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Art & artists

The wide-ranging work of Keith Vaughan

— December 2013

Article read level: Art lover

Associated media

Keith Vaughan, Figure with Boat (lithograph printed on Velin Arches white wove paper, 1949) Image courtesy of Osborne Samuel, London/Collection Hastings and Evans

Julian Freeman has nothing but praise for this ‘informative, stimulating’ catalogue

Keith Vaughan: Figure and Ground: Drawings, Prints and Photographs, edited by Colin Cruise

Informative, stimulating, telling as any accumulation of information in a bells-and-whistles book, and very much a ‘first’, Figure and Ground sidesteps the better-known oil paintings of British artist Keith Vaughan (1912–77) to draw deeply on the University of Aberystwyth’s collection of his photographs and works on paper, prints and drawings. Most of that holding has never been previously exhibited, published or formed the basis of any critical study.

The centenary of Vaughan’s birth in 1912 has rightly resulted in reassessment of his life and working practices. Of the latter, his painting has always been given most prominence, as in Philip Vann and Gerard Hastings’ book published in 2012. In that study, Vann’s assessment of Vaughan’s oil painting took centre stage, yet Hastings’ discussion of his water-based painting was a refreshing and vital new direction, a significant movement away from the accepted focus.

There is a serious case to be made for Vaughan’s work on paper, for it is often easily the equal of his oils, and, just as Hastings made that case in the book, so in Figure and Ground Cruise and his colleagues ensure that the other dimensions of Vaughan’s paper-based practice now receive appropriate critical examination, consideration and, where possible, explanation. Their catalogue comprises essays on Vaughan’s photographic practice (Pierse), on his printmaking (Meyrick and Heuser) and on his drawing (Cruise). Their treatment of these features is exemplary, clear and analytical, and a no-nonsense approach to Vaughan’s homosexuality, without coyness: given the centrality of the latter in his oeuvre there is no other option.

Despite his early employment as a graphic designer Vaughan’s approach to printmaking was equivocal, stop-start even, and in charting his progress (or lack of it), Meyrick and Heuser are unnecessarily apologetic. Vaughan might not have been committed to the medium, and they make it clear that he was never fully at home with any particular technique, but the arresting illustrations prove his easy competence, and his awareness of the richness of available influences.

Photography was a major seam in Vaughan’s creative practice, and the male figure, mostly nude, was a form of urgent voyeurism and a key source for many of Vaughan’s figure types. Pierse analyses the continuous presence of this activity in Vaughan’s work and describes the relative importance of its key characters, especially those who appear in Dick’s Book of Photos. This was made for Vaughan’s brother before his death in action in 1940, and never presented. Vaughan’s employment with the Lintas advertising agency during the 1930s enabled him to develop his camerawork and printing techniques to a high level of proficiency. The presence of this work within the exhibition and catalogue performs vital underpinning for many elements of Vaughan’s work, in all media.

It is left to Cruise to write about Vaughan’s drawing, and he rises to the challenge: he has specialized in this field for many years, and given his earlier research on Simeon Solomon, it might be said that this particular project is a logical continuation. Cruise’s thinking is expansive, and he makes stimulating connections between Vaughan’s drawings and those by other, major artists in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. He also highlights Vaughan’s interests in specific themes, and emphasizes particularly Vaughan’s illustration drawings, and his responses to poetry, which work as responses to specific commissions, and as drawings – no more, no less: potential feeders for painting. Or not.

Make no mistake: this is no addendum. This is as serious a collection of brief analyses on a truly deserving modern British artist as you are likely to read, and all the more remarkable at 98 pages. It comes very highly recommended, and wears its scholarship lightly.

Colin Cruise and his colleagues have good cause for celebration in this excellent and discursive catalogue. The exhibition of the same name,which it supports, is on show in Cardiff and Aberystwyth until March 2014. It is well designed, well illustrated and attractively priced: a clearly and authoritatively written paperback, and, in the vernacular, it does what it says on the tin. Some of the best research in British art history since the 1960s has been presented in catalogue essays written to support revelatory exhibitions in provincial galleries and museums, and this is one such, of a high order.

Keith Vaughan: Figure and Ground: Drawings, Prints and Photographs edited by Colin Cruise with contributions from Harry Heuser, Robert Meyrick and Simon Pierse, is published by Sansom & Company. 96pp.,fully illustrated in mono and colour, £16.50 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-908326-33-1


Julian Freeman
Sussex Coast College, Hastings
Art historian

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