22 May 2014

The Art of Theodore Major

Theodore Major is a relatively little known painter about whom the writer John Berger said 'his canvasses deserve to rank among the best English paintings of our time'.

Comparatively little has been written about him, although a notable (and very difficult to find) exception is Mary Gaskell's self-published Theodore Major: His Life and Works ([Appley Bridge], [c. 1980]), which is in two distinct sections: the first nineteen pages concern Gaskell's father Theodore, whereas the second section contains one hundred and nine black and white photos of his paintings, which — although named — gives no indication of their date.

Gaskell states that he said that his painting was his life and art his religion, and he had many strong views, hating 'Pop music, pop painting, ignorance, gimmickry in art, cruelty and double-talk'. Leaving school at thirteen, Major went to work in a tailor's shop, a job for which he was totally unsuited and, ill, he became unemployed.

He began evening classes at art school until he grew tired of representational painting and branched out into experimental work. He met his future wife Kathleen at art school when he was teaching art in the evenings. Mary – their only daughter – was born in 1944, and her birth caused the family to be forced out of their accommodation. They went to live in Appley Bridge in 1950, where they stayed and where Theodore made a studio of the largest bedroom.

He was, however, producing so many paintings that in time he bought the neighboring semi-detached house to store them.

Gaskell expresses regret that Major hadn't been invited to give lectures, 'possibly to a television audience, or a University', and devotes several pages to his writings concerned with generalisations about the nature of art, one paragraph of which gives a good idea of his aims:

'Art is the spiritual language of man; a language which extends the limits of his mind and consciousness; a key to "shock" the mind into awareness and growth; a door into a future understanding of ourselves, and finally into an understanding of ALL things.'

L.S. Lowry is an obvious point of comparison with Major, although Gaskell argues that there are more differences than similarities between the two. She claims that while Lowry viewed humanity as if from a hill, her father saw people from a crowd, and showed real pity for his subjects.

Many of Major's Lowryesque paintings were already in black and white, and although there is little evidence of the order in which they were painted, Major, apparently as a result of the atrocities he saw in the world – albeit vicariously through the media as he never went abroad and travelled little in Britain – states that his paintings grew darker and more menacing. Human skeletal shapes became common and Gaskell calls them:

'a universal symbol [...] without race or sex [...] no clothing to betray period or country'.

She also sees them as Major's symbols of the emptiness of the lives of people in the modern era. At sixty-two Major underwent a serious illness and felt an urgent need to communicate the dehumanising influences to the people he considered victims of society: he believed that the state, religion and the educational system stunt the growth of a child's mind and personality.

Gaskell reveals more of Major's artistic aims, of which these are a few examples:

'I wish to DISTURB and extend consciousness in the mind of the viewer.'

'I wish to shock into "awareness" the sensibilities of people; to attack accepted standards; to awaken the mind to spiritual values'.

David Buckman's obituary of Theodore Major in the Independent (27 January 1999) sheds a little light on the twenty years missing between Gaskell's book and Major's death, and a little more on the man himself. In 1992, having paid the full poll tax on his house, he refused to pay tax on the house he owned next door, and which he used as a store. The council threatened to imprison him, he told them to jump in the canal, and he was excused on the grounds of his age (eighty-five) and health. But the most interesting thing, not actually mentioned in Gaskell's book, is that the growing mumber of his paintings which necessitated him buying the other house was not due to the fact that he couldn't sell them but because he refused to sell them to rich people!

Clearly, Major is a fascinating artist with many outsider qualities. But some of his views are clearly wrong-headed. The most bizarre statement he makes is that many great artists and writers 'could only come to full stature in the British Isles', as if that country has some automatic kind of superiority: this statement is all the stranger because many of Major's paintings show a marked influence by European artists: Matisse and Picasso, for instance, are written all over many of his canvasses.

2 comments:

John Herbert Marr said...

I have a lovely copy of Mary Gaskell's book, presented to me and signed by Theo Major. He took great delight in showing me the originals (and hundreds of other pictures) in his "store house" next door.
He refused to exhibit or sell any of his work, and was almost a hermit or recluse when I knew him.
I presented him with a poem: "To Theo Major" now in my collection "Youth's death" (http://www.2from.com/exile/Youths%20Death.pdf). A wonderful man, and some fabulous art.

Dr Tony Shaw said...

Thank you for this contribution, John: it's interesting hear from someone who actually met Theodore Major. If anything else occurs to you about him, please don't hesitate to add it as a comment.

I shall be reading your collection of poems as well: thanks.