Chapman was born in East Ham, London 1st October 1908, the third child of Jane and William Chapman, a Superintendent on the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. He attended Shebbears College in Devon where his profound deafness hindered his education. In 1924 he went to Gravesend School of Art. He left the Art School to train as a commercial designer under Ashley Havinden, Head of Design at Crawford’s in 1928. His income from commercial design was used to pay his own way at the Slade School of Art (1937). After a year he was persuaded by his friend Barnett Freedman to transfer to the Royal College of Art, studying painting under Professor Gilbert Spencer. His early influences included Sickert and the Euston Road School (William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore, Claude Rogers and Graham Bell).
Chapman’s quest for a meaningful subject matter and an idiosyncratic style led him to emulate works by the painters he admired: Daumier, Cézanne, Sickert and artists of the Euston Road school. The Threshing Machine. The Water Bowser. Gors Fach, Pennant.
A committed socialist his sympathies remained with the working class. In his formative years as a painter in the 1930s he had witnessed large-scale unemployment, poverty and unrest. ‘My job as an artist is to make things as they are. Providing I do my job properly, the social comment, if such a thing is needed, will come over itself.’
Chapman married May Codlin, a designer, in 1938 and a son was born in 1939. His wife left him and their son in 1943.
During the war George Chapman taught at Worcester School of Art, his deafness exempting him from active service. He returned to advertising in 1945 working for Jack Beddington at Prentice, Colman and Varley.
This work was executed when Chapman, exempted from war service due to profound deafness in 1939, he moved out of London to become assistant headmaster at Worcester School of Art, where he was given two days a week to do his own painting. The painting remained in the artist’s studio until his death and was only framed for exhibition at the Goldmark Gallery in 1992.
Two years later he married Kate Ablett, eighteen years his junior, who he had met on a visit to Norwich School of Art. In 1950 they left London and moved to Great Bardfield in Essex settling in the near-derelict Vine Cottage. Edward Bawden invited the newcomers to tea and the Chapmans were welcomed into the growing Great Bardfield art community. The couple upgraded to Crown House on Crown Street and Michael Rothenstein taught Chapman etching, together with the use of his press. On Michael Rothenstein’s press he made his first etching ‘Essex Farm at Great Bardfield.’ When Kate was pregnant in 1951 Chapman made several large etchings of her which somewhat disconcerted the locals.
Chapman supplemented his income as an artist by teaching graphic design part-time at the London College of Printing, Central School of Art and Colchester Art School. He contributed regularly to the famous ‘Great Bardfield Open House’ exhibitions that included Edward and Charlotte Bawden, Michael and Duffy Rothenstein, John Aldridge, Bernard Cheese, Kenneth Rowntree and Marianne Straub.
Chapman later commented: “I have never regretted it (moving to Great Bardfield) as I have found tremendous help from the three artists who were already in the village before me.”
Essex Farm at Great-Bardfield – Etching. Old Cart. Mr Bone the Butcher…..Mr Bone was indeed a butcher in Great Bardfield but older residents of the village state that he looked nothing like this ?? Pregnant Woman 1 and 2 – the images of Kate which caused consternation amongst the Great Bardfield locals.
In 1953 at the age of 45, Chapman made a journey through the coal-mining valleys of south Wales and discovered the Rhondda Valley where, he said, ‘I got a fantastic shock… I realised that here I could find the material that would perhaps make me a painter at last’. He returned to paint the valleys over the next ten years and there followed a period of considerable success. This visit made a huge impression on him and was to transform his vision of himself as an artist. His subsequent paintings of the industrial valleys saw him achieve great critical and commercial success with sell-out exhibitions in London in the late 1950s and early 1960s. He was awarded the Gold Medal at the National Eisteddfod in 1957.
In 1960 the couple and their young family moved to a moated house in Norfolk, and four years later to the Georgian seaside town of Aberaeron on the west Wales coast, he missed the Great Bardfield Open House exhibitions as well as the friendship and support of like-minded artists. Kate Chapman gave up a career in art to support her husband and to raise their three children.
Chapman’s paintings of the Rhondda were celebrated amid a growing awareness of and interest in the British working classes, made manifest in the work of the so-called ‘Kitchen Sink’ painters,
‘First Building’ from The Rhondda Suite (etching, 1960). Children Going Home. Passing Storm. Pigeon-Huts-Rhondda. Rhondda. The Bridge. Welsh Village.
One written recollection recounts Chapman’s only experience down a mining shaft: ‘I am not really interested in the hell below ground – I shall be buried soon enough. It is the humans above and how they live I want to see…The whole place was in an appalling state…Men work down there to earn a living. I thought it disgusting. Coal is cheap at any price.’
After the Shift. Free Coal. Street Scene With Children.
Friend Robert Meyrick commented: ‘The contrast between the village of Great Bardfield – a quintessentially English mix of medieval, half-timber, thatch and Georgian red-brick properties surrounded by open pastureland – could hardly have been more stark, physically as well as socially, than with the drab mining communities of close-built terraces dwarfed by heavy industry and chapels, enclosed cheek by jowl in the steep-sided, cloud-shrouded valleys that he painted.’
John Dalton writing for The Guardian in 1959 stated:’ ‘Out of the squalid, Chapman can squeeze poetry till the pips squeak, for Chapman people are not crowds, swarming like ants, but individuals […] isolated, purposeful, looking as though they will be the last pedestrians in the world. If it’s drawing you’re after, George Chapman is your man’.
George Chapman died peacefully at his home near Aberaeron on 28th October 1993 at the age of 85.
God Save the Queen, Hills near Aberaeron (oil on board, 1970s). Houses Under a Slagheap. Tudor Tower, Pentlow, Essex. London Transport Poster.
From the late 1960s to the early 1990s Chapman’s work became unfashionable, and it was only after his death in 1993 that his reputation underwent a major revival. His paintings of the Rhondda are now regarded as an important record of an industrial landscape and community that has all but disappeared.
Graham Bennison, December 2021. https://www.facebook.com/BennisonArtist