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Edward King: A Life in Art - A Review

25 November 2016

Writers of art history have often speculated about the psychology of creativity. Indeed, Bethlem Royal Hospital has been host to countless artists and creatives over its many years as a psychiatric institution, legacies of which can now be seen in the collection of Museum of the Mind. Some were already well know such as the Victorian painter Richard Dadd and “the man who painted cats”, Louis Wain, while others only discovered their practice once inside the hospital’s walls. But amongst these stories of manic makers and melancholic producers we also find real examples of recovery through art, of lives driven by the compulsion to create, and nurtured by the artistic process.

Today there seems to be an ever growing awareness of the significance of art to mental health, and it is gaining recognition not only in our institutions of care, but in our cultural organisations too...

A self portrait of artist Edward King, who is featured sitting in the centre of the painting.
Self Portrait, Edward King (date unknown). Oil on board. Photo credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services.

In Portsmouth, on a short visit to see family, and in an attempt to entertain my notoriously hard to entertain grandparents we took a trip to Portsmouth City Museum to see a newly opened exhibition on local artist Edward King.While my parents and grandma tried to recognise present day Portsmouth in the bomb shattered scenes of his Blitz paintings, and my granddad absorbed himself in a solitary game of Nazi or not-Nazi over by the cases full of war time objects, I found myself engrossed in the artist’s biography stenciled on the wall.

Born in 1862 Edward King was a relatively notable British artist. At the height of his career his illustrations were featured in the Illustrated London News, and his paintings shown in galleries and museums including the Royal Academy of Arts and the Society of British Artists. He was known and admired by contemporaries such as J.M. Whistler, and was commonly believed to have been an influence on the young Van Gogh.

However in 1925 he was committed to St James’ Hospital in Milton after suffering a breakdown following his wife’s death from consumption. There is no clue to this in the works that are on show here, indeed his paintings are far more realistic than they are fantastical. But this is unsurprising; appearances, be they of a person or of a painting, do not disclose much of what is beneath them. What does surprise me however is that although deemed too unwell to live in society he continued to prosper as an artist. King absorbed himself in his art whilst in hospital and encouraged by staff, who recognised the importance of his art to his recovery, he became a familiar sight around the hospital farm and the waterfront at Milton Locks. He created a huge number of works during this time, and after the 1941 Blitz bombings was commissioned by the Mayor of Portsmouth to document its devastating aftermath. Now he could be seen sat painting amongst the rubble, hiding unfinished pieces within the wreckages to return to later.

The Connaught Drill Hall, Stanhope Road, Portsmouth.The building to the right of the picture has been hit by a bomb in world war two, and only the front facade remains.
The Connaught Drill Hall, Stanhope Road, Portsmouth. Edward King (1941-46). Oil on board. Photo credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services.

These paintings make up a large and fascinating proportion of the works on show at Portsmouth City Museum, and provide an incredible documentation of the terrible events that ultimately shaped the city as it is known today. But beyond that his Impressionistic brush marks and earthy hues, portraying scenes marked by crumbling architecture and burnt brick, capture the very essence of Britain at war. Yet despite this, today, Edward King remains largely unknown. He died in hospital in 1951 and his works were subsequently bequeathed to Portsmouth City Council, in whose care they have remained. Now for the first time the city puts on a show of over 70 paintings and drawings by the artist, as well as photographs, archival material and objects from Portsmouth’s museum collection.

This exhibition is a great display of local history – and an excellent choice for visiting grandparents - but it is also an impressive retrospective of an artistic career that spanned well over half a century. Encompassing one world war and one mental illness it is a fascinating insight into the troubled, yet immensely creative mind of one of Britain’s forgotten geniuses.

‘Edward King: A Life in Art’ is on at Portsmouth City Museum, Museum Road, Portsmouth, Hampshire, PO1 2LJ until Spring 2017, Tues-Sun 10-5, Admission Free. Find out more information here: http://www.portsmouthcitymuseums.co.uk/

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