Gore blimey

Gore blimey. There was a film about Frederick Gore last night at my wonderful local Arts Centre, The Plough. It was one of three shown and introduced by film-maker Daniel Whistler; all very different in style. It was the Gore film that had attracted me of course, and I was intrigued to know how his work stood up against his more famous father, Spencer.

My early mentor, Henry Israel, once summed up a painting of mine with customary understatement , “Well, it’s certainly an eyeful.” I took this as veiled and not unreasonable criticism, and I don’t think Henry meant it as a compliment. But blimey, if Henry thought my still life of oranges and bananas and I can’t remember what in a wicker work basket was an image to hurt the retina, I can’t imagine what he would have thought of some of Frederick’s.

My work is sometimes called “colourful” – I’d never use that word, preferring ‘vibrant’. Surely you can’t just suffuse a painting with gaudy colour and hope it does the trick? Some of Gore’s violets and purples offended my eye –a shadow with the same value as a field of lavender, stark red and green contrasts. His work was far closer to the Fauves than the Post-impressionists. Think Roderick O’Conor perhaps. I much preferred his buildings even though some the beautiful pastel shades you get on old Provencal walls were gaudied up too much for me.

I've included here a Gore on the left, and one of the most 'colourful' of mine I could find quickly on the right to give an idea for comparison.


Gore F Mediterranean-LandscapeCornish landscape with Virginia creeper


He claimed not to be able to do portraits, which was interesting. They are the hardest thing, which is one very good reason for tackling them, especially if, like me, you hardly ever use brushes. So although I utterly appreciate his philosophy of going back to the masters, he let slip that he didn’t go much on Cezanne (now, there’s a rarity) and I could see why. He’s always sitting on my shoulder, is that old misanthrope Cezanne. What would I do without him? If Cezanne thought van Gogh painted like a madman, he’d have apoplexy looking at Frederick’s. Mentioning that “madman” and comparing Gore’s work I realised yet again what a sublime painter Vincent was. His work was hardly ever ‘over the top’ despite the popular myth of wild mad painter. It was studied, restrained and always with a point.

Gore was certainly a fascinating character and, no doubt about it, an excellent painter even if some of his work looks amateurish and commercial. A friend of mine has just sent me an obituary which I’ll copy here for anyone interested.

With the death of the artist Frederick Gore, aged 95, a link has been lost with the Camden Town school of painting. Gore never knew his father, the painter Spencer Gore, a leading member of the group, who died in 1914 only a few months after Frederick's birth in Richmond, Surrey, but he revered his memory and for many years was a guardian of his reputation. Fred Gore, sometimes patrician and slightly raffish, with a love of street scenes and popular entertainments, was himself rather like a Camden Town artist. Some people think that his style became more akin to his father's as he grew older.
At Lancing college, West Sussex, Gore was head boy and an athlete, performing well in the public school championships held at the old Stamford Bridge track in south-west London. Corinthianism – doing better than professionals in a determinedly amateur fashion – was always a part of his character, sometimes to the bemusement of art school colleagues. At Trinity College, Oxford, which he entered in 1932, officially to read classics, he continued his athletic career. "I had a scholarship. I did not do any work at Oxford. I drank a good deal and found a rather inappropriate lady of the town, whom I fell for."

When not otherwise having a good time at Oxford, Gore studied at the Ruskin school of art. Its master was Albert Rutherston, his father's best friend, who led Gore towards art as a career. He eased him out of Oxford and into the Westminster art school in London, and then the Slade. Gore was one of those artists who was so willing a student that he accepted influence from a variety of sources. Camden Town painters, especially Walter Sickert, he could scarcely avoid. His earliest paintings were also influenced by Barnett Freedman, Mark Gertler, Bernard Meninsky and Cedric Morris.

Gore had his first show at the Redfern gallery in 1937. He then painted in Greece and exhibited the results in Paris, with a catalogue introduction written by Louis Vauxcelles, the veteran art critic who had coined the expression "Fauves". From 1940 to 1946 he served in the army, then returned to Greece and France. He then produced mural-like canvases of dancing peasants and a number of solitary, almost experimental landscapes. A plein-air artist by nature, Gore liked to carry his easel and painting materials to remote mountain sites in the south of France. When he found a place in which he sensed both solitude and danger, he knew he had found his subject.
Gore was head of the painting department at St Martin's school of art from 1951 until 1979, during which time he expanded facilities, conducted memorable battles with the renowned sculpture department and employed a succession of unconventional tutors, chief among them Gillian Ayres and Henry Mundy. In fact, his career at St Martin's coincided with the anarchic golden age of British art schools. He encouraged or tolerated eccentricity and believed that "the pedantic side of art schools is an appalling thing".

In almost the next breath, however, Gore could denounce Picasso (in his distinctly upper-class voice) as "that dreadful fellow who has ruined all our lives". It was often difficult to know where his allegiances lay. Some of his paintings, especially the landscapes, look like the work of a reborn post-impressionist. Many other canvases depict rock stars such as Ian Dury, whom Gore much admired, or Times Square in New York (painted from a hotel window), and these pictures often have the look of naive or amateur art.

At one time he was much excited by Jackson Pollock, who "liberated me from concern with what kind of painting I did". Gore never imitated Pollock. He simply realised that, like Pollock, he could do as he wished. Although he was not an abstract painter, Gore was a champion of abstraction at a time when, in Britain, non-referential painting was regarded with suspicion. His short but telling book, Abstract Art, published in 1956, praises a number of contemporary London painters for their abstract work and contains a generous description of Pollock's "action painting".

Gore thought of himself as a competent amateur theologian (his great-uncle was Bishop Charles Gore), and as a scholar. Another short book, Piero della Francesca's The Baptism, appeared in 1969. Gore wrote it to confront Kenneth Clark, who had unwisely attempted to snub him in a meeting and who (Gore believed, perhaps rightly) regarded the early renaissance master as his own intellectual property.

His ability to speak on equal terms with both establishment grandees and difficult artists made Gore a perfect helmsman of the Royal Academy as it came to terms with the new conditions of the 1980s and 90s. He was the most influential academician never to have been made president, a post he did not seek. He became an associate member in 1964, a full member in 1973, and was chairman of the academy's exhibition committee from 1976 to 1987.

Gore organised the academy's jubilee exhibition, British Painting 1952-77. Its selection appears much less peculiar today than it did at the time. Many of the avant-garde and eccentric artists represented soon became academicians, some of them reasoning that an institution with Freddie Gore as its guide might be worth joining.

He was not only a man who chaired committees. He had many unusual friends, a mysterious connection with the Hell's Angels ("a rather elderly chapel, I'm afraid") and until very late in life was a star at any party. This was because of his devotion to Russian folk dancing. Sometimes wearing a top hat, Fred in action was an amazing sight. He said that dancing was as much in his blood as was painting.

His mother had been a dancer, and in his youth he had frequented the Bal Nègre nightclub in Paris. His wife Connie had introduced him to flamenco dancing via a Gypsy friend. For technical reasons, which included great leaps and stamps, Russian dancing suited him best. Gore was a prominent member of the Balalaika dance group for more than 30 years. His friends often listened to his explanations of the balalaika ("a crude gourd, don't you see, made triangular, with three strings of which two have the same percussive element"). These lessons were often as baffling as his attitudes to art.

He is survived by Connie and his son and two daughters.

• Frederick John Pym Gore, painter, born 8 November 1913; died 31 August 2009

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