Artist profile - Geoffrey Key

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 October 2016

Geoffrey Key in his studio.
Photo: Glynn Ward

Geoffrey Key in his studio. Photo: Glynn Ward

Glynn ward

Painter and sculptor Geoffrey Key has been called the North’s finest modern artist and is now in his sixth decade of creating fabulous art sought after by private collectors and galleries worldwide, Kate Houghton writes.

Beach RidersBeach Riders

I first met Geoffrey in 2014, at my first Living Edge Schools Art Competition, which he kindly attends every year in the role of judge and inspiration to a new generation of artists. He’s knowledgeable, kind, utterly down-to-earth and completely unlike how you would expect an artist of his stature and success to be…I’ve clearly been overly influenced by the common media portrayal of artists today.

‘Oh, the cult of the artist! That really gets me on my soapbox,’ Geoffrey says. ‘The way the media today creates celebrity from an artists’ behaviour, not their work. Nobody goes on about what a terrible man Paul Gaugin was, we just look at his work. Everyone knows the backstory of Tracy Emin but how many evaluate her work?’

Geoffrey, of course, has no need to play up to the media to ‘make his name’, having launched his career in the 1960’s and gained a fervent and loyal following of collectors in every decade since.

Geoffrey’s route to artist was, unlike many of his contemporaries, laid out for him at a very early age by his mother, who he describes as a ‘frustrated artist’ herself.

Pierrot IIPierrot II

‘I was encouraged from being a very small boy,’ he tells me. ‘My mother was a commercial artist, for Dunlop, working as an illustrator for their in-house magazine. When I was growing up “going to the pictures” meant a trip to Manchester Art Gallery!’

Luckily for his mother, Geoffrey not only had natural talent, but the desire to follow it where it led.

‘I studied at the Regional College of Art, in Manchester,’ he says. ‘I did my degree in painting and then a post-graduate MA in sculpture. I trained with Harry Rutherford in painting. He was taught by Walter Sickert, who in turn had trained under Edgar Degas.’

Now there’s a pedigree to reckon with. These famous artists each had a recognisable style and I wonder how Geoffrey came to his own, unique, form.

Geoffrey Key in his studioGeoffrey Key in his studio

‘When I left college I was painting like Rutherford,’ he tells me. ‘I thought, “I’ve got to get rid of that” and set about it by painting the same scene, the Nab, a hill near where I was living at that time, until I had burnt off all that was left of Harry and came to my own style.’

Art is, of course, purely subjective. I personally find myself very drawn to some of his pieces and almost repelled by others – which is, I think, exactly what great art should do. It’s the Clown series that bothers me; a collection Geoffrey created in 2001 inspired by childhood memories of trips to the circus at Platt Fields, where the clowns terrified him.

This juvenile fear is apparent in his work, just as is his love of the horses he paints so beautifully in his racehorse collection – a series I find myself drawn back to admire again and again – although his appreciation of the equine form is purely aesthetic, as he admits to being too scared to get close to an actual horse.

Geoffrey left art school and started immediately as an art teacher; ending one week in solitary happiness in a sculpture studio and starting the next gazing in alarm at a room full of 13-year old boys. It wasn’t a profession he was destined to remain in for long, however.

WarriorWarrior

‘I felt it was impossible to do both well, I’d either be a bad teacher or a bad painter. So I packed in teaching. I had a tricky couple of years, but then had an incredibly successful exhibition at Salford Art Gallery. I earned enough money to buy a house, with a room for a studio, and then things really started to take off. The exhibition attracted the attention of the private gallery scene. I had regular shows at Pitcairn Gallery in Knutsford and elsewhere. I was asked to send work to Stuttgart, to Nancy, Lausanne…and then a piece of mine was spotted by a gallery owner in Hong Kong, who invited me to contribute drawings to an exhibition there; it was me, Henry Moore and Elizabeth Frink’

More powerful names to reckon with.

Geoffrey doesn’t accept commissions or direct approaches from collectors, but his work is found in some of the region’s finest fine art galleries, including Collect Art in Lymm, Clark Art in Hale and County Galleries in Altrincham, as well as at Art Decor gallery in Whalley, Lancashire. His most recent release has been a very limited series of six wonderful bronzes, Warrior, behind which lies a lovely story.

‘I had an email from someone in Yorkshire who had bought one of my plaster sculptures in 1964. He wanted to have a bronze one made, but had been advised he’d be breaching copyright, so was asking for permission. I said if he sent me the piece I would have six made – one for him, one for me and four for sale. He was thrilled – and I have back a piece I didn’t think I’d see again.’

It’s a really lovely little sculpture that I can’t help but run my hands over. Cast by Castle Foundry in Llanrhaeadr, near Oswestry, the technique they use (involving rubber, wax and porcelain) ensures that even Geoffrey’s thumbprint, left on the original plaster version, is visible on the bronzes, each one numbered and signed and now unique as the cast has been smashed.

While Geoffrey’s style is unmistakeable, his subject matter varies dramatically, and that is, I think, what makes this lovely man’s art so popular with collectors.

‘I paint what I see; I study something for a while, then paint from my mind’s eye –never from a photo, never from a posed still life – that’s just copying.’

Every piece original and unique – just like the man himself.

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