Secret world of reclusive art genius goes on show in city

Christopher P Wood in his studio.
Christopher P Wood in his studio.
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The discovery of Yorkshire artist Joash Woodrow amazed the art world and he still enthralls. Sheena Hastings reports.

FOR the best part of five decades no-one saw his work, then in his twilight years an accidental discovery brought the prolific oeuvre of Leeds artist Joash Woodrow to light.

It’s the kind of story that captures the imagination and stays there, begging all sorts of questions about what would have happened to the many hundreds of pieces he had accumulated in a small north Leeds house had someone not come along to rescue them.

Seen now as one of the most significant figures in post-war British art, Joash Woodrow returned from London to the family home in Leeds. Eventually he spent 20 years living alone, and apart from forays to draw people or industrial buildings around the city, led a solitary life.

His work was never shown, and the house was overcrowded with drawings and paintings, some of them on pieces of old board, broken bits of furniture and even the dismembered parts of a piano.

A fire at the house meant Joash had to move into sheltered accommodation.

Luckily, before anyone had the chance to get rid of the undamaged art works, painter Christopher P Wood randomly picked up one of several books of engraved Victorian art history in a second-hand bookshop in Harrogate.

Wild and colourful drawings and collages had been added to the pages by Woodrow. This discovery led Wood’s art dealer friend Andrew Stewart to visit the house and find the extraordinary work stacked in every available space.

Woodrow died in 2006, aged 78, but not before he’d grudgingly agreed to his work being shown to the world. Many public and private collections leapt upon it.

A highly educated and sophisticated artist, Woodrow lived to see his work gain great acclaim and fetch high prices on the international market. Demand is unabated, but supply is not infinite.

The latest exhibition of his work, at Hester Fine Art in Leeds, focuses on works on paper.

These include drawings, paintings and collages, and they’re full of life, directness, spontaneity, remarkable draughtsmanship and utter confidence in his vision.

The buildings of Leeds, pub characters, street musicians, clowns and Yorkshire’s coastal villages are some of the many subjects explored.

Chris Wood is still fascinated by the shy artistic giant, and is also an authority, having catalogued the work and co-authored a book on his work. When a play about Woodrow was premiered in Manchester a couple of years ago, Wood also had the strange experience seeing himself portrayed on stage.

“For me the drawings are the essence of Woodrow. There isn’t one that isn’t full of him. In an age when so many with less talent seek fame and fortune, the fact that he made art for the pure pleasure of it and sold nothing is so refreshing.”

Joash Woodrow – Works on Paper is at Hester Fine Art, 1 Meanwood Close, Leeds LS7 2JF 0113 262 0056 until March 31.

Lifetime’s work that was hidden away over decades

BORN in Leeds in 1927 to Polish Jewish parents and one of eight siblings, Joash Woodrow studied at Leeds College of Art and the Royal College of Art, where he was a contemporary of Peter Blake.

Shortly after graduating, he suffered a nervous breakdown and returned to live at his parents’ home. Unbeknown to the wider art establishment, over several decades he amassed 750-odd paintings and thousands of drawings, but didn’t sell one.

In 2001 his work was accidentally discovered by painter Christopher P Wood and exhibited for the first time.