The British artist, who died late last month, was a student of David Bomberg and a member of the Borough Group. He is known particularly for his commission by the Arts Council to draw every cathedral in England, a project which he undertook in the 1980s. The resulting works were exhibited across Britain between 1988-90.
His estate is represented by Waterhouse & Dodd.
Dealer Philip Dodd paid tribute to the artist in an obituary, writing: “Creffield was, like Blake, an English radical in love with an England which was part of a wider world… He was, to use his own words, a survival artist, never fashionable, however much admired.”
A full version of the Creffield obituary is included below.
Artist Dennis Creffield (1931-2018) was declared in 1987 by the artist RB Kitaj to be 'England's most closely guarded secret', in the wake of his suite of charcoal drawings of all 26 English medieval cathedrals, a series of drawings that were the 'best of their kind since Mondrian'.
It was characteristically generous of Kitaj, but the idea that Creffield was a closely guarded secret looks at first sight odd. After all, John Berger had praised him very early, as had David Sylvester, for a painting that was very recently hanging in the’ All too Human Show’ at Tate Britain. Herbert Read, Lynda Morris and the novelists Peter Ackroyd and Howard Jacobson have also written admiringly. Henri Cartier-Bresson was a great admirer of the cathedral drawings and they met in Paris at the photographer’s request.
Creffield’s work is to be found in all the major collections, from Tate to the British Museum and the Imperial War Museum to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Yet if it is the case that Creffield remained through a long life less well known than some of his contemporaries it may suggest what a chasm there can be between market value and reputation and a wider critical judgment.
Creffield was born in London in 1931 and at the tender age of 16 was introduced to the class of David Bomberg by Cliff Holden, where he studied from 1948-51. Like other Bomberg students, he remained immensely grateful to his teacher while at the same time, was frustrated by the habit of some critics of referring his work back to Bomberg's. Creffield was delighted that John Russell's Taylor's review of his 2004 retrospective said the Bomberg connection was neither here nor there. In the retrospective one ‘encountered a brilliant mature individual artist’.
In truth Turner became more of a presiding presence for Creffield from the time he moved to Brighton where he taught at the Brighton Polytechnic until he left when he was 50 years old. Turner had painted Brighton Pier, as did Creffield. There was a set of Creffield Petworth paintings and drawings that were a response to the landscape and to Turner. Of course, Turner had also made work of some but not all of the English cathedrals.
After leaving the Bomberg classes, Creffield was part of a four-person show in Sweden and then - like some other impecunious British artists - went to live in Spain. In the mid 1950s, after returning to England, Creffield became a Catholic, temporarily gave up painting and even considered the priesthood. It may be that his Catholicism - its belief in the incarnation, spirit becoming flesh – gave form to his exhilaration of the carnal. It is the human world, not landscape, that compelled him.
In 1957, Creffield entered the Slade School of Art, as a ‘mature and arrogant young man’, in his own words. He made a memorable set of paintings and drawings of London from Greenwich as well as a substantial body of work that was in terms of its subject religious. The year he left the Slade he not only won two of its prizes (awarded by William Coldstream), but also a prize at the John Moores painting exhibition.
The year afterwards he was awarded the prestigious Gregory Fellowship at Leeds University where he met and established a close bond with the poet Peter Redgrove. He painted the city over and over again, work that connected with the earlier London paintings. He had married Dilly in London and she joined him in Leeds. By the time he left, he was the father of five children.
His next move was transformative – he went to Brighton and said: “I was enraptured by the light and movement [he had a third-floor flat overlooking beach and pier].” After the “inland airlessness” of London and Leeds, “I was in Brighton in the ‘70s. I had been such an intense young man, serious measured and earnest. I discovered the delights of women in a new way.”
There is no doubt that from this time on there was a new Creffield, the brushstrokes more various and where appropriate lush, the subject matter now extended to the erotic (he made a painting called The Geography of Love, inspired by a John Donne poem; another set of Love Paintings were the subject of an AIR Gallery show) and it was around this time that the late Peter Fuller recruited the artist in his arguments against poststructuralist theory that thought the body was only a social signifier.
Creffield’s commitment to the materiality of the body, his encounters with the cathedrals, his drawings of Blakean babies and of mothers and child meant that Dennis found himself unwittingly in the middle of the culture wars.
The Arts Council commission to draw all the medieval cathedrals of England certainly gave him a popular presence he had not enjoyed earlier, for all the one-person shows, at galleries such as the Serpentine Gallery or in numerous Arts Council shows.
For the artist, the commission was what he had wished for since the 1940s and he slept in a camper van as he moved around England, drawing these cathedrals, and making work that Peter Fuller said was the greatest work of draughtsmanship since the Second World war. It reveals something of his cosmopolitan mind-set that his intellectual companions were Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value and Mother Julian of Norwich.
The English cathedrals exhibition which toured around many cities was a double-edged achievement for the artist: the cathedrals were so much more visible than anything else that he had done (the Tate has six) that at the same time as they raised his profile and were widely admired they did overshadow other parts of his work including his paintings.
For example, around the same time as the cathedrals commission, he responded to a private commission and made an extraordinary series of paintings and drawings, improvisations on Shakespeare’s and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream – the quality of which John Russell Taylor recognised when he wrote about them in the review of Creffield’s retrospective and which were exhibited at the RSC in Stratford.
Other commissions followed in the wake of the cathedrals – the French cathedrals and a commission by the National Trust to paint the ‘atomic’ Pagodas of Suffolk.
But his last major achievement was in response to an invitation by his then dealer James Hyman to develop a series of paintings he had already made of the city of Jerusalem into a Jerusalem exhibition. In love with poetry, Creffield marinated himself in Blake, made a series of magisterial drawings of William Blake’s head as well as a series of work in response to Blake’s great and gnomic poem Jerusalem.
Creffield was, like Blake, an English radical in love with an England which was part of a wider world (the Midsummer Night’s Dream paintings drew on Cycladic sculpture; Rilke was an abiding feature of his imagination).
He was, to use his own words, a survival artist, never fashionable however much admired. Lynda Morris wrote that as his student for a short time she was in awe of his ‘integrity and austerity’. A New Yorker profile mentioned that his studio and flat showed someone indifferent of worldly things.
Yet as is often the case, his sense of the importance of painting did not always make him an easy companion – he could become irascible, as the New Yorker piece said. And he was a man who came to the 60s late and whose private life was complicated and often unstable. But the quality of the work is there to be encountered.
As Howard Jacobson phrased it: “I think of Shelley’s praise of Wordsworth that he ‘half-created what he saw’. Creffield is a wonderfully conscientious looker but what he sees was not alive until he saw it.”
For the last 20 years, his loving partner was Teresa Roche, whom he married last year. With her he seemed to find peace as well as a kindred passionate spirit. She survives him as do 11 of his 12 children.
By Philip Dodd of Waterhouse & Dodd
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