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The mature work of retiring and elusive British artist Ben Hartley (1933–96) combines a commitment to French modernist traditions of subjective expression and blissful vision (associated with Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse) with a heritage of the observational illustration that is strong in 20th-century British art (think Edward Bawden (1903–89) and Eric Ravilious (1903–42)).
Dear Susan reproduces a selection of the letters that Hartley sent to his younger sister’s child over the course of the 1960s and that she in turn bequeathed to the Hartley archive in 2009. Hartley tells of his life-events and observations of the world via word and image, often replacing words with images in a way that reminds one of books to encourage children to read by naming pictures in the flow of the writing. (Susan was six at the time of the book’s first letters: hence also the careful large handwriting, which changes to a more grown-up script three years later.) Pages of proverbs are taught via drawings of, for example, cats and spilt milk. Hartley encourages Susan’s learning about the world, introducing her to his world by means of drawings of his village and cottage (both its interior and views from it), describing walks and trips in both words and images. His letters are intended to enhance his niece’s appreciation of the wonders of the world around, with some especially lovely drawings of birds and insects, and sometimes the images are larger than the text, in a way reminiscent of illustrated books. It is clear that Hartley’s use of drawing to engage with the world encouraged his niece Susan to draw herself and send such material to her attentive uncle.
The unusual glimpses of figures and objects, such as images of Hartley missing the bus or scrubbing the floor, or neighbours dressed up oddly for the cold winter, remind one that Hartley would have imbibed a tradition of graphical humour from his seven-year art and design education during the 1950s. The images in these pages also often recall the imagery of his mature gouaches (interior scenarios and nature’s creatures).
Hartley, who studied in the 1950s in Manchester and the Royal College, supported himself for 19 years (1960–79) on a part-time income from teaching at Plymouth College of Art, living alone in a rural cottage at Ermington. Towards the end of this period he suffered ill health from a certain level of self-neglect over diet. He spent his last 13 years living near his sister in Presteigne in the Welsh border country. The evidence of the drawing books shows that, while rather removed and spiritual in outlook (converting to Catholicism in 1968), Hartley was both keenly interested in the wonders of the world around him and consistently active as an artist for over four decades. His 1960s paintings were an impressive contribution to the sort of British ‘vision and design’ poetical art that had emerged in the interwar period. Over the two and a half decades following his religious conversion, his work became powerfully exultant and carved out a place in art by means of its independent and intriguing vision and values. Gouaches, done mainly on brown paper (until his use of white paper in his final years) depict images of animals, people and paraphernalia of living with painterly brio and rich colourism.
If the 2010 retrospective for the Peninsula Arts Centre showed Hartley being venturesome within those French traditions, the current publication reminds us of the importance to Hartley’s aesthetic of that English strand of valorizing and capturing the empirical ‘other’ of the observed world.
On Hartley’s death in 1996, Bernard Samuels was bequeathed most of Ben Hartley’s artistic production, save the 200 or so works sold during his lifetime. Samuels had given Hartley his first one-man shows in 1977 and 1979, when Hartley was in his mid-40s, and had organized three subsequent touring exhibitions from his position as director of Plymouth Art Centre, as well as promoting his work in the direction of commercial galleries. The 1996 bequest, comprising over 900 paintings, 318 drawing books, and various prints and drawings, was thus both a gesture of gratitude and a sign of trust that Samuels would know what to do with what was basically Hartley’s lifetime’s work, to the promotion of which he was fairly unattached (however we read that).
Since 1996, Samuels has organized and documented the work, issued a limited edition of the complete ink drawings in 2000, promoted exhibitions for which he wrote the catalogue forewords, written a full monograph (2001), and in 2005 published a marvellous selection of Hartley’s mid-1960s notebooks as Pigs Must Eaton Sundays. In 2010, ‘Ben Hartley: A Retrospective’ was organised at the Peninsula Arts Gallery at the University of Plymouth, with another illuminating text by Samuels in the catalogue.
Dear Susanis a gorgeous book that will surely find as many fans as the earlier Pigs Must Eaton Sundays, but it also adds a new element to our understanding of the resources that Hartley drew on in achieving his own mature oeuvre.
Dear Susan: Letters to a Niece byBen Hartley (edited and introduced by Bernard Samuels) is published by Sansom and Company, Bristol, 2011. 238 pp., 222 colour illus, £12.95. ISBN 978-1-906593-85-8
Media credit: Courtesy Bernard Samuels