and the events of his own life. “Although I am deeply concerned with subliminal experience,” he wrote, “I avoid the tragic and concentrate on more uplifting themes. Where do my themes come from? Waterfalls; shafts of light in cathedrals and forests; memories of Egypt; coastlines; the wind in the trees; rainbows; sunrises and sunsets; cloud formations; America.”

During his career Whitaker held some 30 one-man shows, with venues ranging from Imperial College, London (1974), and the Ruskin School of Drawing, Oxford (1983), to the Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne (1992), the Art Store Gallery, Oakland, California (1993), and Gallery Focus, New Malden, Surrey (1997 and 1999). He also had exhibitions in Amiens, in France, in 1977 and 1998. Group exhibitions took in the Redfern and Hayward galleries, the Barbican, the Groucho Club, the Royal Academy summer show, as well as galleries in Germany, Sweden and Iceland.

In 1989 he was elected to the London Group and served on its committee – despite a lack of interest in organisation – preferring to subvert its meetings into debates between abstract and figurative art and modernism and postmodernism. He was also elected to the Colour Group (Great Britain) in 1996, and to the Royal Watercolour Society in 2001. This, in turn, led to his work being taken up by the Rebecca Hossack Gallery. Public collections holding his work include the Arts Council, York City Art Gallery, Leicester education authority, the universities of Salford and Picardy, and the National Gallery of Iceland.

Whitaker had considerable energy and was a marathon runner who had played cricket in the Lancashire League. Warm and generous in his appreciation of others, he was a good-humoured and private man, content to spend endless hours in solitude, putting colour on to canvas or paper.

He is survived by his wife Frankie (Frances Wood), whom he married in 1959, and their three sons.

· David Whitaker, artist and teacher, born June 8 1938; died March 15 2007

Simon Fenwick. Obituary of David Whitaker. The Guardian, Thursday 29th March, 2007.

Use of this obituary is gratefully acknowledged.

Kenneth Martin

Kenneth Martin (1905-1984)

Kenneth Martin is widely regarded as one of the fathers of British Constructivist Art. Having been trained in the realist tradition of Sickert, he came to abstraction in the late 1940s after working as a designer and painting naturalistic pictures for two decades. Before his death in 1984, Kenneth Martin not only sought to redefine abstract art but to align thought, feeling and imagination with the method of creating a work of art. As his art evolved he discovered new means of inventing and manipulating basic structural elements. With his Screw Mobile sculptures of the early Fifties he investigated the dynamics of movement exploiting the tension or contrast between stillness and the changes caused by the functions of twist and rotation.

Towards the end of his life Kenneth Martin embarked on a series of paintings and works on paper which he called the Chance and Order Series. In the simplest versions, a grid was set up on paper and its points of intersection numbered. Corresponding numbers were drawn ‘out of a hat’ ie. by chance. Each pair of numbers then became a line on the grid. Although the underlying structure remained the same the resulting correspondences produced a seemingly endless succession of combinations. With these works there was therefore a double invitation to explore the paintings and drawings as statements about an inventive process, and to contemplate the products that were generated by that process. The combination of randomness and definite rules left the artist free to invent in an exact sense. You can only develop order but not chance, you can only use the chance again.
Doc Watson (1923-2012)

Doc Watson

“In the late 1970s, after I’d been teaching myself to play the acoustic guitar for a number of years, I was split between playing English folk music, having been influenced by the playing of Martin Carthy and Nic Jones, or following the American tradition of ragtime guitar and the gentle folk blues of Mississippi John Hurt. When somebody introduced me to the playing of Doc Watson.  It was a life-changing moment. It was captivating. And my path became clear. Many years later I had the very good fortune to become friends with Doc’s playing partner, Jack Lawrence. A fine guitarist in his own right and the best of company. It was due to the kindness and hospitality of Jack that I had the opportunity, on a visit to the Southern Appalachians, to meet Doc and spend a little time in his company. Doc didn’t like to be called a legendary player – but he was. There’s never been a better one.” Richard Plank