From Renaissance-inspired paintings to murals in Leeds - the work of artist Graeme Willson is celebrated in Ilkley

Graeme Willson, the Manor House Gallery, Ilkley, in 2014.
Graeme Willson, the Manor House Gallery, Ilkley, in 2014.
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You may not necessarily have heard the name ‘Graeme Willson’, but if you live in Leeds, or know the city well, then you’ll certainly recognise one of his artworks.

Willson’s mural, Cornucopia, adorns a wall at the junction of New Market Street and Call Lane, outside the Corn Exchange, and is a celebration of the city’s history.

Willson's public artwork Cornucopia at the Corn Exchange, Leeds.

Willson's public artwork Cornucopia at the Corn Exchange, Leeds.

The mural, unveiled in 1990, is his homage to Leeds and has become a popular local landmark, and along with several ecclesiastical commissions including works at York Minster and St Margaret’s Church in Ilkley, is among his best known works.

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Willson died from cancer last year and today a major exhibition of his work goes on show at the Manor House Gallery in Ilkley.

He spent the last 25 years of his life in the town so the gallery, where he exhibited in the past, is a fitting venue to host this retrospective. “It will be inspiring and moving; it will be one of the most stimulating exhibitions that the Manor House has hosted,” says Sarah Thomas, chair of Ilkley Manor House Trust.

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Willson was widely viewed as one of the UK’s leading mural artists whose distinguished track record stretched back more than a quarter of a century, beginning with a prize-winning work for the Arts Council’s competition, Art into Landscape, at the Serpentine Gallery in London.

Graeme Willson doing his "Sistine Chapel bit" in York Minster in 1982.

Graeme Willson doing his "Sistine Chapel bit" in York Minster in 1982.

Born in North Yorkshire, Willson had graduated from Reading University in 1973 with a degree in Fine Art, and worked as a full-time lecturer at the North Lindsey College, in what was then South Humberside, in the 70s. He became a freelance artist and visiting lecturer at York University, Bradford and Ilkley Community College, Chelsea College, the Institute of Advanced, Architectural Studies and Bretton Hall College.

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He exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery, the London Contemporary Art Society, Harewood House and the Mercer Art Gallery, Harrogate. Examples of his works in watercolour were acquired by Leeds City Art Galleries for their permanent collection.

In the last seven years of his life he retired from academic life to devote himself full-time to his painting. In 2015, he told The Yorkshire Post: “I’m a believer in that famous quote ‘It is 99 per cent perspiration and one per cent inspiration.’ And there is a compulsion in me to do it – I just feel driven to paint.”

Willson’s daughter, Lucy Wright, says certain motifs ran through her father’s work. “He was influenced by the landscape, particularly Yorkshire’s, and he made references to architecture and the body.”

As well as his murals and ecclesiastical work he also produced textiles and developed a practice in stained glass.

He was a classically trained artist and was a figurative painter at heart. “He spent a lot of time in Italy and Venice and he was very much influenced by the Renaissance masters like Caravaggio and Piero della Francesca,” says Lucy.

“In terms of his public works, he wanted to give something to the community. He also wanted to bring the beauty he saw in art to a wider audience, he felt art should engage in the modern world.”

Graeme Willson: A Retrospective at Ilkley Manor House Gallery, runs from Oct 4 to Oct 27. Opening times, Wednesday to Sunday 11am to 4pm.