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Guy Roddon (1919-2006)



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Unframed oil painting by Modern British artist Guy Roddon (1919-2006)
Oil on canvas
Unframed measuring 40 x 71 ins (102 x 180 cm)

Guy Roddon (1919-2006)

Guy’s Obituary in the Guardian, 7th Sep 2006 by James Beechey

“The art of Guy Roddon, who has died aged 86, falls into no easy category, but is defined by its strong formal structure, abstract content and melancholic mood. From portraits he moved on to spaces captured in pastel, and he loved to paint abroad, particularly in France.

He first made his mark in portraiture under the influence of Augustus John's former protege Henry Lamb, who in 1949 invited Roddon to share his Chelsea studio. Roddon's subjects included the novelist LP Hartley, the composer John Ireland, Archbishop Michael Ramsey and Sir Roy Strong, but it was not his true metier, and gradually the human figure began to fade from his work. Sometimes it might register as a reflection in a mirror; more often, it was alluded to as an invisible, but suggested, presence in a room recently deserted or about to be entered.

The recurring motifs of Roddon's pictures were a spiral staircase, generally seen from above, the view from a window or balcony, and the empty interior - all legacies of his nomadic upbringing. Pastel, in which he worked more effectively than oil, perfectly suited the sense of ambiguity and impermanence he sought to convey. In 1979 he published a useful technical guide to working in the medium.

Roddon had an unconventional childhood. His parents divorced when he was four, and he was brought up single-handedly by his father, a man already in his mid-50s by the time his only son was born. Robert Roddon had spent his working life as private tutor to the maharajahs of Jodhpur, but on his retirement from India he found it impossible to settle. Instead, father and son traversed Europe, living in a succession of hotels and boarding houses. Guy made his first visit to the Louvre at the age of six, and by his early teens was familiar with most of the major European galleries.

He was educated at Bryanston school, in Dorset, where a lecture on Cézanne by the art critic RH Wilenksi proved a further step in his decision to become an artist. He went on to Goldsmiths College, London, and to the Byam Shaw School of Art, from neither of which he greatly profited.

Along with many artists during the second world war - including William Coldstream, Claude Rogers and Julian Trevelyan - Roddon found a comfortable billet, diverting work and genial company in the Camouflage Corps. In his first posting, to Farnham castle, Surrey, he was under the command of Colonel Jack Beddington, the suave director of Wildenstein's, and the gallery owner Freddy Mayor. Following a transfer to Norwich, he was one of a band of camouflage officers working for the theatre designer Oliver Messel.

The headquarters of the Eastern Command camouflage school were the city's 18th-century Assembly Rooms, which Messel had lavishly restored by the troops. Messel was replaced by the painter and critic Roland Penrose, who hung the officers' mess with examples from his impressive surrealist art collection. Penrose offered Roddon a chance to sample the choppy waters of European modernism, into which, on demobilisation, he dipped a cautious toe.

After the war Roddon earned a living by teaching. He was artist-in-residence at the University of North California, lectured at Goldsmiths and was on the staff of Brighton College of Art. The position from which he derived most fun - and which provided him with a fund of amusing anecdotes - was at Cobham Hall, a girls' boarding school in Kent. He had an enormous enthusiasm for, and genuine interest in, young people in general and attractive young girls in particular. He never lacked female admirers, though neither of his marriages - to "two of the most terrifying women in England" - was a success.

Roddon inherited his father's restless temperament, and out of term time he painted in north Africa, America and Europe - above all in France, where he produced much of his best work. In Paris he often borrowed the studio of his friend Edwin John, but he was just as likely to be found sketching at a pavement cafe or in the secluded corner of a left-bank restaurant. Until the end of his life he was a frequent visitor to Menton, on the Côte d'Azur, and a regular member of the English delegation that, each year on the anniversary of Aubrey Beardsley's death, processed to the hill-top cemetery and laid a wreath on his grave.

Roddon never lost his disarming wit, nor the mischievous glint in his eye. He was an essentially kindly and good-humoured man, whose occasional testiness betrayed some of the disappointment he must have felt at his critical neglect. In old age - bearded, dressed in well-tailored but shabby clothes, and invariably sporting a French beret - he seemed a relic from a long extinct bohemian world. At the time of his death he was the longest-standing member of the Chelsea Arts Club, which he had joined more than 60 years earlier.

His minor eccentricities added to the image. In later years, when his supply of female models ran dry, he was sometimes to be seen in the telephone box near his studio, furtively stuffing prostitutes' advertising cards into his coat pockets - excellent silhouettes, he maintained, from which to draw.

Of course, he relished the surprise on the part of his neighbours - some of them fellow worshippers at the local Catholic church - at his behaviour. But it was also typical of his talent for improvisation. All his life he displayed an enviable knack for making the most of the many unlikely situations in which he found himself.”

A photographic portrait of Guy in his studio taken by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies in 1978 is in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. The gallery also holds Guy’s own painted portrait of the composer John Ireland.

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