Partner Oswell Blakeston

Queer Places:
Fradgan Studios, The Fradgan, Newlyn, Penzance TR18, UK
The Lobster Pot, S Cliff, Mousehole, Penzance TR19 6PG, UK

Maxwell Balthazar Harrison Chapman (February 24, 1911 - November 18, 1999) was an English visual artist. He was primarily a painter, but also made drawings, collages, and photographs. Chapman attended Dulwich College, then the Byam Shaw Art School, 1927–30, where he was taught and befriended by Charles Ricketts. In 1931 Ricketts provided for Chapman to take "a scholarship to Italy and the European Grand Tour".[1] He had his first solo exhibition at Storran Gallery, and then at Leger Gallery and Molton Gallery, all in London. Chapman was the long-time partner of writer Oswell Blakeston, with whom he collaborated on numerous books, for Arts Review and other publications.[2] According to his obituary in The Independent, Chapman "showed widely, ranging from the established Royal Academy, London Group and Leicester Galleries to the more experimental Grabowski, Molton and New Vision Centre galleries, and abroad."[3]

Max Chapman and Oswell Blakeston formed an extraordinary and prolific couple, whose lives and achievements are little documented. They first met in the late 1920s or early 1930s, and remained together thereafter. Blakeston came from a bourgeois Home Counties background. He ran away from home whilst a teenager, and first gained employment as a conjuror’s assistant before then working in the British film industry. During the course of his career he wrote copiously: fiction, non-fiction, poetry and criticism. He was also a painter and experimental filmmaker. Chapman meanwhile worked as a painter, art critic, and occasionally illustrated Blakeston’s poetry. He was born in Dulwich, and from the age of 16 attended Byam Shaw School of Art, where one of his teachers was Charles Ricketts, with whom he established a friendship. Ricketts lived at Regent’s Park with his companion, fellow artist Charles Shannon. The pair had been part of the fin de siècle circle of Wilde and Beardsley – Ricketts illustrated a number of Wilde’s books – and had also known Sickert, Bernard Shaw, and Diaghilev. For Chapman, unapologetically certain of his homosexuality from a young age, friendship with Ricketts surely served as affirmation of his own proclivities.

Max Chapman was one of the last links with the rarefied aesthetic world of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon in the 1920s and the later Bohemianism of Soho and Fitzrovia. He was an inventive, committed painter whose career reflected the quandary facing many artists this century: whether to follow figuration or abstraction.

He was born in Dulwich, south-east London, in 1911, his father, Joshua, university-educated, his mother, Bertha Cregeen, an artist of Isle of Man origin whose two sisters, Emily and Nessy, also exhibited portraits. Max attended Dulwich College, then the Byam Shaw Art School, 1927-30, where he was taught and befriended by Charles Ricketts.

Ricketts was then nearing the end of his life as an influential painter, illustrator, stage designer, sculptor and connoisseur. With the artist Charles Shannon he had assembled a collection of artefacts, much of it now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Ricketts attracted disciples as varied as the writer Cecil Lewis, the artist Glyn Philpot and the illustrator T. Sturge Moore. Aged 16, Chapman was exhorted "to emulate Michelangelo and Titian". Ricketts was known for his generosity and in 1934 Chapman's efforts were rewarded with "a scholarship to Italy and the European Grand Tour".

Upon leaving art school in 1930 Chapman went first on a scholarship to Italy, before then buying studio premises at Newlyn in Cornwall, previously used by the painters Dod and Ernest Procter. There he began his artistic career, producing figurative paintings influenced by Post-Impressionism and Matisse. He and Blakeston lived together in Mousehole, becoming fixtures of the Cornish artistic scene: both were drawn by Sven Berlin (Blakeston in 1939; Chapman in 1941) as part of a set of portraits entitled St Ives Personalities, whose subjects also included Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach amongst others (the set is now in a private collection).

He returned to England "overwhelmed", he said, "but disoriented through over-exposure to splendour". Yet he felt that he must not look back artistically, that it was "essential to come to terms with the present day". He drew inspiration from Cezanne and "turned to Clive Bell and Roger `Significant Form' Fry for straws to clutch".

Chapman took as a studio premises which had been occupied by the painters Dod and Ernest Procter in Newlyn and met many prominent Cornish artists. He became a founder member of the Nineteen Thirties Group, had solo shows in London and Spain and handled two mural commissions, "both, alas," he later recalled "Hitler-obliterated".

After a first one-man show in London in 1939, Chapman went on to exhibit widely in the UK and Europe.

He was uncompromising on his pacifism and homosexuality. In the Second World War he was a conscientious objector, driving an ambulance. The composer Michael Tippett, who held similar views, was a notable friend from those times with whom he corresponded.

A defining event in Max Chapman's life was his association with Oswell Blakeston. They were inseparable until the slightly older man's death in 1985. Although they had individual careers, these were to touch at many points, enhancing Chapman's outlook, experience and opportunities. Blakeston, Chapman told, had "a quick eye for the bizarre and the outrageous".

Blakeston had run away from his bourgeois home as a schoolboy, becoming a conjuror's assistant, cinema organist and clapper boy with David Lean at Gaumont film studios. In the large close-ups used to convey information in silent films - "hands holding letters, visiting cards and so on" - Blakeston played the hands of many stars. He began writing film criticism, later becoming assistant editor of the influential magazine Close Up. "Oswell Blakeston" was adopted instead of his real name, Henry Hasslacher. (Oswell was derived from that of the writer Osbert Sitwell. His mother's family name was Blakiston, which he modified.)

With Francis Bruguière, Blakeston pioneered abstract films in Britain. He was also a writer of filmscripts, plays, novels, cookery and travel books, prolific artist, poet and lecturer. Among his enormous literary output were his 1932 book Magic Aftermath, "the first fiction to be published in spiral binding"; the 1935 crime story The Cat with the Moustache (a collaboration with Roger Burford), "one of the first descriptions of trips with mescal"; and the 1938 anthology Proems, in which Blakeston "published the first poems by Lawrence Durrell".

Dylan Thomas called Blakeston "a friend of all boozy poets and me too". Oswell wrote regular articles on London's pubs for What's On, for which Chapman was a highly readable art critic for some 25 years. A bar-room acquaintance was the writer M.P. Shiel, who in strange circumstances became king of the Leeward Island of Redonda, of which Blakeston was made a duke.

As a writer of stories, John Betjeman reckoned that Blakeston was a neglected genius of the macabre. His 1947 collection Priests, Peters and Pussens had idiosyncratic illustrations by Chapman, The Sunday Times commenting that these were "as unusual as the stories they decorate". Chapman also contributed a drawing for the 1976 Blakeston fiction Pass the Poison Separately. Blakeston and Chapman co-wrote stories, among them Jim's Gun (1939) and Danger in Provence (1946). While writing the latter in Venice, the authors were arrested as Russian spies. On hot evenings they had been using a typewriter on the roof - they were thought to be transmitting Morse messages.

Chapman was to contribute poems and decorations to Blakeston's 1947 anthology Appointment with Seven and illustrations to another, How to Make Your Own Confetti (1965). This was a beautifully produced compilation on multi- coloured paper, setting new standards in book production. The two journeyed widely while Blakeston compiled notes for his European travel books, Chapman providing the photographs.

Chapman continued to experiment as a painter. In the 1950s "there were at last intimations of artistic identity". The English-based Polish artist Zdzislaw Ruszkowski's "Bonnard-based colour theories released inhibitions", and the American artists John Coplans and Jackson Pollock made an impact on his work. Chapman explored automation; tried monotypes, printing from oil paint on glass; and also had a "white period". He showed widely, ranging from the established Royal Academy, London Group and Leicester Galleries to the more experimental Grabowski, Molton and New Vision Centre Galleries and abroad.

By the late 1950s, now living with Blakeston in London, he was making abstracts. The trigger for this stylistic change came upon seeing Jackson Pollock’s work: most probably at the 1958 Pollock retrospective at The Whitechapel Gallery. Amongst Chapman’s various explorations in abstraction was a technique he christened collages noyée, or ‘drowned stick-ons’, which involved the manipulation of collaged papers into a form of low relief, which were then unified beneath a skin of paint. He also explored combinations of water and oil based paints to achieve particular effects, as can be seen in three 1960s canvases here: Emersion to Brown, Chinese, and Wings. In each, water-based emulsion has been floated over oil paint, with glazes of oil later applied over areas of mottled dried emulsion. With their amorphous shapes and smoky diffusions of tonal colour, these immensely subtle paintings evoke elemental flux.

He claimed that his new form of papier colle, collage noye, was "plagiarised" after being exhibited in Paris in 1960. Classic colle retains the separateness of its components, while collage noye unites them under one skin; the underlying structure of coloured papers is moulded and manipulated into low relief, then subjected to pigment washes to conceal and reveal what lies underneath. The imagery is thus drowned - hence the term collage noye.

By the 1970s Chapman felt that as an artist he had "come full circle . . . charting a course back, in a sense, to the beginning of the Renaissance". Trendy art theories had prompted him to "remain too remote from the human condition". Now, figuration and the theme of physical love became pre-eminent in his work. They spawned a fine series, Lovers, some of which were shown in his 1981 selected retrospective at Middlesbrough Art Gallery.

Later still Chapman resumed figurative painting, and in 1976 exhibited a series of portraits at the Camden Art Centre. His subjects included Blakeston and the actress Rosalinde Fuller. Painted with the sensitive economy of Chapman’s abstracts, the portrait is made from a black and white photograph of Fuller, likely to have been taken by Blakeston’s friend Francis Bruguière in the late 1920s. (A group of Bruguière’s black and white photographs of Fuller were donated to the National Portrait Gallery by Blakeston in 1983.) Though Blakeston’s Adolescence (1982) – his sole painting documented here – might be said to have something of the formal invention of his partner’s abstracts, it is perhaps unsurprisingly a more literary painting, stylistically closer to Pop.

Blakeston died in 1985. Chapman continued to paint until late on in life, and died 14 years later.

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