[1] Ruskin Spear RA, The Old Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, 1943, 1979. Photo: RA/Prudence Cuming Associates Limited © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[2] Ruskin Spear RA, Portrait of Ernest Marsh, ca. 1954. Photo: RA © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[3] Ruskin Spear RA, Man in a Pub, 1960s. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

[4] Ruskin Spear RA, Mackerel, 1960s. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts, London

Artist of the Month - April 2017


Ruskin Spear RA (1911-1990)

As a flamboyantly self-styled 'working class cockney', Ruskin Spear RA found subjects for painting in the pubs, snooker halls and streets of Hammersmith, Fulham, Shepherd's Bush and Chiswick in London.

Augustus John Ruskin Spear (1911-1990) was born in Hammersmith, west London, and lived in and around this area all his life. Disabled by polio as a child he attended Brook Green School for afflicted children, where he first displayed a talent for and love of art. He won scholarships to Hammersmith School of Art (1926-1930) and the Royal College of Art (1930-34). Between 1941 and 1950 Spear taught at the Croydon, Sidcup, Bromley, St Martin's, Central and Hammersmith Schools of art. He went on to teach at the Royal College of Art from 1948-75. Spear was elected to the London Group in 1942, becoming its president from 1949-50. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1944 and became a full Royal Academician in 1954.

The Old Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, 1979 presents a nostalgic view of Spear's local theatre as it was in 1943 [1]. In 1979 the theatre had reopened after being dismantled and rebuilt on a nearby site. Spear chose an unusual angle to paint the view, possibly the upstairs window of a nearby building. Adjacent to the theatre is a Woolworth's store, its exterior embellished with notices for a local second-hand furniture business. A hoarding decorated with colourful advertisements for OK Sauce and Seniors Fish and Meat Sauce cuts across the scene. The bold impact of these posters on the greys and browns of the cityscape relates to Spear's interest in Pop art and popular culture.

Spear deeply admired the work of Walter Sickert and the Camden Town group, whose distinctly localised depictions of the grime and glitter of London life greatly influenced his own style. When he was elected a Royal Academician in 1954, he presented Portrait of Ernest Marsh as his Diploma Work [2]. Marsh, who worked in a fish and chip shop, sat for many of Spear's portraits as the artist was interested in his 'wonky eyes'. Spear celebrated individuality in his portraits and often developed relationships with his sitters believing that personal anecdotes allow for a deeper understanding of the sitter's personality that can be communicated by the portrait. Spear is known for his touches of light colour highlighting elements of the picture, for instance the detail on Marsh's face and shirt collar. Spear often painted on coloured grounds, and here the pale blue of Marsh's shirt is thinly applied revealing the use of a rich copper-brown ground colour which also appears in the flesh tones and Marsh's trousers. This creates a cohesive composition unified by colour.

Another familiar subject for Spear were the regulars in his local pubs; in Man in a Pub, c.1960s, a small elderly man in a cloth cap is shown from a low viewpoint behind the bar [3]. His head is partially cut off by one of three black skittle-like beer taps, giving the impression that the picture was not a formally posed composition but a surreptitious sketch.