Keith Vaughan 100th Anniversary

Today, August 23rd, is the 100th birthday of the painter Keith Vaughan.  ‘Who he?’, you may say, because in the 35 years since his death he has been forgotten by all but a few.  But in the 1950s. 60s and 70s he was one of the most important British painters.  He had several commissions in the Festival of Britain, and in the early 70s turned down the position of Professor of Painting at the Royal College of Art.  A friend of Hockney, Bacon, Sutherland, Minton and all the neo-Realists, he was, at least according to art critic Brian Sewell, among the very best of them, especially in his final years when he found a new freedom concentrating on abstraction.  Not bad for someone who was self-taught.

To me, the most fascinating works are those in which he is pushing towards this abstraction.  His main subjects, for which became famous, were his landscapes and his pictures of bathers.  But his figures increasingly became part of the landscape, as monolithic and geometric as the stones against which they were set.  Refinement concentrated figures into blocks, circles and lines, his colours becoming more restricted and yet more delicate.

In addition to being a great painter, he was also a formidable diarist.  He kept journals for over 40 years, the first set being published in edited form in the mid-60s.  They caused a furore, because of their quite open expression of his homosexuality at a time when gay sex was still completely illegal, and his descriptions of relationships with boys much younger than himself, usually around sixteen.  After his death in 1977, there was a revision which took the diaries literally up to the point of his death.  He committed suicide with an overdose of anti-depressants washed down with whisky, and continued writing while they were taking effect.  They stop in mid-sentence, at the point of slipping away to eternity. 

It is strange how a man can reveal so many facets of himself in different ways.  The diaries, at least in their edited form, suggest a repressed gay man, very much of his time, romantically infatuated with 16-year-old boys who are not obtainable.  This is borne out by his pictures, which are emotionally very honest; the bathers are worshipped in paint, but always remote.  They lock him out, and he locks himself in.  However, Brian Sewell’s autobiography suggests a very different man, sadist and masochist, who had a relationship for twenty years with the younger Ramsey McClure which involved cruel mind-fucks and eventually turned to blind hate when McClure was unable to provide the physical torture which Vaughan craved.  Sewell suggests that McClure died of love when he passed away four years after Vaughan.  There is no mention of a lover in the published Journal, maybe because he was still alive at the time of publication and the editor wished to spare him.  There are however mentions of ‘auto-erotic devices’ which Vaughan delighted in inventing and then noting how well they worked.

I found yet another Keith Vaughan while researching for the play ‘Locked In’, which is based on the Journals, and currently playing on the 2012 Fringe.  His executor put me in touch with Anthony Hepworth, a gallery owner in Bath specialising in Vaughan, who kindly allowed me access to his huge collection of images, in order to choose some for the play.  He told me of a lady, still alive, who was Vaughan’s best friend, and who swore that he was the most charming, funny and vital man who went on high-spirited holidays with her family, and was always marvellous with her children.  I hope to meet her someday, as time prevented this on the previous visit. 

Ultimately, it is the paintings that matter, and they are ripe for reassessment.  The Museum of Modern Art in Edinburgh owns three of them, but when I went to see them, none were on display.  In his lifetime, Vaughan was overtaken by Pop Art, Conceptual Art and many other passing fashions.  As the dust settles, let us hope that he finds his proper place in the pantheon of British painting again.

Happy Birthday, Keith.

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