10,000 miles on a dream: Keith Cunningham, the Royal College of Art great whose works were left unseen

By Mike Dempsey | 18 September 2016 | Updated: 13 September 2016

A new exhibition in London, Unseen Paintings, is about to reveal some of the works left by artist Keith Cunningham in his studio following his death in 2014. Painting was Cunningham's private obsession, says Mike Dempsey.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Keith Cunningham, Head No 7 (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
Born in Sydney in 1929, Cunningham left school at 15 with the ability to draw and little else. He found a job as a general assistant in the ad department of Sydney’s largest retailer, David Jones. While there, he noticed that the eminent Australian designer Gordon Andrews was a frequent visitor.

Eventually, he plucked up the courage to speak to him; from that point, Andrews took a keen interest in him, providing books on design and suggesting that he attend evening classes at East Sydney Technical College.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Head No 11 (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
Cunningham had dreams of escaping an unhappy home life to explore the creative world. He set his sights on New York, but with guidance from Andrews, opted for London. At the age of 20, with a pitiful sum of money, he made the 10,00-mile journey via ship, working his passage by waiting tables.

Post-war London was a grim place punctuated with bomb damage, rationing and smoke-induced smog. Clutching a single contact address, the David Jones store in Regent Street, Cunningham made a beeline for it.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Head No 8 (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
He actually believed that they would secure him a place at Central St Martins art school. But no: they simply drew him a map, pointed him in the right direction and said ‘good luck’.

With a portfolio of work, he presented himself, unannounced, at Central St Martins’ reception. They took pity on this quietly spoken, shy individual who had travelled 10,000 miles on a dream.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Skull No 5 (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
They called one of the principals, who interviewed him in the corridor. Impressed with Cunningham’s work, he was offered a place there and then, but his hopes for a better design education quickly faded: the projects set were uninspiring compared with the world he had been exposed to with mentor Gordon Andrews back in Sydney.

He supplemented his meagre living by washing dishes at local restaurants. But luck came when Andrews arrived from Australia to work as a consultant at the Design Research Unit, famously headed by Sir Misha Black.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Head No 6 (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
Andrews was in need of an assistant, and Cunningham jumped at the opportunity. What he thought would be a few weeks’ work turned into a year. During this time, he worked on major exhibition designs including the Festival of Britain exhibit at the Science Museum.

On graduating in 1952, Cunningham was left feeling unfulfilled and yearned for a deeper creative education. He was offered a place at the Royal College of Art along with a bursary and, at the suggestion of tutor Abram Games, he went to see Rodrigo Moynihan, then the head of painting.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Dog (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
Moynihan offered him a place on the fine art course. Here, Cunningham worked alongside fellow students and new friends Joe Tilson, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Methuen-Campbell.

At last, his heart and mind were fully engaged. He worked furiously in this heady atmosphere of creativity at the RCA. The results impressed a clutch of Royal Academicians, including Sir Roger de Grey, Carel Weight and John Minton. Minton stated that Cunningham was “one of the most gifted painters to have been at the Royal College”.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Fighting Dogs (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
Cunningham left the RCA with an impressive First, along with a travelling and continuation scholarship. He was now able to devote himself to painting without the pressure of money worries.

With his RCA bursary, he opted to explore Spain and later returned to London to complete his scholarship. During his RCA period, he exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the Beaux Arts Gallery and, for two consecutive years, the prestigious London Group show.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Still Life No 1 (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
This culminated in Cunningham being asked to submit work for full membership to the group. He declined. He then made the extraordinary decision to withdraw completely from any further public exhibition of his paintings.

Instead, he worked in the solitary atmosphere of his chapel studio in Battersea, where he would travel each day to work on his canvasses.

A photo of an abstract painting by the artist keith cunningham
Still Life No 2 (circa 1954-1960). Oil on canvas© Keith Cunningham, courtesy Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu
The only other company there were flayed sheep heads, human skulls and hanging birds – subjects that were to populate his work over the years. It was here, eternal cigarette in hand, that he would pour out his emotions, striking, stabbing and scraping the canvasses into life.

The physicality of his work is evident in the build-up of manipulated paint and texture, creating a visceral, brooding intensity that vibrates the longer you gaze. Whatever was going through Cunningham’s mind in that lonely studio, it is encapsulated forever in this impressive body of work.

Keith Cunningham was an eternally guarded and secretive man: a man who had carefully balanced his life, using his design and teaching work to fund his private obsession for painting. He made art so deeply personal that he found it difficult to share it with others, even with his wife, for fear that it may lose something – perhaps in its integrity.

He died in 2014 with much of his life’s work stored in a studio left unseen. Through the determination of his wife Bobby Hillson and the sterling work of Stephen Rothholz, who were responsible for gathering the paintings to organise this show, Cunningham’s work can at last see the light of day.

  • Keith Cunningham: Unseen Paintings 1954-1960 is at Hoxton Gallery, London from September 30 – October 13 2016.

Three places to see unmissable paintings

Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh
The focused current display, Bridget Riley: Paintings, 1964-2015, brings together a group of major paintings by Riley spanning more than 50 years of the artist’s career to explore the dialogue between monochrome and colour in her practice. Until April 16 2017.

The Picturemakers, Powys
The Picturemakers is a collective of artists based in Mid Wales. In 2014, It produced, at the request of The Curator of the Radnorshire Museum, an exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints to commemorate the centenary of the start of The Great War. The exhibition is inspired by poems that gave witness to this catastrophic, world changing conflict and are included in the exhibition. Until October 21 2016.

Grosvenor Museum, Chester
The gallery is currently hosting two exquisite works: Gainsborough's Coastal Scene and Claude Lorraine's The Rest on the Flight into Egypt. Until September 18 2016.
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