Cache of paintings by mysterious artist who shunned fame to go on display for first time

Hannah Hayes-Westall
Keith Cunningham and his clothing designer wife Bobby, Courtesy Bobby Hillson (picture courtesy Bobby Hillson)

In the late 1950s, Keith Cunningham was one of the art world’s brightest stars. Critics praised him, galleries vied to show his work, and like his Royal College of Art contemporaries Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff, he seemed set for a brilliant career. Then one day, he stopped exhibiting.

Cunningham died in 2014, aged 85, and he may have ended up as little more than a footnote in British art history, had a trove of more than 150 paintings not been discovered in his studio. They offer a glimpse at an extraordinary talent, and an insight into one of the art world’s enduring mysteries.

It’s a story that has echoes of the disappearance from literary life of JD Salinger. What makes a man on the brink of achieving all he has ever dreamed of suddenly turn his back on success?

People’s memories of Cunningham paint a picture of a puzzling character. A recent letter by Auerbach describes him as “quiet and mysterious... An outstanding talent”, while his widow Bobby Hillson says he was an “intense, secretive” man when it came to his art, recalling that his work was so personal he found it difficult to share with anyone.

Keith Cunningham, Dog, © of the artist, by courtesy of Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu

“He didn’t sketch anywhere he would be seen,” she says. “He never admitted he was a painter when people asked him; he always said something ridiculous, and he got away with it. He didn’t want people to talk to him about painting. He never said why, and I didn’t press him. It wasn’t something that was ever discussed.”

To pay the rent, Cunningham made a successful career as a graphic designer, but continued to paint in private. Locked in the church-like calm of his studio in Battersea he would recreate faces he saw on buses and in cafes from memory, a practice he had first established whilst studying life drawing at the Royal College.

Auerbach recalls that time: “He kept a little room on the Brompton Road. [He] looked into the college to look at the model, then sprinted back to the room to paint the model he’d seen from memory. After two years, at the final examination, he showed the paintings produced in this way. They looked very distinguished to me, full of nervous life, and he was awarded a first class honours degree.”

Cunningham’s exit from the public realm is even stranger when you consider how much effort he made to become a painter. He was born in Sydney in 1929, leaving school at 15 with no qualifications. He showed a talent for drawing and got a job in advertising for a department store before working for the Australian designer Gordon Andrews, who became something of a mentor, lending him books and suggesting he attend evening classes. It was on his advice that Cunningham, aged 20 and with an alarmingly small amount of money in his pocket, boarded the ship on which he was to work his passage to London.

Keith Cunningham, Skull No 5, © of the artist, by courtesy of Keith Cunningham Estate. Photos: Sylvain Deleu

Armed only with his portfolio, Cunningham marched into Central Saint Martins, where a receptionist took pity on this quietly spoken young man who had travelled so far, summoning a principal. He was interviewed in a corridor and immediately offered a place, later enrolling on the Royal College of Art’s fine art course.

The mid-1950s were an exciting time to be at the Royal College, and Cunningham made friends with artists including Joe Tilson, Frank Auerbach, Leon Kossoff and David Methuen-Campbell. Working in a fervid atmosphere of creativity, he appeared to have found himself as an artist, and the work he produced left a lasting impression on established figures such as the Academicians Sir Roger de Grey, Carel Weight and John Minton, who went as far as to say Cunningham was “one of the most gifted painters to have been at the Royal College.”

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The paintings show an artist whose powerful subject matter is equalled by his muscular technique. Screaming faces loom out of the darkness, skulls appear to melt against smog-yellow backgrounds, prone, faceless figures are rendered in the colours of the slaughterhouse. There are hints of the psychological intensity of Rembrandt’s portraiture, and of another old master, the Spanish painter Velázquez, whose works Cunningham experienced first hand when he travelled to Spain.

Hillson, who created the Central St Martin’s fashion MA course and was an early supporter of designer Alexander McQueen, has now organised a mini retrospective – entitled Keith Cunningham, The Unseen Paintings 1954 – 1960 – displaying his works for the first time, more than 55 years after his last show.

His brilliance shines through in all of them, proof that Cunningham was a singular talent and a loss to the art world. Hillson offers one last theory regarding his self-imposed exile: pride. “He made a decision, and I suspect he thought it was the wrong decision afterwards, but then it went on too long; a moment passed and then everything had changed.”

Keith Cunningham, The Unseen Paintings 1954 – 1960, is on at the Hoxton Gallery, 59 Old Street, EC1V 9HX, until 13 October

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