The Summer Exhibition is not exactly a byword for romance, but it helped love bloom between the artists Bernard Dunstan and Diana Armfield. The couple, who met at art school during the War, had lost touch until Diana saw a painting of Bernard’s in the 1947 show. ‘I had liked the look of him since I first saw him in a drawing class,’ she confides. ‘So I sent him a postcard saying how much I admired his work in the summer show and he came straight up to London from Bristol to see me.’
Ever since then, the couple has been creatively and romantically connected. Both 85, and boasting two long careers and three children between them, they still paint every day. Each morning since they married over 50 years ago has begun with Bernard doing a quick nude drawing of Diana: ‘It keeps my mind active,’ he smiles.
Today they sit either side of me over lunch at The Grill restaurant in Brown’s Hotel. We’ve come because the artists were once regulars here, where they would sit in the Edwardian tea rooms and draw their evocative surroundings. ‘It was a beautiful room, full of old ladies having their £7.50 tea,’ says Diana. ‘There were upholstered chairs with lovely patterns, like a Vuillard painting.’ Brown’s, however, has been transformed since its refurbishment last year and retains few traces of its period ambience. Bernard and Diana are unfailingly gracious, but even they cannot hide a flicker of disappointment. The dining room still nods to tradition with its brass trolley shuttling the ‘roast of the day’ (on our visit it is salmon en croute) around the room, but the character of the place has vanished. We are in the heart of Mayfair but, to judge from the fairly anonymous surroundings and menu, we could be anywhere.
Apart from nostalgia though, we have chosen Brown’s for its calm and convenience. Around the corner from the Academy, where Bernard has been a Member since 1959 (he is the longest serving RA) and Diana since 1989, it is also a block away from the Dover Street Arts Club, where the couple is having a rare joint show. ‘It’s called “Off the Wall” because we’ve literally taken paintings off our walls. We’re showing work we could never bear to part with,’ says Diana. It is not a selling show. Apart from the Summer Exhibition (where their work often sells out on the first day), her paintings are for sale in an exhibition at Browse and Darby in November, while Bernard’s paintings — depicting musicians in rehearsals, and figure studies from life — are available through Agnew’s.
Their lives have been intertwined with the history of the Academy during the past half-century and Bernard was a key writer for this magazine in the early days. But when I ask them about it, they are passionately concerned with the present. ‘We’d like to see more space devoted to figurative art at the Summer Exhibition,’ says Bernard. ‘Every year it gets more squeezed and it seems unfair to give some works lots of space around them and to hang others so tightly.’
‘We enjoy the variety of artistic voices at the RA,’ says Diana. ‘But we feel that figurative work is important and uplifting. It doesn’t have to depict pretty subjects — Goya painted horrific scenes but he made something magnificent out of them. Painting from life and from nature is not just part of the history of the RA: it is making a comeback. Students are returning to drawing and rediscovering that it is one of the best ways to learn to see.’
The history of art is littered with tragic tales of creative couples: Picasso and Dora Maar, Rodin and Camille Claudel, to name but two. Somehow the female half usually suffers the worst. So I ask Bernard and Diana how they have managed not only to survive together, but to thrive.
‘You can’t be married to somebody for over 50 years and compete with each other,’ says Diana.
‘But we probably couldn’t manage without a certain amount of healthy arguing,’ replies Bernard.
‘Do we argue?’ queries Diana. ‘I think of it as talking. It’s wonderful that we can go on talking about painting for a lifetime. When you work on your own, which we do, in separate studios at either end of our house, and then meet for lunch and coffee, you’ve always got something that’s worth getting an opinion about. And it is nice to have a sympathetic ear.’
Their secret — both in art and life — seems to be an ability not to tread on each other’s toes. They are repeatedly called ‘quintessentially English artists’, and when I ask them about this they nod. But what does Englishness in art actually mean? It is not just their traditional subjects — landscapes, flowers and figure studies — but the way they handle them, capturing nuances of time and space, light and nature in paint. In Bernard’s work we see references to Sickert and in Diana’s to William Nicholson.
‘Maybe it’s our lack of panache,’ offers Bernard, ever self-deprecating.
‘The French have so much more style,’ says Diana.
But isn’t it the French, in the form of the Impressionists, who inspired the kind of painting from nature to which they and fellow members of the New English Art Club have devoted their careers? The couple peer at each other as if trying to sense an answer and finally Diana suggests, ‘Perhaps it is reticence. In my art, I’m always trying to express something which I’m admiring. The last thing I’m thinking about is expressing myself.’
‘My motto is Ruskin’s,’ says Bernard, who has written a book on the artist and critic. ‘Paint what you love and love what you paint.’