Robyn Denny was one of the UK’s most influential painters of the post-war era. He was a leading name in the so-called New Generation of artists who graduated from the Royal College of Art in the 1950s and helped bring British art into the mainstream. With his friend Richard Smith, he was an instigator of the groundbreaking ‘Situation’ exhibition at the RBA Galleries in 1960, a landmark for British abstract art. He represented Britain at the 1966 Venice Biennale and became the youngest artist ever (at the time) to be awarded a retrospective at the Tate in 1973.
Denny is best known for his large-scale paintings and murals, most notably in 1958 for his Great Big, Biggest Wide London for the Austin Reed store which the Beatles chose as the backdrop for one of their first London photoshoots. However, a new exhibition at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery has brought together more than 30 of his lesser-known works on paper. Many have never been shown before and they span his whole career (he died in 2014) providing a fascinating and intimate record of his journey as an artist.
I’ve been speaking with Robyn’s son Dom who is the ‘Keeper’ of the estate and has been instrumental in bringing this show to the gallery. Though his father split from his mother when he was a young boy, Dom Denny maintained a close relationship with him throughout his life.
The first thing you notice at this exhibition is that your father was following the abstract path from his early days.
His calling as an artist was not necessarily to be working in a traditional way. That’s what drove him to being an abstract artist. The transition would have happened around the mid-50s at the time when the American abstract artists’ big exhibition came over and he and Richard Smith went to see it together and for them it was like a Road to Damascus moment. Suddenly they saw something that they couldn’t necessarily have imagined but they felt was where they were at.
Did he ever talk about what it was that they felt?
What’s interesting about Dad’s practice was that he was very private about it. For example, I can’t think of any time that I ever saw him painting. We could go into the studio but it would have to be pre-arranged so he would say come in at half-past five and everything would be cleaned and put away. Any big paintings would be turned against the wall. So you never saw anything until it was shown.
Why do you think that was?
He was very private. His studio was the place he expressed himself, where he’d reach very deeply into his soul, his psyche. If you look at the big pictures, there’s something very powerful about being in front of one of those works and, as Dad said, his work requires attention, you can’t just skim over it. He was never going to be prescriptive and say what it was about. It’s for you to decide. You are required to think deeply and engage with the work. It’s not about what does this mean, it’s about what means to you. At school I used to hate people knowing that my Dad was an artist. I was slightly embarrassed about it. I’d get asked to do a talk about his work and show them and you’d always be told ‘my five year-old brother could do better than that, Denny’. It was just like a nightmare.
Looking at some of his 1950s works in this exhibition, there’s a wonderful subtlety to his gouache works (above).
There’s a real lightness to them but there’s an intensity. Again, you’re required to pay attention to them. They are small but they’re very powerful. There’s a lot going on in there. I like the idea that it’s for you to form the relationship with the picture. Dad once said that no painting should reveal all it has to say on its first viewing, you have to continue to look at it, engage with it and come back and let that picture reveal itself to you and as it does so you’re revealing something about yourself, your openness to accept what you’re seeing and how you decide how to interpret it.
Your father worked with collage from the very beginning of his career, and his most famous one was the large one he made for the Austin Reed shop in London. Here in the exhibition we have the original maquette which he scaled up and it became the backdrop for the Beatles’ first photoshoot in London.
It became an iconic image for the Swinging Sixties and the optimism of the time. What’s interesting about this whole show is that you look at these smaller works and you can see the jumping off points to all the bigger paintings. This was a working out and there are similar ones as when he did the Embankment tube station mural which is still there. I don’t know how many people go through there and see it every day and people are always posting on social media photographs of going through that. I’m always amused at the size of his signature. He did quite a lot of public commissions. He did a school down in south London where it was much more a mosaic work, he did the Paramount cinema in Lower Regent Street, he did a church in Harrow Road, the whole back of the church and he even designed the garments for the priests.
He also designed one for Portuguese Airlines (top shot), and once again the maquette is on show here. I notice that as the years went on, his work became more geometric.
Yes, his geometric style became very much his signature. His work is becoming less formal, we’re starting to see him arriving somewhere in a geometric way and cleaner and even though his work becomes more decorative, there is still that same squaring off, things are happening, there’s a focus to them.
It’s interesting how the focus (in the picture above) only occupies a small percentage of the paper. He’s using space in an interesting way.
Yes and I think that’s one of the great things about a lot of his works is that willingness to allow something to happen in space. I think it’s quite brave to let space be around something. When you actually make something intensely, and it’s doing its job, and you put space around it, it can breathe and it makes the centrepiece that you’re drawn to seem more important. He’s obviously painted on paper, then he’s sliced it and reordered it and laid it again.
There’s suddenly a gap of about a decade in this show between 1963 and 1973. Why is that?
There is no work on paper, there’s nothing in the collection. It was all done on canvas. Dad was incredibly busy at that time. You’ve got the Venice Biennale happening in 1966, you’ve got the Tate show in ’73, he was exhibiting all over the world all the time. All the energy was going into the big-scale paintings rather than making small works on paper. We only discovered this as we were putting this show together. We were living in the States in part of this period. Dad was teaching in Minneapolis at the university there, so he was producing a lot but not on paper.
More recently you see almost figurative forms like flowers and rock faces, yet you can see a continuity from his earliest works.
What’s really interesting about this exhibition is that you can see the journey. What you also see is the consistency and that commitment he made to abstract painting after he’d seen those American artists and believing that that was his course and spending that summer when he and Richard Smith wrote a kind of manifesto as to what kind of painters they were trying to be.
Both Dick and Dad absolutely kept to that and never veered from it. There was never a point at which Dad thought my work’s not very popular at the moment, I need to change it. He was absolutely committed to doing what he believed was the art he wanted to make. And he stuck to that for the rest of his life. For me, it’s only since he’s died that I’ve realised all of that. It gave me a real new appreciation of him and my understanding of him as a man. He wasn’t like a carefree hippie artist who didn’t care whether you did well at school or not. He was very rigorous and would write to us every week. He would send me letters at the beginning of term with a list of the things he was expecting. I’ve got hundreds of letters from him, and his engagement with us as children was very supportive and not prescriptive but there was a discipline to it all and it’s that same discipline I see here in this exhibition.
Robyn Denny, Works on Paper is showing at the Bernard Jacobson Gallery, 28 Duke Street St James’s, London SW1 6AG until 16 November 2019.