Jeffrey Harris Paintings and Prints –Cornwall and Australia – catalogue essay

Jeffrey Harris came of age in St Ives, artistically speaking. In the 14 years he lived and worked there, from 1956 through to 1970, the young oil painter developed an agile and assured language of lyrical abstraction that, by degrees, began to incorporate still-life motifs and landscape elements as he became more embedded in the thriving artists’ community and its geographical location.

Now in his 90th year, and having resided in Adelaide since the early 1970s, Harris is returning to St Ives for a retrospective exhibition of paintings, reliefs and etchings that demonstrates his curiosity and range as an artist while underscoring his formal approach to pictorial composition.

Harris arrived in Cornwall in 1956 as the newly appointed art teacher of a secondary school in Hayle. He and his first wife, Margaret, lived in the adjacent village of Lelant, three miles from St Ives. Born in Leeds in 1932, Harris had obtained a Bachelor of Fine Art from Leeds College of Art, where he majored in painting and printmaking. Following two years in the army, he had returned to complete a Bachelor of Education, at the behest of his parents, a master tailor and a machinist, who worried their son’s calling wouldn’t keep food on the table.

Alas, Harris found teaching to be a fraught business and, after six months, he threw in the towel to focus on his art, taking on a series of odd jobs for income. Following the end of his first marriage, Harris gravitated towards St Ives, whose popularity as an artists’ colony stretched back to the 1870s and ’80s, when the new railway first brought visitors to the area.

The seaside town was enjoying a burgeoning international reputation at the time thanks to the modernist-minded community of artists that had coalesced around Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, who moved there in 1939 with Naum Gabo (the Russian sculptor departed for the United States in 1946). Meanwhile, Bernard Leach was also a longtime resident, having established his pottery in St Ives with Japanese colleague Hamada Shoji back in 1920.

In 1958, Harris met the Tasmanian-born painter Gwen Leitch, who had travelled to London on a scholarship to study at the Central School of Art & Design, where she was taught by Patrick Heron and Roger Hilton. After graduating, she had relocated to St Ives at the suggestion of Heron, who employed her as his children’s nanny and encouraged her art practice.

Leitch worked out of 7 Porthmeor Studio, next door to Ben Nicholson and, later, Heron at No. 5. She was only the second woman artist, after Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, to have been awarded one of the prized Arts Council studios overlooking Porthmeor Beach. Leitch also had a part-time job at The Crafts-men’s Shop on Fore St, run by Bernard Leach’s son David and furniture maker Robin Nance, and knew the Leach family well.

Gwen Leitch Harris, Porthmeor Studio, talking to Tony O’Malley. Courtesy of Penwith Gallery Archive

The couple, who married in Penzance in 1959, would share Leitch’s Porthmeor Studio for the next 12 years, living first at Academy Place and later on Bowling Green Terrace. Active members of the Penwith Society of Arts, whose founders included Hepworth, Leach, Nicholson and Peter Lanyon, they showed regularly at the Penwith Gallery in St Ives and beyond, with Harris also having solo exhibitions in London and Manchester.

Jeffrey Harris painting in Porthmeor Studio, 1960

With a growing family to support, Harris gave teaching another go and found that he enjoyed it, lecturing in painting and drawing part-time at Falmouth School of Art, an hour’s drive away, from 1966 to 1969. He also had work acquired by the Arts Council of Great Britain, Cornwall County Council, Leeds Art Gallery, Manchester Art Gallery and other institutions.

Harris and Leitch welcomed four children into their lives while living in St Ives, and in 1970 the family emigrated to Australia. They spent two years in Hobart, where Harris taught at the Tasmanian School of Art, before settling in Adelaide in 1973. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, both Harris and Leitch taught at the South Australian School of Art while raising Julia, Claire, Miranda and Christopher, maintaining their art practice and exhibiting. Following his early retirement in 1990, Harris was able to focus exclusively on his art.

When Leitch was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Harris nursed her, enabling his partner of 48 years to pass away at the family home in Rose Park in 2006.

Harris continues to work in his garden studio every day, and this retrospective, which spans more than half a century, reveals an artist of considerable versatility, able to move fluently between representational and abstract pictorial modes in a way that speaks to his years at Leeds College of Art.

For while a traditional, academic method of training prevailed when Harris was studying for his fine-art degree between 1948 and 1952, when he returned to Leeds for teacher training in 1954, he was surprised to discover that everything had been turned on its head.

“Harry Thubron and Tom Hudson had come down from Sunderland, thrown out all the anatomical casts, painted the whole place white and started teaching a course called Basic Design, which was informed by Bauhaus principles,” Harris says.

“It was exactly what I was looking for, because while I was in the army I had become interested in artists like Paul Klee, who taught at the Bauhaus for 10 years,” he says.

In St Ives: The Art and the Artists, Chris Stephens writes that the “pioneering” course in Leeds “aimed to teach students to use their imaginations and to learn essential formal grammar”, implicitly encouraging abstraction. While there, Harris attended lectures by Victor Pasmore, who had sensationally ditched figurative art for Nicholson-inspired constructivism in the early 1950s.

“That’s where my first square paintings came from. Heron started painting squares around that time too. What is the essence of it? If your support is shaped like a rectangle or a square, the easiest thing to paint is a square, because then you can control everything,” Harris says.

“Once you start putting curves in, where you are, you don’t know. So this new approach to teaching laid the groundwork for everything that followed. It was a whole new way of thinking about form, space and the surface of a painting,” he says.

Writing in St Ives Revisited: Innovators and Followers, Peter Davies argues that Harris’s early “‘period’ style of mosaic-like squares and rectangles of thick paint” was a function of his Bauhaus-influenced training, several examples of which are included in this exhibition: Composition in Yellow 1968; Yellow Squares 1968; Green Squares (Night) 1969; and Red Squares, 1969.

Composition in Yellow 1969

Arguably taking their cue from the abstracted impasto landscapes of Nicolas de Staël as well as Bryan Wynter’s more densely layered fields of patterned colour, these paintings radiate chromatic ‘heat’, which also serves to place them alongside the work of colourists such as Heron and Terry Frost, both of whom Harris was friendly with. Variations in hue and tone provide a sense of dynamic rhythm that causes the viewer’s eye to dance across the picture plane.

Red Squares 1969

By the late 1960s, however, Harris had embraced curves and other organic forms, and was allowing figurative motifs to creep into his pictures, such as Blue Lands 1969, Pears with Knife 1969 and Winter Still Life 1969. Here, one can discern the influence of not just Nicholson and Heron, but also William Scott. Like many St Ives artists, Harris was responding to the Cornish landscape even while traversing a modernist path through abstraction. Experimenting with figure-ground and pictorial space, he began to exploit the tension between illusion and flatness, image and object in paintings that have a touch of the neo-romantic about them.

Pears with a Knife 1969

Harris’ works from the early to mid 1970s bear the enduring influence of St Ives, even as the artist and his family were exploring their new environs in South Australia. Roundhouse Snooker 1972 recalls Nicholson’s carved and painted reliefs as well as Alexander Calder’s mobiles. A lifelong snooker player, Harris used to play at the Roundhouse in Market Place, St Ives.

“I really enjoy the game – it’s not unlike painting, in a way. With both, you have to think about body position, perception, how you see the balls and read the subtle angles,” Harris says.

Round House Snooker, St Ives 1972

“Some of the other artists in St Ives were a bit exclusive and tended to stick together. I was friends with them, but snooker and the working men who played it were always part of my life. When we lived in St Ives, I had strong friendships with many of the local men,” he says.

Likewise, Red Still Life with a Circle 1973 and Blue Still Life 1974 suggest aesthetic continuity more than rupture occasioned by moving to the other side of the world. The chief inspiration would appear to be Paul Klee over anything glimpsed in Australia.

Red Still Life with Circle 1973

With Coastal Movements 1973, Coastal Movements II 1973 and Coastlands with John Reeve’s Jug 1974, however, Harris’s experiences of the Australian landscape – especially Myponga Beach on the Fleurieu Peninsula – are beginning to filter into his pictures.

Coastal Movements 1973

“When we first moved to Adelaide, we used to stay in a shack on the beach at Myponga on weekends and holidays. To get there, we’d take a road up this huge hill, which then sharply descended. Looking back from the beach you could see these bare rolling hills, like reclining nudes from behind – curving bottoms, hips, shoulders and backs. With few trees in the area, you became aware of basic geologic forms,” Harris says.

“We explored further, and from Second Valley you could walkover these hills as they swept down to the sea. They were huge. I’d never seen that ochre colour or that bareness. It reminded me of walking the rugged coastal path between St Ives and Zennor, but a different colour, of course,” he says.

In 1974, Harris constructed a series of reliefs in shallow boxes in response to these landscapes, six of which are included in the exhibition. Comprising oil on board, relief, pencil and perspex, these ‘built’ landscapes nod to Nicholson and Pasmore. In a break with the past, we see Harris limiting his normally vibrant palette to the more muted hues of his new environment – white, beige, brown, olive, pink and russet.

Box Circle 1974

Paintings made in the past 20 years show Harris re-engaging with pure colour and pictorial flatness in spare, abstracted landscapes seemingly glimpsed from above. Often featuring large expanses of a single hue – tree-frog green, desert pink, turquoise and violet– these gestural canvases may take some of their inspiration from Peter Lanyon, whom Harris met several times before the St Ives-born painter’s tragic death following a gliding mishap in 1964.

As someone whose formative years were spent living and working in St Ives during its modernist heyday, it’s little wonder Harris continues to draw on the rich storehouse of memories and images in his mind. And he has returned to St Ives five times since, including in 1980, 1994 and 2018, when he made several suites of etchings depicting local views, whose diverse visual registers and bravura line work point to his old-school training. Stand outs include St Ives, Cornwall, The Harbour 1980-81, The Harbour 1994 and Mrs Thomas in Her Garden 1994, the latter referring to a kindly neighbour who lived next door to Harris and his family on Bowling Green Terrace.

Mrs Thomas in her Garden 1994

“As an artist, I’m interested in what’s going on inside our heads and how it relates to the stuff outside – the world in all its marvellous beauty. I have the visual language and formal awareness to deal with that figuratively and non-figuratively,” Harris says.

“But whichever style, medium or technique you’re working in, you’ve got to get it right. That can take a long time until you feel it formally, that it exists and that it has a right to exist.”

Tony Magnusson April 2022

Side by Side 2022

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