Pallant House Gallery presents an exhibition of works by the Brighton-based artist Dennis Creffield (b.1931), once described by R.B. Kitaj as ‘one of England’s most closely guarded secrets’. This exhibition showcases the artist’s celebrated charcoal drawings of English medieval cathedrals which were commissioned in 1987 by the Arts Council, placing them alongside his later series of French counterparts for the first time.
Born in London in1931, Creffield attended the Borough Polytechnic from 1947-52, where he was a pupil of David Bomberg. At the age of just 18 he was elected to join the Borough Group - a group of young artists which was formed around Bomberg to promote his art and show their own work simultaneously. Bomberg's unique style and generosity as a teacher had a lasting impression. ‘He showed us that painting was the most important thing that a human being could do,' says Creffield.' I remember he said to me, "Creffield you are an artist" and I have had the confidence to be an artist ever since.'
Following Bomberg's death in 1957, Creffield was accepted at the Slade School of Art, where his talent for drawing was quickly recognised. In 1960 William Coldstream awarded him the highly revered Tonks Prize for Life Drawing and a year later he was a prize-winner in the prestigious John Moores Painting Prize Exhibition. After graduating Creffield was appointed the Gregory Fellow in Painting at the University of Leeds upon the recommendation of Herbert Read, a position he held from 1964 until 1968. Soon after this he took up a permanent teaching post at Brighton Polytechnic and has lived and worked in the city ever since.
In 1987 Creffield was commissioned by the Arts Council to draw all 26 of the medieval, Gothic cathedrals of England. Beginning with Chichester Cathedral on St Valentine's Day, he described the project as his ‘Pilgrimage of Love', a remarkable journey that is comparable to similar excursions made by JMW Turner in England or Auguste Rodin's tour of French cathedrals during the late 1900s. The journey took him from Exeter to Canterbury in the South and stretched as far as Durham and Carlisle in the North. Architecturally his subjects ranged from the colossal and unyielding cathedral at Lincoln to Norwich with its towering central spire, and the elongated, coffin-like plan of Winchester.
This exhibition features the Gallery's holdings of charcoal drawings collected by Colin St John Wilson and is the first to present a selection of the English Cathedrals alongside a further series created in France in 1990 in which he traced the evolution of the gothic style. From the first truly Gothic building, the Cathedral at Saint Denis, to the towering West Front of Laon, these later works reveal the extraordinary diversity of this dramatic architectural style which appears at once dark, massive and contained and yet also light, open and aerial.
Made mainly with charcoal and an eraser but also chalk, these drawings differ from the more familiar illustrative accounts of religious architecture. Described by the artist as ‘variations on a theme' each one is an individual portrait that captures the distinct character of the cathedral it portrays. Seen as a whole, the series also demonstrates Creffield's ability to produce a range of diverse marks from violent slashes and stabs through to supple strokes and fluid contours.
Katy Norris, Curator of the exhibition says: The exhibition opens 27 years to the day since Creffield embarked on the first drawings of English cathedrals, yet none of the power or intensity of the original project has been lost. It is remarkable to consider how adeptly he captured a style of religious architecture that was so aspirational and visionary, both in terms of its physical manifestations and the ideology it promoted. In these works we are drawn completely into the artist's unique vision and, in doing so, share with him a fascinating and defining moment in our cultural history.'