Gilbert Looking Down by Joash Woodrow.
24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Journalist Jade Wright went to Manchester Art Gallery to see work by an unknown, but greatly admired artist, which is on show until September 4 2005.
Manchester City Art Gallery’s latest exhibition has come about through a set of extraordinary coincidences. In 2001, the painter Christopher P Wood stumbled across a series of drawings in a Harrogate bookshop. Among dusty volumes in a storage room he found bound copies of The Magazine of Art, dated 1903.
The engravings of academic pictures were overlaid with heavy ink drawings, sometimes comic, often sensual. Ostensibly in the style of Picasso, these doodles suggested such a talent that Wood bought a volume, determined to find the artist.
That artist was Joash Woodrow. The volumes in the bookshop had been part of a library of 3,000 volumes which had been sold when he had grown incapable of caring for himself, accidentally set fire to his house in Leeds, and was moved into sheltered accommodation.
The White Shed by Joash Woodrow.
The first major retrospective exhibition of his work, this exhibition features 40 powerful paintings, drawings and prints that demonstrate the artist’s astonishing talent.
However, back in 2001, Wood took the illustrated magazine to his friend Andrew Stewart, a picture specialist then working for Phillips auctioneers in Leeds, to see if he could find out who the artist was. Stewart was so impressed he immediately ran to the bookshop and bought all the remaining volumes – eight in total.
He was so interested in the works that he contacted those responsible for the house clearance, Woodrow's brother and sister-in-law, Saul and Sylvia, and on hearing there was a hoard of pictures and some wood sculptures remaining, arranged to meet them at the fire-ravaged house.
Self-Portrait with Pipe and Hat by Joash Woodrow. Oil on sackcloth, c.1970.
It was crammed with drawings and paintings, front to back, ground floor to attic, many saved from fire and water because they were so closely piled together. Paintings were stacked 50 deep. A two foot-high pile of un-mounted drawings in the kitchen contained at least a thousand works, their edges burnt and stained by fire.
Sketchbooks were stacked on the windowsills. On the attic walls a mural had been painted by candlelight. Even in the uncultivated garden were roof tiles and slates painted by Woodrow.
Stewart persuaded Saul and Sylvia to get Joash’s works looked at by another friend, the eminent critic, Nicholas Usherwood. They posted photographs of the works, but were disappointed not to get a reply.
In another startling coincidence, they had gone to the wrong address. The person who received them was attending art classes, and she showed them to her tutor.
The Athlete by Joash Woodrow.
Extraordinarily, that tutor was Nicholas Usherwood's wife, Jilly. Usherwood was so impressed by the work that he travelled to Harrogate and gave his support, spreading the word among artistic circles.
It was at this point that Joash’s work began to gain recognition on a larger scale. At the first exhibition of the works in Harrogate, many were sold for between £500 and £3,500. This, however, is a fraction of their current value.
An exhibition at Leeds City Art Gallery followed and now the works are delighting audiences in Manchester, Joash’s current home, before travelling to the Ben Uri Art Gallery in London.
White Jug with Red Flowers by Joash Woodrow. Oil on board. Private Collection.
More of the background behind the paintings has since come to light. Between 1950 and 1953 he studied drawing and painting at the Royal College of Art, his fellow students and friends including Frank Auerbach, Peter Blake and the novelist Len Deighton.
Soon after graduating from the RCA, Joash suffered from a nervous breakdown, returning to Leeds to live with his mother and brother, Israel. He began working from home, progressively producing drawings and paintings. Following the death of his mother in 1962 and his brother in 1978, Joash became very prolific, painting larger and larger pictures.
He became increasingly introspective, with little contact with the outside world. There were few connections with his remaining family, other than Saul and Sylvia, who for years made their weekly visits to look after Joash and cook him a hot meal.
The paintings of Joash Woodrow are now celebrated by the art world and sell for five-figure sums but the reclusive 77-year-old would still prefer to be left alone.
Jade Wright is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the North West region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.