Percy Kelly. Who is Percy Kelly? A question that six months ago I could not have answered.
Then, an innocuous book review in ‘The Guardian’ caught my eye. It wasn’t the name ‘Kelly’ that attracted me. I wasn’t looking, particularly, for the review. I was just scanning the ‘Arts’ section and my eye latched on to one word, ‘Workington’. My family has lived, since the mid-1800s, in the town, and although those that live there now, or in Whitehaven or Harrington, are really distant relatives the name of the town still rings an ancestral chord.
There was a picture to illustrate the article, only a small one, but enough to engage my attention. I read on. The review, of ‘ The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Drawing’ by Chris Wadsworth, was a good one. It seemed that the reviewer had just discovered Percy Kelly himself for the first time. The article drew me in.
By the time I had finished the review I knew that I wanted to know more about this extraordinary man. Workington is a town that still exudes an aura of warmth for me. Not in a scenic way, as the steelworks, the pits, the docks have declined, in the same way as in many of our industrial towns. The area where my family lived, the Marsh, can only be glimpsed, as a ghostly footprint, from the top of the grassy gnoll that was once the slag heap. Indeed a childhood memory is of sleeping in Uncle Dick and Aunt Ethel’s house, on the end of Berry Street, and watching the little train chugging up the ‘bank’, at night, and tipping its cargo of molten ash into the deep blackness? What a a glorious sight for a child. But it’s the people, and their natural Cumbrian spirit and friendliness, that are the glory of the town.
But Workington, as the home of an artist? That was a new one on me. I had heard of Sheila Fell, and loved her landscapes, but she was from nearby Aspatria. I ordered the book on my new toy, an i pad. I’d almost forgotten about it, when it arrived at the local La Poste, in St. Brice.
From the very first picture, the ‘Red Field’ and the very first charcoal drawing, ‘ Bank Barn’, I was drawn in. The quality of his draughtsmanship, his eye for perspective, his calligraphy and the ability to express his feelings, and emotions, into his art, are mesmerising. His individuality, and the strength, and confidence, that they exude take the breath away. For a rank amateur, such as myself, there is little consolation in the fact that he, like me, has eyes, like me, he paints and draws with a pencil or brush in his hand and he, like me, is a mere mortal. His work is pure genius.
He was born in Workington. He worked for the Post Office, in Kendal and Workington. In 1939, with his twin brother, he joined up, in the Border Regiment, of course, as all my family had done in 1914, but was soon transferred to the Royal Signals. His drawing skills had been discovered. He was posted to GHQ in London, and was billeted in a small room, next to the Cabinet War Rooms. Of course, as in all good war stories, he met, on several occasions, Winston Churchill, with whom he discussed their shared passion, for painting. Some of his work was exhibited at an exhibition of service men’s work at the National Gallery. So far, so believable. He wasn’t a soldier, and army life became a trial. He had a belief that he was always right, not an immediately attractive trait to officers and ‘non-coms’, so was often in trouble for indiscipline.
When the war ended he was posted to Germany, where, he found, he almost completely lost his muse. He was unable to feel at ease in the country of ‘the enemy’.
On his return, he played professional football, under Bill Shankley, at Workington Town, the ‘Reds’, and he was married. He rejoined the Post Office. His wife, Audrey, had ambition for him, within the GPO, she wasn’t interested in art. They had a child, Brian. As with a lot of ex-servicemen Percy had problems readjusting to civilian life and he became depressed and unhappy.
The Kellys took a Post Office near Cockermouth, which gave Percy more time to spend on his art, whilst Audrey ran the shop. His son, Brian said ” My dad was a genius. He just wanted to draw and paint but my mother wanted him to be the Postmaster General.”
He had a nervous breakdown and the family moved to Allonby, whilst Audrey supported them, working at Dovenby Psychiatric Hospital.
Percy always seemed to attract women who would care for him. There had been his mother, then Audrey, and then, through the poet, Norman Nicholson, he met Helen Sutherland, a patron of the arts who lived at Dockray, near Ullswater. Through her interest and the influence of her house which contained Courbets, Mondrians, Hepworths, Moores and Picassos, Percy was fired to apply for a course at the Carlisle College of Art. He couldn’t get a grant, he was, at 41, considered far too old, but he won a place. He then ‘worked’ his way through college. The usual route, part time jobs, the Christmas post at 41!
The work he produced at college included a series of studies of industrial scenes in, and around, Carlisle. He drew on building sites, Citadel Station, Carlisle Brewery and Whitehaven docks and the villages around Whitehaven, Lowca, Moresby, Parton. His love of Cumberland starts to glow from his work, not in vivid colours, but in ‘real’ Cumberland, natural, shades. The totally beguiling beauty of his water colour pieces, particularly the haunting ‘Lorton Fells from Pardshaw’, leave you wanting more.
The ‘detective’ work for this book, carried out by Chris Wadsworth , draws you slowly in to the work of PK. But this isn’t her only book with Percy Kelly themes. She wrote a series of collected stories, ‘Hercules and the Farmer’s Wife’, stories connected to the art world, and artists she has known. In ‘The Man who couldn’t stop Drawing’ she refers to a relationship he had, whilst at college, with a 17 year old, Rosanna Vergowan. She was a girl, from an eccentric family, who lived at Rigg Beck, up the Newlands Valley. Sadly for Percy his ‘love’ was not reciprocated, but he did visit Rigg Beck and started to correspond with Rosi. His letters were a portent of the future, because they were illustrated. The letters are an important part of understanding Kelly, and Chris Wadsworth handles them with care, but doesn’t ‘duck’ the issues. Audrey, his wife, senses that something is ‘going on’, but it isn’t until you read the short piece in ‘Hercules . . .’ that you find out that, on one occasion, Audrey followed him to Rigg Beck and confronted him. She knew. In addition, the house, painted, bizarrely, purple, was a house with a history for many young artists, poets and actors. Ted Hughes, Shelagh Delaney, Victoria Wood, Bob Hoskins, they all stayed at Rigg Beck.The familiar themes of the ‘ always going to be thwarted’ older man falling for a woman more than twenty years younger are played out here. We have a “She’s behind you!” moment. You just know what’s going to happen, and it does!
But the manner of the separation falls like a bombshell. We have been ‘coasting’ secure in the knowledge that Percy is a man who needs the strength of a woman, his mother, his wife, Helen Sutherland, Rosanna Vergowan, all played a rôle.
Percy was starting to have problems with his eyes, he thought he was losing his sight. He visited a doctor in Pardshaw, just outside Whitehaven, and was greeted at the door by the doctor’s wife. Paul and Chris Griffiths, the doctor and his wife, were invited to see Percy’s cottage, on the coast, at Allonby. Audrey was suspicious of his ‘arty’ friends, this wasn’t her scene at all. She had been introduced into the ‘Art Establishment’ in London, and had met Princess Margaret, now that was more to her taste!
One evening, Audrey returned home to find a stranger, sitting, in the half light, in the armchair in their cottage. The clothes were familiar, they were hers! The ‘woman’ was, in fact, Percy. That was it. She threw him out, there and then, and had the locks changed. She only saw him once again . . . in court! All he wanted from the marriage was his work, Audrey had burned his passport and driving licence, she wasn’t for giving it up. The judge awarded Percy one penny and his precious work.
Chris and Percy married and, eventually, went to live in a run down cottage in Pembrokeshire, with two of Chris’s three children. It is now 1973. Percy had corresponded with her other child, Kim, with more of those gorgeous illustrated letters. The trials and tribulations he submitted his wife and step children to were beyond belief.
In St. David’s he continued his transvestism, much to everyone’s embarrassment. But Percy found great difficulty in parting with his work, consequently life was a constant struggle against penury. The sheer volume of work continued to flow. It is fair to say that the love with which he paints Cumberland, is emphasised by the fact that there seems to be less positive emotion in the work produced in Wales. There is a real darkness of the soul. He hated selling his work, even when his new cottage, or his cars, needed work or when basic family needs were in need of addressing. He loved his work. Not just the actual physical tasks of painting and drawing, but the pieces themselves. They were his family.
At the age of 60, in 1980, Percy and Chris moved, once again, to Pear Tree Cottage, Rockland St. Peter, in Norfolk. He obviously had a ‘thing’ about names! By 1983 Chris had had enough and left him, emotionally battered. He was totally alone, and a long way from Cumberland.
Now another woman entered his life. Joan David had seen one of Percy’s paintings, at a friend’s house, and wanted to buy one. She wrote to him. This kind, and generous woman was to become his ‘rock’. But, importantly, this correspondence, which carried on until his death, resulted in a a collection of illustrated letters which became the basis of another study by Chris Wadsworth. They are, truly, magical. The joy of receiving a letter is tangible, but to receive letters like these beggars belief. They are pure delight.
Meanwhile, Percy, who had been secretly taking Chris’s HRT, had developed breasts and was more openly exhibiting his gender confusion. He changed his name to Roberta. Oddly, the darkness of the work he produced in Wales disappeared when his feminine side became more dominant in Norfolk, and his touch, and palette, become visibly lighter.
Percy died in 1993, a lonely, and confused man. The remarkable Joan David died in 2000, but not before she was instrumental in bringing Percy’s son Brian, and Chris, together to save the enormous number of art works ‘stashed’ at Pear Tree Cottage. A serendipitous miracle!
The story of the discovery and development of his career since his death is admirably, and sensitively, told in ‘The man who couldn’t stop drawing’, ‘Hercules and the Farmer’s Wife’, ‘The Painted Letters of Percy Kelly’ and ‘Whitewash and Brown Paint-Lovely’, all by Chris. Wadsworth.
His story could have died with him and his paintings and drawings been destroyed, without the determination of Chris. to preserve, and develop, Percy Kelly’s reputation. The books that she has produced, including a collection of his charcoal sketches, are stunning, in demonstrating the quality, and range, of his work, in whatever medium, and on whatever surface, whether they be paintings, sketches or letters. His life is a fascination, at times you want to just shake him, “Get a grip! Get real!” But, after the frustration, to sit and quietly enjoy his skill, his genius, is a delight, and that is with no small thanks to Chris Wadsworth herself.