Kenneth Rowntree, Part Two.

To understand the dramatic change of direction in Kenneth Rowntree’s work in 1959/60, do peruse part one, the link below.

Kenneth Rowntree Part One  (plus a feature on the Friends Meeting House, Great Bardfield).

In 1959 Kenneth Rowntree was appointed to succeed Lawrence Gowling as Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University. The Fine Art Department was one of the most progressive art schools in Britain, where the teaching staff included Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton.  The time spent earlier that year in the USA was the start of a radical change in Rowntree’s work further accelerated by his move to the North=East of England. 

Victor Pasmore: Square Motif Blue and Gold the Eclipse.

It was here at Newcastle that he became receptive to various modernist idioms, such as assemblage and constructivist forms, and incorporated them in his own work. Design was an important part of the Newcastle art course and played a big part in the new direction of Rowntree’s work his paintings increasingly geometric. Wife Diana, a designer herself, was a severe critic. Diana’s book ‘Interior Design’ was published by Penguin in 1984 and remains highly influential to this day!

Di Venezia, 1960s. Venice, Evening, 1962. White Door.

Amongst many other achievements, Kenneth Rowntree worked with architect friend Erno Goldfinger to produce coloured glass panels in Goldfinger’s Alexander Fleming House in the Elephant and Castle. The building was later converted into flats and is now named Metro Central Heights.

Between 1946 and 1970 he had five one-man exhibitions in London. In the last two decades of his life a number of retrospectives were held in the north of England, usually with catalogue introductions by the current Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle, John Milner.

Girl in Five Parts 1967 /68. Italian Landscape 1964. Jerusalem, collage on board.

In the Sixties, Rowntree was a member, together with Quentin Bell and Claude Rogers, of the committee set up to look into university applications in fine art. In his ‘Elders and Betters’ (1995), Bell recollected: “We met for dinner and usually managed to transact some quite useful business before the first course was eaten, but thereafter Kenneth and Claude began, in a jovial way, to abuse each other, to raise their voices and to dissolve in uproarious laughter. When the other two . . . professors finally staggered away in opposite directions they agreed that any remaining business should be dealt with by me.”

West Front Durham Cathedral 1976.

Peggy Angus recalled:  “I first met Kenneth at the ‘volunteer’ pub: at the Baker Street end of Regents Park in 1938 – I had walked across the park with Eric Ravilious who was staying with me and my husband Jim Richards (now Sir James) in Primrose Hill. It was a lovely sunny day – Life seemed good. Kenneth was a nice broad blonde boy. He had been a student of Eric’s at the Ruskin School, Oxford, during the short period Eric taught there before the war. Eric, quite rightly, thought his work full of promise.

He and Diana left Adelaide Road, to sample the new box-like Isokon flats designed in Hampstead by Wells Coates for Jack Pritchard.

At an early exhibition of Kenneth’s at the Leicester Galleries I fell for a delightful painting of his of a Saddler’s Shop in Clare. I hadn’t the money for it but cajoled the gallery into accepting a banker’s order for �2 a month. The painting gives me great joy. I think it is the best he ever did. I was horrified at the influence Newcastle had on him. There he succumbed, like Victor Pasmore before him, to abstraction. Thank goodness, he seems to have worked through that chapter.” Peggy Angus.

Sheet from an Australian sketchbook 1985.

Rowntree continued to paint following his retirement in 1980 living at Acomb near Hexham. Following a productive visit to Australia in 1984 Rowntree began to centre his work on his Acomb locality producing a series of paintings inspired by the Tyne valley. Increasing infirmity necessitated a move to nearby Corbridge in 1988. Soon after the move to Corbridge a detached retina rendered his right eye virtually useless but failed to stop his creative output.

A Game of Boules, Acomb. Studio Window Acomb 1972. The-Naming-of-Parts of the Garden Acomb. Winter Garden Acomb.

Rowntree’s last retrospective exhibition was at the Fry Art Gallery, Saffron Walden, a gallery set up to celebrate ‘the Great Bardfield Artists.’

The Blue Coffee Pot 1988. Byzantine Teapot 1990.

Kenneth Rowntree died at Hexham, Northumberland 21 February 1997.

When Peggy Angus stated re Kenneth’s abstraction: “Thank goodness, he seems to have worked through that chapter.” I think she was thankful for new work like this………

Cerne Abbas Giant, date unknown, could be early 1980’s. Findochty, Autumn. Tynedale Winter 1984.

Graham Bennison, March 2022.

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