Partner Max Chapman
Fradgan Studios, The Fradgan, Newlyn, Penzance TR18, UK
The Lobster Pot, S Cliff, Mousehole, Penzance TR19 6PG, UK
Oswell Blakeston was the pseudonym of Henry Joseph Hasslacher (May 17, 1907 – June 4, 1985), a British writer and artist who also worked in the film industry, made some experimental films, and wrote extensively on film theory. He was also a poet and wrote in non-fiction areas including travel, cooking and pets. His pseudonym combined a reference to the writer Osbert Sitwell with his mother's maiden name. Blakeston lived in Mousehole with the painter Max Chapman and was a friend of Mary Butts's from 1931 onwards and admirer of her work. Max Chapman run a guest - house at Mousehole called the Lobster Pot. A newly wed Dylan Thomas stayed there. According to Blakeston and Chapman, Thomas dabbed in gay behaviour. Such stories, circulating in private, have been decried by others, who were friends of Thomas at the time. Neither Blakeston nor Chapman made extensive claims. 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 was born to a family of Austrian origin. At age 16 he ran away, becoming a conjuror’s assistant, a cinema organist and studio clapperboy. Blakeston joined the staff of Close Up, the magazine of the Pool Group, in August 1927. While at Close Up, he very much became a protégé of Kenneth Macpherson, the publication’s editor, and contributed more articles than any other single writer—a total of 84; he contributed to all but four of the journal's issues. While writing for Close Up, he worked in a variety of capacities in the British film industry and was for a time an assistant cameraman at Gaumont Studios. In 1930, he made the short abstract film Light Rhythms with Francis Bruguière, long thought to be lost but which is now recovered. He then edited the little magazine Seed with Herbert Jones, and wrote detective fiction with Roger Burford, under the pseudonym 'Simon'. From 1929, he also published novels and stories under the Blakeston name, producing 15 books of fiction, as well as 10 collections of poetry. The novels are wide-ranging, and include a number of works that mix gay themes with suspense and detective plots. Blakeston was a contributor to John Gawsworth's anthologies, and a collaborator of M. P. Shiel. He also authored a number of travel books. According to the obituary of his partner Max Chapman, Blakeston achieved a number of firsts: his book Magic Aftermath (1932) was "the first fiction to be published in spiral binding" and his 1935 crime story The Cat with the Moustache (a collaboration with Burford) was "one of the first descriptions of trips with mescal". In his 1938 anthology Proems, Blakeston "published the first poems by Lawrence Durrell".
Austin Osman Spare (British, 1888–1956), Title: Portrait of Oswell Blakeston - Metamorphosis , 1933, Medium: Pencil and Watercolor, Size: 38.8 x 27.9 cm. (15.3 x 11 in.)
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 Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley – Ricketts illustrated a number of Wilde’s books – and had also known Walter Sickert, Bernard Shaw, and Sergei Diaghilev.
For Chapman, unapologetically certain of his homosexuality from a young age, friendship with Ricketts surely served as affirmation of his own proclivities. 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.
Chapman 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).
After a first one-man show in London in 1939, Chapman went on to exhibit widely in the UK and Europe. 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.
In the 1950s Blakeston was a contributor to ArtReview, then titled Art News and Review. Blakeston's work was produced for small presses and specialty publishers and is no longer in print. The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin is home to an archive of Blakeston materials available to researchers. Many of Blakeston's books are dedicated to his longtime partner, the artist Max Chapman, who also provided illustrations or photographs for a number of the volumes.
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 (1975). 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) 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 was an artist with a "quick eye for the bizarre and the outrageous” according to Max Chapman. His art mixed abstract and expressionist imagery and tended to be small scale. Blakeston had over 40 solo shows, including in London at New Vision Centre, Drian and Grabowski galleries, and some 100 mixed shows at others such as the Leicester, Madden and Mercury galleries. In 1981 he shared an exhibition at Middlesbrough Art Gallery with Max Chapman and after his death, a memorial show was held in 1986 at Camden Arts Centre. Blakeston's work can be found in public collections including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art and the Ulster Museum in Belfast, as well as national galleries in Finland, Poland and Portugal.
Blakeston died in 1985. Chapman continued to paint until late on in life, and died 14 years later.
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