In 1971 Bryan Robertson, the celebrated director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, wrote that Robert Medley stood alongside Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon and Edward Burra as 'one of the most gifted and independent artists of an older generation'.
However, despite powerful supporters, in his lifetime Medley was diffident about fame and since his death a decade ago his work has tended to fall from view. This makes the present exhibition an opportune chance to reassess a major artist.
Marking the centenary of the birth of Robert Medley who would have been one hundred on 19th December 2005, Robert Medley: a centenary tribute is a rare opportunity to reassess a major figure. It provides a chance to view some of Medley's most ambitious canvases, many of which have not been shown for years or even decades, having been retained by the Artist's Estate.
Focusing on Medley's major paintings of the late 1950s and 1960s, the exhibition presents some of the largest and most powerful paintings of his career. Paintings of an ambition that places them at the very summit of the artist's achievements. Paintings that follow a distinctive path by building bridges between the abstract and the figurative, between public statement and private reverie. Paintings that, nonetheless, parallel the concurrent work of artists as varied as Roger Hilton, Graham Sutherland and Peter Lanyon.
What stands out is the sophistication of Medley's touch. As John Berger writes, in a new essay, in the accompanying publication:
What makes Medley's work so rewarding and unusual is its dexterity. Dexterity in its strict sense refers to an inborn or acquired skill in dealing with, or being at home with, the tangible. Something close to the fingertipsDexterity also implies panache, a quality of gesture. One can think of the cast of a master fly-fisherman. The stance of a prodigious violinist. The aim from the shoulder of a champion billiard player. Medley's paintings have the concentration and elegance of such performances.NEW CATALOGUE
Robert Medley: a centenary tribute with specially commissioned contributions by John Berger, Maggi Hambling, David Hockney, R.B.Kitaj, Andrew Lambirth and Norman Rosenthal.
The Estate of Robert Medley is represented by James Hyman Gallery.
The Times December 19, 2005
Wheeled out of obscurity
By John Russell Taylor
BORN in 1905, the painter Robert Medley belonged, more or less, to the same generation as W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Benjamin Britten. In fact he was older than most of them, though since he outlived them all one tends to forget this.
Generation was not the only thing he had in common with these other giants of the 20th-century British arts. Like them, he was much involved in left-wing theatre during the 1930s, and like them all he was openly gay.
Unlike the rest, he never spent any notable time in America, his experience of living abroad being confined to two student years in Paris and five years of war service, spent mostly in the Middle East. Before the war he devoted much of his energies to the theatre, helping to found the experimental Group Theatre along with his lifelong companion, the dancer Rupert Doone, and designing for other, generally advanced productions. After the war he was a much-respected and influential teacher at the Slade and Camberwell.
So why has he not been better known? This is one of the things that the current centenary exhibition at James Hyman Gallery seeks to explore and remedy. Perhaps the key to his relative neglect lies in his his constant distractions: the theatre, the war, teaching. David Hockney observes in the commemorative book: It's a pity he couldn't paint more, but the time was not wasted, as many friends of his have vivid memories of his talking about pictures, and theatre and music. This seems to imply that he was perhaps unduly gregarious and social. But it has probably more to do with his extreme reticence in promoting his own work.
Certainly his Whitechapel Art Gallery retrospective in 1963 came as a complete surprise; it emerged at that point that Medley had been painting with independent brilliance for nearly 20 years, and had been potentially a formidable figure even before his artistic career was interrupted during the war. Medley would have maintained that he always preferred to make his mistakes in private, and exhibit only when he had some reason to feel fairly sure of himself. But even after his signal success with his first retrospective, he exhibited little and stayed out of public view.
It must also be remembered that, immediately after the war, Medley must have looked to many like a dangerous revolutionary. He was, indeed, the first of Britain's important representational painters to feel the pull of abstraction. Not that his work ever lost touch entirely with observable reality. For many years, for example, he was fascinated by images of bicycles and cyclists. Anyone aware of this penchant can often see shapes which might well be, and perhaps originally were, bicycle wheels and figures derived from the characteristic stances of cyclists. But it is guesswork, spiced with a little inside knowledge, which leads one to that conclusion.
That was all very well for the already converted, but to the public at large much of Medley's art was frankly incomprehensible. Given Medley's passion for the theatre, he believed intensely in communication. If he was not communicating, he did not like it. That did not stop him making art, but it surely stopped him showing more than he did.
However, now that he has, some 11 years after his death, retreated into history, his loose, suggestive kind of abstraction does not create problems. And if he has become history, his art remains astonishingly immediate. Not only do his eloquently coloured patterns satisfy on their own terms, but they might have been painted by some young Turk only yesterday. That is, if there were any around who could paint half so well.
Robert Medley: A Centenary Tribute is at James Hyman Gallery until January 27. Tel: 020 7839 3906.
Apollo Magazine, December 2005
Susannah Woolmer remembers twentieth century British painter Robert Medley.
Robert Medley (1905-94) once wrote that his paintings depended upon the `vitality of the expressive mark'. Medley thrived on an interplay between abstract and figurative representation; he was responsive to landscape but in the 1940s his main preoccupation was with the human figure. In the 50s he moved away from the predominantly figurative, although human experience was to remain his primary interest. Recognition of the sort accorded to such contemporaries as Patrick Heron and Peter Lanyon eluded Medley until the 60s and 70s although he is still not a widely-known name outside artistic circles. He exhibited infrequently during his formative artistic years, disliking the aggressive self-promotion it entailed, preferring to hone his craft in private. This decision was perhaps ultimately detrimental to his public reputation but it allowed him to keep his integrity intact.
James Hyman Gallery is staging an exhibition to mark Medley's centenary: he would have been one hundred this month. The excellent accompanying publication contains essays and commentary by John Berger, Maggi Hambling, David Hockney, R.B. Kitaj, Norman Rosenthal and Andrew Lambirth, which provide a sensitive and affectionate portrait of this erudite and underrated artist.
`Robert Medley: A centenary tribute', at 6 Mason's Yard, Duke Street, London (+44  20 7839 3906), runs until 27 January 2006.
© 2021 James Hyman Gallery, PO Box 72888,
LONDON N2 2FH