JOHN PLUMB (British,1927-2008)


John Plumb was one of the most notable of the abstract painters to emerge in Britain after the war. His work, however, was never as widely admired as it should have been, partly no doubt, because of the resurgent interest in figuration that resulted from the commercial success of Pop Art during the 1960s.

Plumb was born in Luton on February 6, 1927. Always keen to be an artist, he went to the Byam Shaw School in London at the age of 20, leaving two years later for Luton School of Art and then the Central School in London, where his teachers included Victor Pasmore and William Turnbull. (The latter became a friend and an important influence.) While studying at the Central Plumb married Joan Lawrence, also from Luton and a close friend for some time. She supported him financially for several years.

Success came quickly. As early as 1948 Plumb exhibited with the New English Art Club and sold a picture, a portrait of his wife, which was also mentioned enthusiastically in a review in The Observer. Plumb's first solo exhibition, at Gallery One, London, was in 1957, and Plumb subsequently showed at the Marlborough and Axiom Galleries, though he never remained with a single dealer for long. Perhaps the most important group exhibition, in which Plumb participated, was in 1960. It was Situation at the RBA Galleries, and it attracted much interest in the work of such emerging young abstract painters as Bernard Cohen, Robyn Denny, Tess Jaray and Mark Vaux, all of whom were, like Plumb, to make a name for themselves before the attractions of abstraction began to fade for many British collectors and curators.

At that time Plumb was making bold, handsome, and colourful compositions, in which what appeared to be the results of rigorous discipline - chiefly hard-edged shapes of a single hue together with an immaculately crafted finish - had been produced by methods that were partly improvisational. In this the use of coloured adhesive tapes, manufactured for the electrical industry and acquired for Plumb by the radio tycoon and art collector E.J. Power, was crucial. They could be applied to the canvas and as easily removed and reapplied until the right position and combination was achieved.

Plumb's work already reflected an admiration for American colour field and hard edged painting, though it was never imitative and was always developing. The tapes soon disappeared, replaced by bold, hard-edged shapes interrupted in places by marks imitating broad, gestural brushstrokes. By the mid-1960s Plumb was producing large fields of a single colour with narrow, sometimes scarcely visible, margins of other colours intended optically to modify the effect, and even the emotional impact, of the central, dominant, and usually ravishingly beautiful  hue. Contrary to appearances these paintings were also improvisational in essence since the modifying colours on the margins were chosen by trial and error, the process continuing until what seemed like the right combination was achieved.

Never entirely satisfied with what he was doing for long, Plumb frequently changed direction. He then allowed chance to dominate his method, randomly selecting his colours and the order in which they were arranged on forms like ladders distributed at various angles across the canvas. He also employed assistants to apply the acrylic paint.

A much greater shift occurred after Plumb became dissatisfied with this frustratingly impersonal approach, which nevertheless resulted in some strikingly beautiful paintings. He returned to figuration and nature, concentrating on landscapes, many of them of places in the Thames Valley. This dramatic change may also have been the result of his retirement from teaching, his lack of a dealer, and his belief the art world had passed him by.

His figurative paintings (many of them pastels) are enormously accomplished and had many admirers but they did not satisfy him for long. Naturalistic studies of the stream at the bottom of his garden in Shepperton, where he was living at the time, quickly gave way to compositions, in which the organic forms and complex curving lines derived from direct observation came to dominate his compositions. They allowed Plumb to exploit one of his greatest gifts, above all his exquisite colour sense.

Plumb's eyesight then began to fail and macular degeneration was diagnosed. This forced him to give up painting entirely in 1997, but two years later he took it up again, having developed various strategies to cope with the problem, surely the most depressing that can afflict any artist. One of those strategies was to make small, heavily impastoed pictures, whose qualities are as much tactile as visual.

At the end of 1993 Plumb had moved from Shepperton to Yarnsccombe in North Devon. In the year before he died recognition of his importance finally began to grow significantly and it cannot be long before Plumb is finally recognized as one of the most impressive painters of his generation.

by Frank Whitford


Blenheim, 1962

JP in his studio c.1964

Spring, 1965

Pink, 1966

For Bix, 1975

Hydrastructure 8, 1991

Untitled, c.1992

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