He was one of the first working-class artists to go to Slade School of Art. But having ended his life a recluse, Gordon Snee is only now getting his rightful kudos, writes Stephen McClarence.
Gordon Snee has been hailed as “one of the finest post-war abstract painters”. But his life’s work could so easily have ended up on a bonfire. Until his death four years ago at the age of 82, Snee’s paintings were unknown to most people outside his family; some had never been seen even by them. His Sheffield-based daughter Jo Snee takes up the story: “On the day of my dad’s funeral I was standing in his studio (in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire) with my brothers. We’d found hundreds of his pictures, and my brothers said: ‘We don’t want to be involved in doing anything with all this.’
“The solution could have been a skip or a bonfire, but I didn’t want to do that. So I hired a van and brought it all back to Sheffield and found somewhere to store it.”
It started a train of events that has led to The Joy of Seeing, the first retrospective of Snee’s richly varied work. He painted from the late 1940s to the early 2000s and in 1967 was runner-up for the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize. The winner was a young artist called David Hockney.The retrospective, which Jo has curated with her daughter Rachel Edmondson, opens today at the Crossley Gallery at Dean Clough in Halifax. It may at last mean recognition for this “lost painter”.
I’ve met Jo in Sheffield at the “Snee Studio”, where the exhibition pictures are being framed. It’s a sizeable area provided by Ernest Wright and Son, one of Britain’s last hand-made scissor factories, whose managing director Nick Wright admits to a fascination with the Snee story. Huge canvases lean against the walls – dazzlingly coloured, arresting, powerful works, often on an uncompromising scale. It was this scale that first stopped Sheffield arts writer Simon Evans in his tracks. He had been scouring local galleries for a picture to fill a wall of his home “and was getting disillusioned with unambitious pictures of Spitfires and Peak District landscapes”.
At the end of a fruitless afternoon’s search, he called in at KIAC, the Kelham Island Arts Collective, where Snee’s pictures were being stored. Some were exhibited there three years ago with the help of director Simon Wigglesworth-Baker, another Snee enthusiast.
“I was blown away by these extraordinary bold, vibrant abstract pictures,” says Evans. As a result, he’s been working on Snee’s legacy for the past two years and has written a fascinating book linked to the exhibition.
Abstract canvases weren’t, however, how Snee started out. He was born in Burnley in 1931, into a family working in the cotton mills (though his father was an Esso tanker driver). The Snees moved to Gainsborough when he was six and he became the first in his family to be educated beyond the age of 13 – at the town’s Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School.
“Academically he was very able but like many kids of the time he liked comics like The Beano,” says Jo Snee. “He wrote to the publishers to say he wanted to work for them and they said he needed to go to art college.”
He duly won a scholarship in 1948 to the Slade School of Fine Art – one of the first working-class artists to study there – and was exhibiting with the influential London Group by 1954.
A sketched self-portrait from around this time shows him as the epitome of a Bohemian 1950s artist, with a shock of hair and a penetrating gaze. Another self-portrait shows him smoking at his easel, a great plume of smoke swirling across his face. In a film of his life he would have been played by Albert Finney.
“He was selling pictures at that time,” says Simon Evans. “There are notes in his diaries of the prices – 20 guineas, 25 guineas.” These meticulous diaries and more than 70 notebooks are an important source of information about him – along with dozens of folders of photographs of his paintings, carefully archived. “That’s the staggering thing,” says Evans. “There’s a record of everything.”
A London gallery was keen to represent him, but he gradually grew disillusioned with the metropolitan art world and left the capital in 1956. He moved back to Lincolnshire, where he set up a studio at the family home and spent the Sixties and Seventies teaching, first at Salford Technical College, then at Manchester College of Art.
He commuted there from Gainsborough. The long train journeys provided him with material for what have come to be known as his “Railway Ovals”, strangely involving semi-abstract depictions of the passing landscape: haystacks, fields, cooling towers.
“Some of the notebooks contain what are clearly sketches done from a moving train; some are a bit shaky,” says Evans. “And Clarborough tunnel (near Retford) became a bit of an obsession. It appears for 20 years in his paintings.”
Snee gave up teaching in 1983 and painted full-time for 20 years, occasionally exhibiting. “There was always a tension between teaching and what he thought was his real work – painting,” says Jo Snee.
“There was never any doubt in our house that the most important thing was that Dad was working in his studio. You didn’t go there without a reason or without being invited. As kids, we fought over the privilege of taking him a cup of tea.”
After his wife Helen died in 2003, he stopped using the studio, which gradually deteriorated with damp and mice, and he became what Evans calls “a reluctant recluse... the ultimate outsider”. He continued, however, to do marker-pen sketches on Post-it notes, a major change of scale.
His style too had changed over the years from kitchen-sink realism to abstraction. “It has always been the abstract qualities inherent in a place or thing that has interested me,” he wrote. “The relationship of line (poles), mass (stacks, hedgerows) and space have been the subjects of my pictures”. His work hints at influence by a host of artists – Kandinsky, Klee, Mondrian, Wyndham Lewis – but still has a strong character of its own.
A Gordon Snee Art group (www.gordonsnee.com) has been set up to champion his work and a Gordon Snee Foundation is under way to curate the collection and run education projects.
Meanwhile, the Dean Clough exhibition has proved a revelation to Jo Snee. “The main discovery is pulling things out of drawers and finding things that had never been seen before.”
As Simon Evans says: “It’s an extraordinary story, about an extraordinary artist.”
The Joy of Seeing is at the Crossley Gallery, Dean Clough, Halifax (01422 250250, www.deanclough.com) until January 14, 2018. Free admission.