A GUIDE TO THE PICTURESQUE VILLAGE ON THE SOLWAY COAST
Percy Kelly was born in Workington in 1918 and was a prolific artist, producing paintings, drawings and prints. Percy’s early work focused on the industrial scenes, bridges, cranes, cars and boats of his native town. He worked heavily in charcoal as well as in ink and watercolours, oil and gouache. He also produced etchings and even worked with what came to hand such as blackcurrant juice and biro. He seemed fascinated with sweeping country lanes. These appear in many paintings and drawings and often lead towards bleak looking Cumbrian villages and farm buildings. He frequently included Cumbrian cottages in his scenes, as well as the Lakeland fells and the fishing harbours between Whitehaven and Maryport. His wife Audrey forbid him to use oil paints in the house because she couldn’t stand the smell and it is thought that Percy produced just 24 paintings in oil.
Percy left school at 14 and worked for the postal service. In 1952 he resigned and he and his Audrey took over a sub post office at Great Broughton. Percy continued to draw and paint while Audrey did most of the work. Percy spent practically all his spare time drawing and painting. In the early 1950s, he submitted works to the Royal Academy, Royal Institute and Royal Society of British Artists; all of which were all accepted. During this time he was introduced to Helen Sutherland by the poet Norman Nicholson. Helen was a collector and patron of the arts and during a visit to her house at Cockley Moor near Ullswater, Percy was inspired by the artwork he saw there.
In 1958 Percy suffered a breakdown. They sold the sub post office and moved to Allonby so that Percy could persue art full time. Percy enrolled on a 4 year art course at the Cumbria College of Art at Brampton Road, Carlisle aged 43; whilst working night shifts at the psychiatric hospital at nearby Dovenby.
Although supported by wealthy patrons, Percy wasn’t particularly interested in the art world. By the end of the 1960s however, the art world was becoming increasingly interested in him and he was being approached by admirers eager to own his work and by galleries keen to represent him.
In 1970 his wife Audrey came home one day to be confronted with a strange female figure wearing clothes that looked familiar to her. Upon realising that the woman standing in front of her was in fact Percy, she couldn’t cope with this revelation and told him to get out. It is not known where Percy went but some time later, following a consultation with an eye specialist based in Cockermouth, he fell in love with the specialist’s wife, Chris Griffiths, and ran off with her. Chris had three children which the pair took with them to make a new home in Pembrokeshire, Wales.
The eldest child Kim however, did not take to these changes well and was sent to boarding school after running away from home. Percy did not want her to feel abandoned and wrote to her over several years with wonderfully illustrated and painted letters. Kim later described Percy as an incredibly talented man, amusing and affectionate but also self-obsessed, bigoted, eccentric, judgmental and sometimes manic.
Percy died in 1993, his estate falling to his son Brian. Percy knew that one day his drawings and paintings and even the illustrated letters would be of considerable interest after his death and near the end of his life he told a friend "I still posses all my early work and probably the best drawings and paintings." Today the artwork of Percy Kelly is highly collectable and demands increasingly high prices. Three of his paintings were purchased for the Government Art Collection and even the thousands of painted letters now fetch prices close to that of some of his paintings. There is even talk of a film being made of Percy's life.
A large painting of Maryport harbour has recently been restored and can be viewed at Maryport Maritime Museum. A leaflet has also been created featuring the Maryport harbour painting and a short biography of the artist.
Most of Percy's work is now in private hands but a collection of his work can be viewed locally at Abbot hall Gallery in Kendal. On-line the BBC Your Paintings features two of his paintings and original artwork can be found to buy occassionally at Castlegate Hourse Gallery in Cockermouth.
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Cumbria Artists Open Studios
Articles on Percy Kelly
by David Ward
By Blake Morrison
By Blake Morrison