Percy Kelly – The Reluctant Exhibitionist

Theatre by the Lake is delighted to host a rare exhibition of Percy Kelly’s collection of etchings, screen prints and lithographs following the widely acclaimed retrospective, Line of Beauty at Tullie House earlier in the year. The exhibition of purchasable work will run between Fri 2 – Mon 26 March in the Friends’ and Circle Galleries and is accompanied by an illustrated talk on the reclusive genius by his champion and biographer, Chris Wadsworth, on Wed 14 March in the Studio as part of the Words by the Water Festival.

The Cumbrian-born artist showed a remarkable talent for drawing even from a young age. This was recognised by all who came across it, from his school work to his employment at the Royal Mail and then later in the army where he his exceptional draughtsmanship was used whilst assigned to the signals regiment. In 1958 aged 40, he saw his first etching at an exhibition at The Settlement, in Maryport and became profoundly inspired to learn printmaking. The full time four year NDD course (equivalent to a degree) at Carlisle College of Art was the only course available.

His age at the time worked against him being awarded a grant, so it took another two dedicated years to raise the course fees privately. He began at the college in 1961 aged 42 and immediately excelled at everything he did – gathering praise from the lithography, drawing and textile departments and being awarded a travel scholarship in his second year, which he used to go to Brittany where he sketched his famous beach hut scenes.

He graduated with first class honours and enthusiastic praise from tutors all round at his sensitive use of colour, observation and resourcefulness. Jean Gordon, Head of Textiles, described Kelly as, ‘A prolific worker who devotes himself entirely to his studies and who is totally involved with his work. A serious and mature approach to design which is readily sparked off and who reacts spontaneously to a vital environment. A perfect pass. This will take you to heaven.’

After leaving college with such promise, Kelly was taken up by Sir Nicholas Sekers of the Silk Mills at Hensingham near Whitehaven who commissioned work and gave him two exhibitions, one at Rosehill Theatre (Whitehaven) and the other at his Sloane Street showrooms in London. By 1969 he was being sought after by leading galleries, had his work in an international exhibition touring Europe and Moscow plus the QE2 maiden voyage launched that year with his paintings on board, purchased especially for the state rooms.

Lady Fermoy (grandmother of Princess Diana) offered him an exhibition at her gallery in Kings Lynn but at the opening, he decided he didn’t want to sell anything ever again. In 1988 he wrote to Chris Wadsworth ‘I cannot paint for monetary gain’ and it was only after his death in 1993 that his printing press, along with his main body of work (covering almost 70 years of his life) came to her gallery, Castlegate House in Cockermouth.

Discovered amongst this collection was a wooden box of hardly used etching plates which Robert Adam, of Graal Press in Edinburgh, cleaned and then took a pull of each one. He was astonished at the quality and proposed making editions of 75 of some of these, 12 of which are in the exhibition and available to purchase.

Many of the works in TBTL’s exhibition were created in the print department of Carlisle College of Art nicknamed ‘The NAAFI’ by students but which no longer exists and is where the Civic Centre stands today. When he left college in 1965 he bought a second hand press and made many more prints in the scullery of Glen Cottage, Allonby. He never made a full edition because he didn’t see the point if he had no intention of selling - so these were left unsigned, marked A/P (artist’s proof) or sometimes on rare occasions marked ‘1/75’. He also left printers marks and in some cases his notes on them in pencil. He never repeated anything twice but would change the colour or texture.

In her talk, Chris Wadsworth will discuss why and how she curated the Tullie House exhibition 25 years after the artist’s death, and explore theories as to why he was so unwilling to use the considerable talent he was born with to enjoy a more comfortable life. She will expand upon Kelly’s genius, his need to draw or paint every day plus his female persona, Roberta, and the absence of people in his work.

The exhibition opens to the public on Fri 2nd March at 9.30am after the Private View event for press and invited guests on Thu 1st March. It is likely to be popular and admission is free. The galleries are open every day from 9.30am and close at 6pm or later if there are performances in the theatre; however access to the gallery spaces is occasionally restricted and it is best to check in advance with Box Office on 017687 74411 if you are making a trip specifically to see the exhibition.

Please note that during the Words by the Water Festival (9 - 18 March) the Circle Gallery is closed from 11.30 am - 2.30 pm. Most items in the exhibition are for sale to the public from Friday 2nd March although they may not be able to be removed until the exhibition closes on 26th March. When you visit the exhibition all enquiries about purchases should be directed to the Box Office on the ground floor.

percy kelly - beach huts, brittany screen print .jpg Percy Kelly - Beach huts, Brittany screen print
percy kelly - boat and sun screen print on coarse linen.jpg Percy Kelly - Boat and sun screen print on coarse linen