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'A piece of spiritual machinery' - the work of Norman Town

— October 2014

Associated media

Norman Town, Un Saison en Enfer, gouache on paper, 1940s © The Canon Gallery

A chance discovery in a car boot sale reveals the brilliance of a forgotten English war artist

Around 2004, a fortuitous sequence of events brought a teeming scrapbook – onto whose pages dozens of drawings, gouaches and watercolours by the painter Norman Town (1915–87) had been lightly glued – to the attention of the art dealer Jeremy Green. This voluminous artefact had been discarded, ending up at a car boot sale; it was picked up by someone who recognized its innate artistic qualities, who then alerted Jeremy Green to its existence.

Initially, Green speculated these were works by Keith Vaughan  – the stylistic affinities to Vaughan's 1940s' art are extensive – and John Ball (Vaughan's close friend and perhaps most significant patron) backed up this initial assessment. On closer perusal, however, it became clear that these were by Norman Basil Town, Vaughan's near contemporary (Town was born three years later).

Vaughan and Town had become good friends, confidants, prolific letter writers to each other during the Second World War, when, as conscientious objectors, they had met whilst serving as non-combatants in the army – in Vaughan's case initially occupied by manual work, latterly as a clerk and translator for German POWS; in Town's case, working alongside Vaughan in a camp in Wiltshire, then in a bomb disposal unit at a base near Wakefield in Yorkshire (the county where he was born and brought up), later being sent to work as a Bevin Boy in the coal mines, where he summed up his responses of horrified dismay: ‘to say that one is shocked at the crazy, dangerous and unhealthy atmosphere of it all is to understate my feelings’.

During 1941 Vaughan served, alongside Town and other conscientious objectors, as members of the Pioneer Corps at Codford Camp in Wiltshire. They had to endure heavy, monotonous labour (what Vaughan described as the ‘mental coma of navvying... Driven and chivvied all days by NCOs’), overcrowded barracks and contempt from both fellow soldiers and civilians. Yet there was searching cultural and intellectual curiosity amongst a small group of men in Company 9. Vaughan noted ‘an atmosphere of after another people flower into individual personalities...which burn with a particular brightness which is both more intense and more unreal than in a freely formed society’.

Vaughan was a mentor to the slightly younger Town, who imbibed and shared the former's discerning enthusiasm for the art of Graham Sutherland    (pre-eminent as a contemporary influence), Henry Moore,  Christopher Wood,   William Blake,   El Greco,  Cézanne,   Matisse  and Picasso.   In his journals, Vaughan described Town's vulnerable, open nature:

The main points about N are the transparency of his person and his lack of armour and defencelessness to life. He is like a piece of spiritual machinery with one side cut away so that one can watch it working. He opens only on to himself.

Vaughan and Town's dialogue continued in the form of extensive letters when Town starting working in the mines.

Vaughan described spending his ‘off-duty hours with a pad on my knee on my bed in a barrack room’ during 1942. Town similarly sketched and painted his surroundings with hallucinatory urgency and acuity – both in the army camps and later in the mines. Certainly, the body of work Town produced during the War years, and the ensuing years of peace, burn with a particular brightness, an authentic prophetic ardour, that reveal himself during this period to have been a remarkably powerful talent.

A number of drawings and gouaches by Town are paradisical landscapes inhabited by youthful, monumentally graceful goatherds and maidens, and inspired by Virgil's Eclogues and Picasso's rustic classical idylls. In these elegant works often characterized by a distinctive, often visionary use of chiaroscuro, a neo-Romantic impulse towards evoking a healing Arcadia – where the horrors of war and struggle are forgotten and transcended – is serenely and abundantly clear.

What is striking about such works by this young man (in his twenties and early thirties) is their consummate self-assurance, their dynamic fluency of expressive technique. These are not stage-set pastiches of works by the continental as well as British avant-garde; they ring true in their own right as freshly considered poetic visions of the world. A beautifully tender ink and gouache drawing of a young male figure asleep (a fallen mask symbolically by his side) – with another young figure in meditative profile by his bedside – appears grounded in the artist's immediate experience. A gouache of a goat and sculpturally statuesque goatherd and naked young woman – austerely abstracted in a Matisse-like manner – delights with its childlike directness and intimacy of feeling. Acutely observed pictures of a swaying row of men on a beach carrying nets and anonymous figures sheltering in a barn (refugees perhaps) show deep empathy with their subjects.

Other works have murderous themes, portraying violent assaults and stabbings of naked women by powerful men. Such works are imbued with a fiercely sensuous Picasso-like energy; the depictions of violence never appear gratuitous in intention and effect – but rather convey the artist's serious ruminations on the universal tragedy of life so horribly apparent in the 1940s.

Town followed Vaughan's example in the mid-to-late 1940s of making a series of work in ink and gouache, based on Rimbaud's poem Une Saison en Enfer, written in 1873 when the poet was 19. In 1949, these  Sutherland-inspired images by Vaughan were worked as lithographs published by John Lehmann alongside the text in French with an English translation. Town's own works based on Rimbaud's poem sometimes evidence the influence of Vaughan's own version – for example, in the top left-hand corner of one gouache, Town's handwritten ‘Hunger thirst and shouting/ dance dance dance!’ echoes the words from Rimbaud's poem ‘Faim, soif, cris, danse, danse, danse, danse’ – appearing in the frontispiece illustration in Vaughan's own published volume.

But the works by Town and Vaughan that these works illustrate are quite different. Vaughan's illustration is of a naked boy prone in a posture of agony and disorientation. Town's brilliantly theatrical gouache shows a phantasmagoric nocturne of ecstatic dancing lovers dithyrambically choreographed against an inky indigo sky.

As Peter Nahum (who put on Town's first show in London in 1994) has written:

Three pictures of bomb craters by an unknown artist were accepted by the War Advisory Committee in 1943, at the height of the war. They were the work of Norman Basil Town...With no formal art training at that time, Town was recording what he saw. In the words of W.T. Oliver, an art critic of the time, 'here was an artist of unusual sensibility' and this talent was recognised early on by Ernest Musgrave, director of the Wakefield Art Gallery, who was Town's first private collector and who decided, on his own initiative, to send the bomb crater pictures to the Committee.

Town studied at the Royal College of Art from 1946-49, ‘and seems to have experienced considerable readjustment trauma in returning to “the world outside” after the war..” He travelled:

exhaustively to Yorkshire, Ireland, Cornwall and Wales, often on bicycle; he filled numerous sketchbooks with watercolour and pastel landscapes... Retiring by nature, he preferred the role of teacher to participation in the commercial art world of contemporary art sales. He taught graphic design at the Wimbledon School of Art for twenty-five years, finally heading the department during the 70s and early 80s. He exhibited rarely during this period and consequently his early work has been forgotten, despite gaining significant attention after the war, demonstrated by his inclusion in the 1950-51 exhibition Fifteen Contemporary Painters at the Leeds City Art Gallery alongside Vaughan, [John]Minton, [Robert] Colquhoun, [Robert] Macbryde and [Michael] Ayrton.

The relatively recent, serendipitous rediscovery of Town's art scrapbook from the 1940s helps reveal the movingly original contribution to modern British art of this introspective figure at a time when he burned with a particularly flourishing creative brightness.


Philip Vann
Cambridge, UK
Art historian

Editor's notes

An exhibition of Norman Town's wartime works on paper will be held at the Maas Gallery, 15A Clifford Street, London W1S 4JZ from 9 to 14 March 2015 (organized by The Canon Gallery)

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