Bertram Priestman R.A.
by Nicholas Bowlby
From Antique Collecting magazine, June 1985

Bertram Priestman was born in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1868. He first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1889, and from that time until his death in 1951 he gained a reputation as one of the most eminent painters of his time.

He was elected a Royal Academician in 1923, exhibited alongside Corot, Degas and Boudin at the Goupil Galleries in 1909, was described as the "finest sky painter of our day" by Sir Frank Brangwyn, and is represented in the national collections of Canada, Hungary and Ireland amongst others, as well as in New South Wales and numerous municipal and private collections throughout the world. Yet today he is hardly known. Contemporaries of his such as William Nicholson, Wilson Steer, Walter Sickert and Orpen are sought after by collectors. But Priestman seems to have been passed by.

The major reason I believe to be quite simple. Very few of his works have come on to the market in recent years, and those that have have not done him justice. Although labelled as a "landscape" painter, Priestman was never a specialist, and it is impossible to make a judgement on him as an artist with only one or two paintings as evidence, hence the large number of illustrations in this article (which are arranged in chronological order).

Sir Frederick Wedmore wrote in his essay on Priestman in Some of the Moderns, published in 1909 — "Priestman may paint again, in fat prairies, the wandering or ruminating kine. Very likely. And no good judge of modern Art would have reason to be sorry for it. But I know that he is certain to paint again — to paint with ever increasing interest, and at least with nothing less than his present quietly possessed mastery — the harbour and the ship, the bridge and the canal boat; where, in mid-storm in some hollow or bottom the trees give shelter from the wind, and the grey church nestles. Nor can he stop painting — for he paints with a zest altogether apparent — the great marine horizons, the cloud borne up from the West, the stretch of dreary waters, and as it bears down on the victim shore it so entirely possesses, the force and gathered impetus of the sea."

Priestman, possibly more than any other painter of his generation, was able to capture the voluminous light and life of the English countryside and coast and, revelling as he did in the exercise of free flowing line provided by oil paints, he produced some marvellously atmospheric paintings. In the modem desire for pictures that represent an idealised and often sentimental depiction of rural life, Priestman's work stands as a virile and incorruptible standard by which to judge them.

Wedmore wrote as the concluding paragraph in Some of the Moderns — "Interesting in itself, Priestman's Art — which is without affectation — is interesting, too, as being associated with the quite modern reaction from the last generation's gospel. His painting is modern, partly because in its vision it embraces as worthy so much of the visible world that the lover of prettiness, of obvious picturesqueness rejects; and
partly because its very method reveals a return to the greater traditions — to 'the large utterances of the early Gods'."

Bertram Priestman's father was a Bradford businessman, and also a noted art collector. His son was brought up in a house filled with fine paintings and this undoubtedly helped influence his future. After leaving school he visited Italy, Egypt and Palestine, and after a brief period studying engineering, he decided to become a professional artist and moved to London where he studied at the Slade. He then worked in the studios of William Llewellyn, later President of the Royal Academy. His first picture to be accepted by the Academy was a portrait of a "Chelsea Pensioner", but this was followed by six years of non-acceptance. When asked what he thought the reason might be Priestman replied "I rather fancy I was too advanced in my ideas for this body at that time."

However, these years were not wasted, and he found the International, the New Gallery and the New English Art Club more than willing to hang his paintings. He was also patronised by two famous collectors of that time, Alexander Young and Staats Forbes, who were also great collectors of Corot's work.

In 1911 he painted his famous "Outskirts of a Northern Town", which was hung at the R.A. and later bought by the York Club of Toronto. The Standard reported that "beauty is not invariably destroyed by the presence of tall chimneys, and the association of modern labour with ancient country peace. And that is a truth that the greater artists have now for some time understood."

Soon after being elected an R.A. he began to paint portraits, again with great success. When asked how he managed the transition from landscape painting to portraiture, Priestman replied that the two were complementary to the extent that landscape painting "teaches one to visualise, after short acquaintance, the subject, and thus enables one to work from memory. In landscape work, one sees transient effects, and is taught to memorise them completely. Therefore such training and experience enables me to apply such memorisation to portraits. I do much of my portrait work from memory."

It is the diversity of his works that strikes the student of Priestman's work most. Early in his career he was known primarily as a "cattle painter", partly because the galleries he dealt with found that this subject was popular with their clients, and partly because it fascinated him to draw the animals which inhabited his English landscapes. But he soon threw off these attempts to label him and turned instead to the panoramic paintings of the Yorkshire moors, and particularly Wharfedale, for which he is probably best known.

But he was not only valued by collectors who bought his pictures. He was largely responsible for Edward Seago becoming the major painter that he did. At a time when Seago was uncertain of his future as an artist, it was Priestman who persuaded him to continue, and provided one of the major influences on his subsequent career. They continued to meet throughout Priestman's life. In a letter dated 30th April 1933 Seago wrote to Priestman "We arrived home on Friday night, or rather Saturday morning about 3 am. I think it was one of the most marvelous days that I have ever spent. Thank you so much indeed for a wonderful time which I will always remember." In March 1943 Seago wrote from Salisbury "Have you ever painted down in this part of the world? It is so absolutely right for you that I feel you must have worked here. The water meadows and the willows — scenes such as 'the Lock Pool'." (This last probably referred to "Lock on the Waveney" painted by Priestman in 1922.)

In July 1947 Sir William Russell Flint wrote: "It is 49 years since I made acquaintance with your work. I still have the reproductions which delighted me in 1898 and they still give me a double sort of pleasure — knowing them and knowing your true artist's integrity and love of your subjects."

In June 1945 Sir Gerald Kelly wrote from Windsor Castle: "I echo your wish that I may long be spared to go on painting for in spite of all the nuisances (and painting Royalties brings along a lot of extra difficulties which shouldn't be added to the task — but which must be endured) yes, in spite of all the disappointments there's no occupation so delightful as painting in Oils. You know that as well as I do. The approval of a brother Academician tastes good."

In January 1937, Sir George Clausen wrote to the Priestmans: "I've always looked on you both as our real friends, and have had your works in admiration, and I know that your point of view is in sympathy with mine."

The list of impressive tributes to Priestman from his fellow artists is too long to study in depth, but the few above give some idea of the esteem in which he was held.

It seems even more extraordinary that he is so neglected now. One feels that he would not entirely approve the modern desire for what he would describe as "pretty pictures." He was very much a countryman, inspired not by its decorative qualities, but by its grandeur and power, elements faithfully portrayed in his work.

In response to an invitation for a contribution to an anthology of short passages chosen by eminent people in aid of the rebuilding of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre destroyed by fire in 1926, Priestman sent the following excerpt from Bacon's Essays: "Not but I thinke a painter may make a better face than ever was; but he must doe it by a kinde of felicity (as a musician that maketh an excellent ayre in musicke) and not by rule."

Yorkshire has always regarded him as its own and in 1981 Bradford City Art Gallery and the Ferens Art Gallery of Hull staged a major retrospective exhibition of his work. Many of the paintings in this show will be exhibited at the Twentieth Century Gallery's exhibition of Bertram Priestman's work opening on 10th July — the first major selling exhibition of his work since his death in 1951. Many of the paintings have never been on display before and they provide a unique opportunity to study his development from a young aspiring artist, through his years of fame and success as a Royal Academician, to the paintings of East Anglia and finally Sussex where he died.