Issue Number: 115
Peyton Skipwith remembers the painter of the London Blitz who developed a unique perspective on the world
Leonard Rosoman RA in his London studio, from Dennis Toff’s book The Painter RAs. Photo © Dennis Toff. Leonard Rosoman RA, the last surviving Official War Artist from the Second World War, died on 21 February, a few months short of his 99th birthday. For the past 40 years his idiosyncratic portraits, tilted landscapes and theatre scenes have been an enduring feature of the RA’s Summer Exhibition: a note of sanity in a changing world. However, he first exhibited at Burlington House in 1941 with the Fireman Artists, a group of artists from the Auxiliary Fire Service.
Born in 1913 into a family with London roots going back to the early days of the Sadler’s Wells Theatre – Rosoman Street in Clerkenwell was named after one of his forebears – the young Rosoman showed no particular propensity for drawing. But his father, whom he seldom saw, sent him to the Edward VII School of Art in Durham, where he had won a scholarship. This was followed by an unhappy spell at the RA Schools and then the Central School, where he was befriended by tutor Bernard Meninsky.
Rosoman’s first job was teaching at the Reimann School of Art in Pimlico. At this time he also made illustrations for periodicals and in the 1930s designed a poster for Shell. With the outbreak of the Second World War he joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, which was based near his Hampstead studio, and it was here that he painted A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London (1940) which later attracted the attention of Kenneth Clark, chairman of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee.
Leonard Rosoman RA, 'A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London', 1940. © Imperial War Museum/IWM ART LD 1353. Rosoman was appointed Official War Artist in 1945 and was posted to the Pacific Fleet, where he spent much of his time aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable in the South China Sea. Rosoman’s surreal images of aeroplanes that looked like giant butterflies with folded wings, and his juxtapositions of men and machinery on sloping decks, conveyed a sense of apprehension and unease. These were traits that would mark his work for the remainder of his life.
Following his time on HMS Formidable he remained attracted by the ways in which people cope with maintaining their balance on sloping surfaces, and it was this acute awareness of the precariousness of balance that defined Rosoman’s vision, setting his work apart and giving it an offbeat aura of strangeness.
After the War, Rosoman drew inspiration from all over the world: London, New York, Key West, Canada, Venice, Corfu, Kenya and the Mojave Desert all supplied him with motifs, as the titles of some of his Academy exhibits suggest – Indian Girl Jumping a Fence (1971), The Exterminator, New York (1972), Greek Dog and Sunflower (1976), Woman Touching a Rhinoceros (1984) and The Unbelievable Goldfish (1987). The latter was triggered by an incident at an exhibition of architectural designs for London at Burlington House when, during the private view, some inspired iconoclast slipped a goldfish into the water that represented the Thames in Norman Foster RA’s model for the South Bank.
Mural painting, from the Festival of Britain in 1951 to the ceiling of Lambeth Palace Chapel (1988), constituted an important part of Rosoman’s work and diners in the RA Restaurant can enjoy his colourful scenes of Burlington House. While teaching mural painting at Edinburgh College of Art, he designed the Diaghilev Exhibition for the 1954 Edinburgh Festival. Later, at the Royal College of Art, he numbered David Hockney RA among his students.
Sarah Whitfield recalls an Honorary member of the RA
John Golding. Piano Nobile Gallery, London. At the funeral of John Golding, the RA’s Honorary Emeritus Professor of the History of Art, one of his nephews spoke of the effect that his uncle’s pronouncements had had on him and his brother when they were children growing up in Mexico. ‘It was as though an oracle had spoken.’ Wise Golding certainly was, but no teacher could have been more friendly, open or generous. For those of us who studied with him at the Courtauld Institute of Art, Golding’s approach to teaching was a revelation. This distinguished painter and author of the seminal book, Cubism, A History and an Analysis (1959) treated his students as equals and as friends, coaxing them to rise to his standards of scholarship. Implicit in his teaching were deeply held ethical beliefs about which he never spoke directly but which coloured every facet of his being. This did not stop his conversation from being peppered with sharp and often deadly accurate observations about mutual friends and colleagues. He could nail a personality with one swift, if seemingly innocent, remark.
Having been brought up in Mexico, Golding’s life experience had been very different from fellow British art historians. There he met and became a close friend of the English Surrealist Leonora Carrington, whose circle included the film-maker Luis Buñuel and the poet and author Octavio Paz. This early introduction to lives lived through art set him apart from academics raised in more conventional surroundings. It also informed the deepest belief he held, and the one that he passed on to his students, the belief that art in all its forms mattered.