John O’Connor

John O’Connor – Self Portrait

John Scorror O’Connor was born at Leicester on 11th August 1913, a twin son of Vernon Fergus O’Connor (1875-1946), an optical instrument maker, whose family came from County Tipperary, Ireland, and his wife Annie Burnet née Scorror (1883-1964). After attending Wyggeston School and Leicester College of Art 1931-1933, John studied at the Royal College of Art 1933-1937, where his teachers included Eric Ravilious, John Nash and Robert Austin. Each influenced him, but from Ravilious he learned a great love of wood engraving. This was a golden age for private presses and, at the age of 23, O’Connor made engravings for an edition of Joan Rutter’s book of poems, ‘Here’s Flowers’, the first of his many book illustrations.

O’Connor visited the home of Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood in Castle Hedingham fascinated by the wood engraving technique as ER worked away under the light of a small lamp in the corner of a room.

Just some of the hundreds of wood engravings created by John O’Connor.

He married Mary Wilson Henry who had also been a pupil at Wyggeston and a student at Leicester College of Art. John served as a Flt. Lieut. in the RAF 1940-1946, still managing to cut a few wood blocks.  He arrived with the allied troops during the fall of Berlin and sketched the ruined city.  Back in England he married secondly at Filey, North Yorkshire in 1945, Jeannie Tennant, a teacher, they spent their honeymoon cycling around the Yorkshire Dales.

O’Connor was heavily influenced by medieval art, especially Gothic stained glass, manuscript illustrations and paintings of the 14th and 15th Centuries. He was also inspired by the works of Munch, Lucas Cranach, Joseph Wright of Derby and Murillo. As well as engravings, he produced his own stained glass window designs (for the Betton Memorial window in St Mary’s, Hadleigh) and painted many watercolours as well as powerfully coloured, slightly abstract oils.

Betton Memorial window in St Mary’s, Hadleigh

After war service, O’Connor taught at Hastings School of Art, moving in 1948 as principal of Colchester School of Art where his colleagues included Richard Chopping who designed the dust-jackets for the James Bond novels, his former teacher John Nash, and Edward Bawden. During his time at Colchester he lived in the Brett Valley Suffolk, firstly at Higham then at Shelley, where despite the tranquil settings he saw his favourite painting places, the ponds, willows, briars and honeysuckle, disappear beneath the bulldozer and the combine harvester – a time of great change.  In 1950 he provided text and engravings for ‘Canals, Barges and People’ subjects dear to his heart. His later books included ‘Landscape Painting’ (1968), a guide to the practical techniques which covered everything from the use of insect repellent to the theatrical element in landscape art. He also contributed to Harper’s Bazaar, House And Garden and the Radio Times. During the 1950s and 60s, O’Connor exhibited at the Zwemmer Gallery in London, and had many exhibitions throughout Britain.

John O’Connor’s two books plus canal art.

O’Connor was an enthusiastic teacher, full of intellectual curiosity; he held that artists had a duty to teach, and that contact with younger artists and students fed the imagination. jIn the staff room, he was remembered for his humour, his approachability and his anecdotes – and for letting it be known that he preferred the prettier girls as his models.

Former pupil Lottie Nevin recalls: My memories of John O’Connor are all very happy ones. I was privileged to grow up in rural Suffolk during the 1960’s at a time when East Anglia was still home to many creatives and artists.   Both John O’Connor and his wife, Jean, were very much a part of my formative years.  Jean taught me at school but it was John’s magical studio beside the stream in Shelley (or lower Layham?) that captivated my imagination and taught me so much.

I remember one lesson in particular- I went out with him (John) to look at recently harvested wheat fields. I had my drawing book and pencil, poster paints and water pot. I must have been about seven or eight years old. I can’t remember exactly what he talked about or, how I ended up making the painting but there was certainly some discussion on the importance of the getting the lines, the stubble ridges the right. For some reason I didn’t like them, I thought they were ugly and didn’t feel that they were part of the picture – (my naive eye could only see the stacks of wheat straw, piled up in cubes of eights around the fields) but John somehow encouraged me to see why they, the lines and ridges were so important. I then realised that ‘the cracks’ often hold the most unexpected beauty. Growing along the stubble tracks were poppies. Of course, it was those poppies and cart tracks that became the thing that brought the little picture together.

Of course, I did not verbalise that connection at the time, but it’s because of John that I owe so much. When you have a good art teacher, you learn so much more than just about the process of making art. You learn about life, too.

And I have one last happy memory of that day I spent with John spent painting out in the fields.  The look of joy on my mother’s face when I won first prize with my picture at the Hadleigh show under 10’s painting competition.

First painting is ‘Jenny Bone. Five of John’s landscape paintings.

Leaving Colchester in 1964, he was a visiting lecturer at St Martin’s School of Art until 1975 when the O’Connors left Suffolk for Kirkcudbright, Scotland a part of Scotland to which his wife belonged. making their home in a single-storey farmhouse and the byre beside the house became a three-room studio. He was a lecturer at Glasgow School of Art 1977-1984. His work was purchased by the Arts Council, the Tate Gallery, the British Museum and the Contemporary Art Society, as well as by several local education authorities; it can also be found in the Oslo Museum, the Zurich Museum and at New York central library.

Three of the Kirkcudbright paintings.

In 1947 he was elected to the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers and in 1974 to the Royal Watercolour Society and was an honorary member of the Society of Wood Engravers

Until 2001, O’Connor produced a monthly wood-engraving for Richard Ingrams’s Oldie magazine, work which involved considerable physical effort. This drive to create was typical, however, and he remained active as an artist – and full of energy – despite using a wheelchair and suffering from increasing deafness.

John O’Connor died on 5th March 2004.

John’s design for the Shell Guide to Britain Series published between 1934 and 1984, this one was 1960. And…..very proud to own three of John’s wood engravings pictured here.

Thanks to Colchester Art Society and Suffolk Artists for providing 50% of the text for this blog.

Graham Bennison

6 thoughts on “John O’Connor

  1. From wood engravings to landscape paintings, O’connors enthusiasm for learning and teaching, equipped him with a depth of knowledge to continue to produce exceptional and internationally renowned artwork. Talented and highly skilled work demonstrates to me his professionalism in his craft. I particularly like the landscape paintings of Kirkcudbright for their softness of colour and fine delicate detail.
    A very interesting article.


  2. Jean (Jennie) Tennant was my mother’s first cousin. After my mother’s death, I went to live with John and Jean in Shelley for a while. As a young, impressionable 17-year-old, I soaked up the bohemian atmosphere that reigned, was briefly a model for John and began my own art journey (which still continues today). I remember John’s cold, abandoned coffees which he would come looking for just after I had dumped them down the sink, and his rambling tales. It was a painful time (Jean looked and sounded too much like my mother for my comfort) but it was a valuable time I still cherish. I still own a Kirkcudbright watercolour (a late wedding present), many of his wood engravings and a copy of ‘Canals, Barges and People’.


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