A retrospective at Sladers Yard gallery celebrates the remarkable career of Philip Sutton RA – an artist who has never followed fashion
by Fanny Charles
When Philip Sutton turned up for his first class at the Slade School of Fine Art – in a large dusty room full of naked ladies – he took with him a set of coloured inks which had originally belonged to his older brother.
It was 1949, the naked ladies were statues of Greek goddesses, and the young Philip was fresh out of National Service, where he had served with the RAF, including a year on the Berlin Airlift. The vividly-coloured inks had been used by his brother Ronnie, who had worked as a draughtsman with a printer in Holburn, and had been killed in 1942. As a teenager, Philip had been an office boy in the same business – ‘They took me on out of sympathy,’ he says.
His mother had kept Ronnie’s inks, and when Philip started at the Slade, she gave them to him. When the teacher told them to draw the naked ladies, the other students all used their HB pencils. Philip used his blue and red and yellow inks.
‘When the tutor saw what I had done, he couldn’t believe his eyes.’ At that time, such inks were only used for technical drawing.
This marked the beginning of what would be a lifetime characteristic for Philip – going against the norm. Later in his time at the Slade, Philip remembers a conversation with the tutor, which went like this:
Sam (the tutor): Phil, I don’t think I am helping you.
Phil: Sam, I don’t think you can.
Never a movement, just a painter
As he approaches his 95th birthday in October, Philip Sutton can look back on nearly eight decades of painting, which have seen him accepted into the Royal Academy and celebrated as one of this country’s great colourists – although it is not a term he would use, since he eschews labels.
The post-war years saw a sequence of fads and trends and “movements” in art, including Op Art, Pop Art and Conceptual Art. Philip never belonged to any of them. He simply paints.
Now living in Bridport, Philip is back in the county where he was born, in 1928, in Poole. He has no recollection of the town because he spent all his childhood in the East End of London, and calls himself an Eastender.
At the Slade School, he met Heather Cooke and the couple were married in 1953. Heather encouraged him to exhibit his paintings in the art school library. His work attracted interest and he won the Summer Composition Prize.
A cornerstone from a cave
A scholarship to work abroad enabled Philip and Heather to spend a year in France, travelling through to Spain. In south west France they were able to visit Lascaux and see the famous cave paintings before they were closed to the public to protect them from further deterioration.
The sight of these ancient paintings (estimates of their age vary from around 20,000 to 40,000 years) became ‘a cornerstone for me,’ Philip recalls.
Discovering and thinking about this ancient art made him rethink the idea of art history, as it is taught. ‘It was a complete revelation,’ he says. The paintings of the animals were incredible, whereas humans were just squiggles.
‘They were outside history – this was pre-art-history. I am not an academic. It has taken me many years to sort it out. What they were doing was exactly what I do – they were understanding themselves. They were drawing and painting their impressions of their time.
‘That is what creativity is about. It is trying to understand something about yourself. You need to understand how you fit into your society, where you live. The mind is cluttered and you can’t clear it completely, but you can get rid of some things – for example to do with the conventional art world.’
In the early 1960s, after some years teaching at the Slade and later living in Suffolk, Philip and Heather and their four young children travelled to the South Pacific for a year.
A year in Fiji
It had been snowing in England. I said ‘Maybe we could spend the winter in sunshine.’ He talked to a friend, a professor at the University of Sydney, who recommended Fiji.
There is a fascinating portrait of their lives on this beautiful island in a short black-and-white film shot by Heather, a pioneering female documentary maker (see opposite). They had become friends with the director Karel Reisz and, through him, got to know Albert Finney, star of Reisz’s award-winning Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Finney came to stay with them on Fiji – ‘He was our babysitter for some weeks,’ Philip recalls.
Back in England, the family lived in London for many years, and in 1977, at the invitation of Hugh Casson, Philip became an Associate member of the Royal Academy. He was elected an Academician in 1988. The following year, the family moved to west Wales where they lived until he and Heather moved to Dorset in the 2010s to be near their daughter Rebekah. Heather died a few years ago. Another daughter, Saskia, now also lives in west Dorset.