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Art & artists

Keith Vaughan: An authoritative and compelling painter

— April 2013

Associated media

Keith Vaughan, Group of Arabs, Essaouira (1965); gouache, Indian ink, oil pastel and wax crayon on paper; 46 x 42cm; private collection. © the Keith Vaughan Estate

Keith Vaughan

By Philip Vann and Gerard Hastings

Keith Vaughan had no artistic training, and yet his work is instantly recognizable, ‘signed all over’ in the dealers’ parlance of the 1970s, clearly of its time, and still just as distinctive. Vann and Hastings do an excellent job, securing Vaughan’s place as an artist in the history of British art, a key figure of the era 1940–80, responsive to the landscapes of the past and to those of his own epoch. They also offer a calculated assessment of his positioning as a homosexual artist in an unforgiving world, a state that continued almost for the entirety of his life.

When Vaughan’s journals were first published in 1989, and reviewed in Art Monthly, they revealed at a stroke an energetically physical man whose creative ability was both vitally informed and undone by so many pleasures of the flesh. This book, the sole major offering in the centenary year of Vaughan’s birth is as urbane a series of statements as one might wish for. Vann’s unvarnished and exact text is an appropriately direct and compelling assessment, and Hastings’ follow-up is no mere supplement, for it treats Vaughan’s creative practice to welcome and deserving scrutiny. Artists and art historians will welcome this title, for its excellent texts, production and design.

Though he was a compelling and authoritative painter in oils, the resonance of Vaughan’s works in water-based media is clear in many of the book’s reproductions and texts, but where Vann takes on the role of biographer and interpreter, Hastings’ analysis of Vaughan’s works on paper, though shorter, is to be applauded. Vaughan’s use of wax-resist was of an equal stature to Moore’s, but his use of gouache was unusual and intriguing. Hastings’ account of his development of, and preference for, this medium is valuable. At first glance its occasionally hit-and-miss drying properties might not serve to offer itself as an attractive medium of choice, but Vaughan made gouache work for him. Those who believe in its properties will be thrilled to see so many excellent reproductions of work in the medium, accompanied by so lucid an analysis.  

For the most part, Vann’s analytical narrative clearly details Vaughan’s artistic evolution, and in particular his association with the great, the good, and those whom he felt were superficial: here Vaughan’s journals are central to an understanding of his activities and lifestyle. Amongst contemporaries, for example, Sutherland and Minton were important and influential; Bacon was not. In tracing the important influences in Vaughan’s life, the excellent reproductions once more prove their worth. The importance of Sutherland, Minton and perhaps also Burra during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s is central, but comparisons also serve to show that Vaughan was no slavish imitator, and that every stroke was considered.

Vann’s text goes some way to re-evaluating Vaughan’s other friendships, with ‘the Roberts’ Colquhoun and MacBryde clearly positioned, and a gentle reintroduction of the profound influence of Jankel Adler upon them all. Vann conveys all this and more with a characteristically careful interweaving of fact and critique. This should compel more knowing readers to set aside the seam of homo-erotic voyeurism that too often hinders a just appreciation of Vaughan’s work, and replace it with a reaffirmed and balanced perception of an artist for whom habit and process combined to form a clearly intelligible and very human oeuvre.

Keith Vaughan  by Philip Vann and Gerard Hastings is published by Lund Humphries, 2012. 184pp., fully illustrated in mono and colour, £40.00 hardback. ISBN 9781848220973


Julian Freeman
Sussex Coast College, Hastings
Art historian

Media credit: © the Keith Vaughan Estate

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