Albert Houthuesen  (1903 – 1979)

A photograph of Albert Houthuesen taken by Richard Nathanson in July 1969

In his 1939 memoir ‘Since 50’ the first two names that appear on William Rothenstein’s list of top Royal College of Art students were Henry Moore and Charles Mahoney – the list continues with the names of luminaries such as Eric Ravilious, Edward Bawden, Albert Houthuesen, Barnett Freedman, Edward Le Bas, Percy Bliss and Evelyn Dunbar.

All well known…..but Albert Houthuesen ??

Houthuesen was a Dutch-born British artist, born in Amsterdam; his father was Jean Charles Pierre Houthuesen, a painter and musician. In 1912 his father died following a tragic accident at home. Following the death of his father, the family moved to London living with a maternal grandmother. Houthuesen became naturalized in 1922.

The Traveller. Leeds Museums and Galleries 1927.

Houthuesen was encouraged with his artistic ability at Fleet Road School but left school aged fourteen already working as a grocer’s errand boy.  His first job was as assistant to a grocer in Belsize Park. He enrolled for night classes at St Martin’s School of Art 7.30 to 9.30 pm.

Leaving the grocers, he worked for the periscope Prism Company in Hampstead where during WW1 they ground lenses and made periscopes for rifle sights.

A possible reason for Houthuesen’s affinity with clowns is that his father’s cousin was a leading comic actor in Holland and his father, a talented musician as well as an artist, also enjoyed performing comic routines on the piano. The artist himself explained that he was ‘always clowning for friends, trying to cover things up, so I’ll give up clowning and start being a clown through some drawing’. The sketches at the Grand Theatre were his first real clown studies. He noted that he used to go round to the back of the theatre and tell the Hermans how marvellous they were, which they couldn’t understand because nobody else bothered. ‘People rolled in, laughed like hell and went out.’

A number of jobs followed before entering the Royal College of Art on a Monday morning the 24th of September 1924. Houthuesen had endured three unsuccessful attempts to enter the RCA before Principal Sir William Rothenstein intervened on his behalf having been shown a portfolio of his drawings. His contemporaries included Moore, Ravilious, Bawden, Barbara Hepworth, Edward Burra, Ceri Richards and Cecil Collins amongst others.

His own artwork was influenced by Rembrandt, Constable, Turner and Van Gogh.

The Stack Yard, 1935, was painted out of doors at Maes Gwyn Farm, Llanara, near Holywell, North Wales, where the artist was staying. In a letter (23 March 1958) he recalls his impressions: ‘A wonderful landscape wherever one looked, and in the village lived colliers who worked at the Point of Air colliery, two or three miles away on the coast. Painting in the open or near a cottage I heard women singing beautifully, not snatches of song but complete melodies. I cannot tell you how much the character of the whole place and the people fascinated me.’

Fellow RCA student Catherine Dean recalled: The first time I saw Albert, I was walking to the Common Room for my lunch. And, coming in the opposite direction was this extraordinary, tense, wild, red-faced, furious looking young man with a spotless white shirt, no collar or tie, but I think a little stud at the neck, and in a black suit with white stripes. I thought ‘What a man. What a good-looking man.’

Wheels, Maes Gwyn Farm. Landscape with farm building with kite in foreground. Barn, Bertengam. 1934. The Bebington Stable.

The couple became engaged leaving the RCA in 1928, marrying in 1931 and renting rooms in St John’s Wood. Each year during the 1930s Houthuesen and Dean visited Trelogan, Dean’s family home, where Houthuesen painted monumental portraits of colliers.

Collier John Savage smoking a pipe 1935. Collier chalk drawing. Collier William Jones 1933. Jones, White Horse Farm 1934.

From 1928 to 1936 Houthuesen taught art classes at The Working Men’s College with colleagues Percy Horton and Barnett Freedman, under the Directorship of James Laver. Catherine taught art at the University of London’s St Gabriel’s Training College and became a lecturer in 1939, a Senior Lecturer in 1945, and was made Principal Lecturer in 1956.

In the mid-1930s, Houthuesen suffered from a duodenal ulcer, which prevented him from joining up, following the outbreak of the Second World War. His application to become an official War Artist was also rejected, and he was eventually hired as a tracer in the technical drawing office of the London and North Eastern Railway Company in Doncaster, Yorkshire.

Houthuesen commented: ‘We had the studio for eighteen months when, during the first air raid on London, that vast blockhead dropped a bomb on it.  The studio itself wasn’t hit, but the adjoining studio belonging to my neighbour landlord Hardiman, received a direct hit.  It was simply a miracle.  There was a crater, and on the edge of the crater was our studio still with all the work in it. Mercifully none of us were there……. The roof of Kate’s college in Camberwell, where we are now…..had also  been on fire.  And the staff and students were evacuated to Doncaster.  Since we had no place to live, I went with them.’

Reflecting on the war Houthuesen said ‘It was a terrible thing to see the planes going over, to think of the marvellous young men on those bombing raids and know perfectly well that many of them wouldn’t come back. And that it was going to be ghastly at the other end…. There I was at the Plant, loathing the very idea of war, yet having to do this idiotic work…. One night German bombers went over dropping chandelier flares. I looked back – the sound of the bombers seemed to come from behind, in fact it’s a funny echo -and then I turned round and the night was absolutely blue with two great chandelier flares hanging in the sky; and the whole village every tiny speck of it (could be seen) … as if it were carved out of a phosphorescent chalk. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was another world’.

After the War returning to London penniless, he became a warden at a student hostel in the Elephant and Castle. His first one-man exhibition opened in May 1961 at the Reid Gallery, London.

Bay with rocks and surf. Breaking Wave. Evening Tide Coming in over Sandy Beach. Olive Mountain. Sun Over Rock. Wave Against Orange Boulder. Wave Against Storm Sky.

Houthuesen worked in virtual isolation for sixty years, producing still-lifes, landscapes, seascapes, and portraits, as well as biblical, mythical and allegorical scenes.

Still Life with Mulberry Leaves; Leeds Museums and Galleries 1956–1960.

In 1967, Catherine retired taking care of seriously ill Albert from her retirement until his death in 1979. Houthuesen died at home on the 20th October 1979.  Catherine died in 1983.

Catherine Houthuesen nee Dean: Lemons, onions and wine. Marionette. Marionettes Greeting. Sheep’s Skull and Ferns.

Graham Bennison. https://www.facebook.com/BennisonArtist

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