For those less accustomed to the broad range of subjects and themes addressed by Dennis Creffield over a career spanning almost 70 years, The Lovers – a series of paintings and drawings dating between 1970 to 1972 – can come as something of a shock.
Creffield (1931-2018) was a product of his time; he was a young man finding his feet in an environment ravaged by war and austerity. Like his peers Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, his landscapes of the 50s and 60s did not shy away from the deep scarring of London, both literally and psychologically. His figure painting was expressly concerned with the materiality of flesh rather than ephemerality of the subjects place in time. A self-confessed “intense young man”, his early works feel sculpted on the canvas; there is a weighty physicality to the brushwork even when the paint is not applied in any great depth.
His time as a Gregory Fellow in Leeds between 1964 and 1968 was terrifically rewarding, and further broadened his horizons, but his move to Brighton in the late 1960s affected a more profound change in his work. In 2005 Creffield spoke to Lynda Morris of the move to the coast: “I was enraptured by the light and movement in the world outside my windows. It was such a change from the inland city airlessness of Leeds and London….. Suddenly it was the 1970s, and I was in Brighton in a beautiful light filled room, filled with plants and I was exuberant.”
Creffield, both as a man and an artist, oscillated between the sacred and the profane. He certainly did not shy away from the sensual in his art, or in his life for that matter, a fact alluded to by Howard Jacobson when he described Creffield’s “exhilaration with the carnal.” The Lovers paintings and drawings were the culmination of his development as an artist and a form of emancipation from his younger self. He was no longer a pupil of David Bomberg or William Coldstream, and no longer a Borough Group member. He was free to admire rather than follow and the resultant pictures, in my opinion, show Creffield at his most daringly original.
The genesis of these works can be found in Creffield’s discovery of a 19th century photograph of a bordello. When I first viewed a work from the series I quickly determined the two figures but incorrectly assumed they were male and female – that the scene described had somehow been lived by Creffield. Maybe it was in part, but the photograph was of two women, one provocatively reclining with the legs towards the viewer and with her head cocked to the side, coupled by the second figure. The greyscale tones of the photograph have been replaced by the heat of Creffield’s palette (the fact that he is a phenomenal colourist is often overlooked). Creffield further decorated the scene with the flora that surrounded him in his studio. The flecks of blue in the major oils serve as a visual break adding contrast and vitality – possibly derived from the flickering light on the sea as viewed from his window on Marine Parade. Creffield brought energy to the static scene through his use of colour and the assured brushwork. The drawings show how he refined the composition from a very recognisable scene to a more powerful, reductive view. These are not abstractions – Creffield, like Bomberg, was a defiantly figurative artist – a painter of life, from life.
Confronted by an unfamiliar work or an unfamiliar artist, many viewers seek visual clues or little tells to other artists. By doing so, they hope to apply their knowledge of those artists to understand the new. This is an exercise not entirely without merit and it is certainly understandable response, but it is problematic when dealing with work of genuine originality. It is also hard to do this without the artist’s guidance. It is, in truth, equally hard to do this with the artist’s guidance, because an artist may not fully acknowledge his influences at the time of creation, or want them known at all. Some American collectors have seen echoes of De Kooning in The Lovers works. It is not there. Creffield had little time for contemporary American art. In fact he had little time for contemporary British art. British collectors have seen echoes of Bomberg. That may have more weight, but it won’t help understand this series of works. Bomberg never painted any figure scene with anything like the sensory pleasure of The Lovers. Maybe, just maybe, there are oblique references to Turner, not-so-much in the subject but in the use of colour to represent a heightened emotional response. The rich oranges and yellows in Creffield’s figures seem to me to have their root in the burning setting sun of a Turner landscape. A passion burns in both Creffield’s figures and Turner’s sun, both bringing on the night.
The group of drawings presented here are largely completed in charcoal which was the artist’s favourite medium on paper. Creffield revelled in its expressive quality, and much of the instinctive mark making finds its way into the completed canvases. The experimentation with pastel is very interesting. Dorothy Mead, Creffield’s great friend and fellow alumni of the Borough classes, also produced occasional pastel figure compositions among the scores of charcoal studies. I wish both artists had produced more, but with the full inventory of the Creffield estate yet to be revealed, we may yet find other examples.
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