Percy Horton

Percy Frederick Horton Self-portrait; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology

Percy Horton (1897-1970) was the eldest son of Ethel Marman (1866-1954) and Percy Horton (1870-1937). He was born in Brighton on the 8th of March 1897 the eldest of three sons. His father was a bus conductor and his mother worked in service.

Percy’s mother’s experience in service aroused in her certain social ambitions, she made sure that all three boys worked hard, all gaining a scholarship to Brighton Municipal Secondary School. Percy went on to Brighton School of Art in 1912, again with a scholarship, where he was awarded prizes for drawing and pictorial composition.  He also passed the Department of Education Drawing Examination with Distinction in 1914 and continued studying at the college until 1916. It was now that Percy’s politics and fate took a hand, joining the Labour Party and formulating a sympathy with socialism. He came to the conclusion that the Great War was an inevitable result of rivalry between all the great powers scrambling to achieve military and naval bases, raw materials and markets. These rivalries had resulted in a frantic arms race.

Percy Frederick Horton Portrait of the Artist’s Mother; Brighton and Hove Museums and Art Galleries

When conscription was introduced in 1916 Horton refused conscription joining the No-Conscription Fellowship in Brighton. It was through the N.C.F. that Horton met his future wife Lydia Sargent Smith, eleven years his elder. Lydia, a suffragette in her early 20’s, was engaged to Horton’s friend Royle Richmond, a conscientious objector who was imprisoned. Richmond died in prison in December 1918 from heart disease exacerbated by prison life. Horton and Lydia married in 1921.

Percy Frederick Horton. Portrait of Lydia Horton

Alternative conditions were put to conscientious objectors e.g. accepting service under civilian authority. Horton refused all the alternatives belonging to the few who were termed ‘Absolutists’. A cycle of court martial and prison ensued. His appeal was heard on the 14th April 1916 by the East Sussex Tribunal who took little notice of his argument and tried to stop him speaking. He was eventually sent up to Edinburgh where his appointed regiment the 27th Fusiliers were based.

Horton was confined to a cell in the Guard Room at a chocolate factory in Portobello.  Refusing to put on a uniform he was sentenced to two years at Calton Prison with periods of solitary confinement.

Horton was taken to Edinburgh Hospital for an operation on a large ganglion on his wrist in 1917. During his recuperation he made several drawings of patients and nurses. Artist Edward Arthur Walton saw these drawings and became interested in Horton. Walton was able to get permission to take him into his care and Horton was officially discharged from prison in April 1918. With his health severely weakened Horton stayed with Walton for several months.

Edward Arthur Walton. Self Portrait. Walton frequently visited my old village of Ceres to paint.

More info on Walton can be found here.

After the war Horton briefly returned home to his parents in Brighton. Following a brief stay he continued his education attending the Central School of Arts and crafts in London. His first appointment after leaving the school was as an assistant art teacher at Rugby School, he resigned in 1922 hoping to get back to his own full-time study of painting. He sat the Department of Education Examination in painting, passing with distinction. He was awarded a one-year Royal Exhibition at the Royal College of Art.  The other students alongside Horton included Henry Moore, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, Barnett Freedman and Peggy Angus with whom Horton formed a life-long friendship both sharing a passion for left-wing politics.

The Horton Family in Brighton.

Horton painted many scenes of Dulwich. He and his wife, Lydia lived at 11 Pond Cottages for many years. His neighbours were fellow artists James and Margaret Fitton who lived at 10 Pond Cottages.

1 Dulwich Trees. 2 Fair Hair Model 1925. 3 Model 1925. 4 Self Portrait circa 1940. 5 House Through the Trees.

Horton stayed two years at the RCA before becoming Drawing Master at Bishop’s Stortford College where he had a successful teaching time, the start to a lifetime of teaching. In 1930 Horton was invited to join the teaching staff at the RCA working as a painting instructor for the next nineteen years.

In 1934, the artist and designer Peggy Angus, invited Eric Ravilious to stay at Furlongs, the stark, flint-faced shepherd’s cottage she rented below Beddingham Hill on the Firle Estate. This resulted in some of Ravilious’s most celebrated landscape paintings. Horton was also one of the first visitors to Furlongs. Horton and Peggy shared a love of music as well as sharing their political leanings. The sound of Percy’s violin could often be heard coming from the cottage. Songs too resounded – Peggy’s Scottish ballads and folk songs and Percy’s Elizabethan rounds particularly enjoyed by Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious).

The Horton’s version of a holiday retreat was at Pump Farm, Assington, Suffolk and John Nash stayed with them through August and September 1936, Christine only staying a few days.  Assington was close to the Nash’s retreat at Wiston (also known as Wissington).  It was here at Pump Farm that Eric Ravilious and his lover Helen Binyon arrived for a week’s stay.  This was the first meeting between Nash and Binyon who within a year commenced their ‘affair’.

Coate’s Corner, Assington.

Horton was appointed Master of Drawing at the Ruskin School in 1949 having previously worked for the RCA when it moved to Ambleside during the Second World War, he produced a series of paintings of the Lake District and its people. He was at the Ruskin until 1964.

A Corner of Ambleside. House at Ambleside. Storm at Loughrigg. The Shepherd. Derbyshire Landscape.

In 1947, Percy Horton was invited to record in drawings the 150-mile Youth Railway being built by voluntary labour in war-ravaged Bosnia.

Horton’s interest in landscape painting and familiarity of the countryside around Furlongs, led him, in 1948 to a gamekeeper’s tower on Lord Gage’s estate at Firle, Sussex, John Nash a regular visitor. The tower served as painting studio at the weekends and holidays for the rest of his life. Atter retiring from the Ruskin in 1964 he moved to Lewes teaching a couple of days at the Sir John Cass School, Stepney Green and one day a week at Hastings School of Art.

Alfriston. The Dower House and Cottage, Firle. In the Valley, Firle. Shepherd’s Cottage, Firle (also painted by Ravilious). Farm at Firle. Mount Caburn.

The Lay, on the Firle Estate in Sussex, was also painted by Eric Ravilious in the 1930s. 

Like John Nash and John Aldridge, Horton was a prolific painter and there are scores of works I could have presented here. Here we have :- Girl in the studio 1947. House on the Seine. Lock Gates The Barn. Blind Workers at a Factory in Birmingham. Farm at Harvest. Haystacks. Portrait of a Private. Woman Ironing. Village in Luberon, France.

Horton passed away in 1970 a memorial retrospective was held at the Mall Galleries in 1971. His work may be seen in the permanent collections of the Tate, National Portrait Gallery, Arts Council, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge and a number of city art galleries.

I will leave you with one of his most famous portraits and the painting he was working on just before he died.

Unemployed Man. Geraniums in a Barrel.

Graham Bennison, April 2021.

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