Black and white landscape - clouds and fells seen from Caldbeck, Cumbria

Line of beauty, heart of darkness – a Percy Kelly retrospective

“It’s England, and I love England,” Cumbrian artist Percy Kelly once said. His work went much deeper than that, conveying a dark sense of self and the North.

‘America after the Fall’ – iconic works from the 1930s, including Grant Wood’s American Gothic – was worth seeing earlier this year but, having shuffled round the collection I had to ask gallery staff if I’d missed a bit. Exciting: yes. Extensive: no. That’s not the case with a retrospective of Percy Kelly’s work at Tullie House in Carlisle, which ranges across multiple rooms – and every paint dab worth lingering over.

Kelly, who grew up and worked in Cumbria, could have come out of the womb grasping a stick of charcoal. He sketched, etched, painted and drew on everything, and with everything, mixing tea, blackberries and biro in his art alongside watercolour and ink (and, occasionally, oil). A colour sketch on the back cover of a book, aged 9, is immaculate and mature. Later, he wrote letters to friends and family, painting and sketching letterheads of linear landscapes before writing up the day’s news. Even envelopes are created especially for the job, larger than life (so the letters could be sent unfolded) and fully illustrated: each and everything is a work of art.

Lots of this is on show at Tullie House (until January 2018), along with pieces Kelly couldn’t bear to part with while alive. “I cannot paint for monetary gain,” Kelly said: “I would rather starve than sell one piece of my work but I know when I depart this world people will stop and wonder at the beauty and truth that I have portrayed.”

The beauty and truth in that work is unmistakable – yet it isn’t glib or pastoral as such. Much of it is dark and linear and almost industrial; reminiscent of LS Lowry (whom he knew). Like Lowry, Kelly worked almost as a biographer of the North, quickly capturing scenes and landscapes that he intuited were in a process of change and industrialisation (I’m not convinced that was always borne out in the details. Many of his Cumbrian landscapes and even urban views are still immediately recognisable – but perhaps that’s the nature of Cumbria).

Some of the darkness evident in blackened, thick landscapes is the result of depression and unease, Kelly’s art being an escape (or perhaps embrace) of those things. He died intestate in Norfolk in 1993, having exhibited his work in only a handful of galleries – both of which seem extraordinary. Now his work has been gathered once more in one place, it surely has to be seen.

Percy Kelly – Line Of Beauty: A Retrospective is at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle until 28th January 2018.


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