An American Colourist

Until 16th October 2022, the Royal Academy of Arts is exhibiting the works of Milton Avery, one of North America’s greatest 20th-century colourists. Milton Avery: American Colourist is the first ever exhibition of Avery’s artwork on this side of the Atlantic Ocean. Falling between Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism, Avery’s work is full of carefully balanced colour, which became more harmonious and simplified as his career progressed.

Milton Clark Avery was born on 27th March 1885 in Altmar, New York to Esther March (d. 1926) and Russell Avery (d. 1905). His father was a tanner, and the family moved around a bit until they settled near Hartford, Connecticut. Avery attended school until age 16, after which he started working at the Hartford Machine and Screw Company. Four years later, Avery enrolled in an evening class at the Connecticut League of Art Students to learn “commercial lettering”. He hoped this would improve his job prospects, but part way into the course, he transferred to drawing classes and dedicated the rest of his life to art.

Avery’s early works, dating between 1910 and 1918, reveal the influence of American Impressionist painters, who produced impasto paintings of landscapes. Gradually, Avery began using thinner paint, making his paintings flatter and less natural. He also started using arbitrary colours, often creating a distorted reality. As he moved away from Impressionism, Avery stopped painting from life, preferring to make quick sketches on-site and return to his studio to recreate them in oil paint.

From 1920, Avery started spending his summers in the art colony of Gloucester in Massachusetts. Despite his aspirations to be an artist, Avery took on other jobs, such as construction work, to pay for his tuition. Avery could finally focus on his painting after meeting the illustrator Sally Michel (1902-2003) at the art colony in 1924. Two years later, Avery and Sally married and moved to a studio complex in New York. While Sally worked as an illustrator for the New York Times, Avery devoted himself to painting and studying the arts.

During the late 1920s, Avery began exhibiting his work, starting with the 11th Annual Exhibition of the Society of Independent Artists in 1927. After attending several shows, the Philips Memorial Gallery purchased Winter Riders, the first of his paintings bought by a museum. The art style shows Avery was beginning to move away from Impressionism, although he still used some techniques, such as layering thick paint to create a sense of texture.

Avery and Sally continued to spend their summers in Gloucester until the birth of their daughter March in 1932. During the summer months, Avery sketched and painted beach scenes, but around the time of his daughter’s birth, he began experimenting with cityscapes too. At this stage of his career, Avery’s paintings still contained a lot of energy, such as Chariot Race (1933). The carnival scene is a stark contrast to Avery’s other landscapes, which have the typical layout of a foreground, middle ground, background and horizon.

After settling in New York with his wife and daughter, Avery became part of the artistic community in the city. He joined the Valentine Gallery and held his first solo exhibition in 1935. The attention he received from this and other small exhibitions helped widen his friendship circle, which included the artists Mark Rothko (1903-70) and Adolph Gottlieb (1903-74). The Averys hosted many friends and acquaintances at their apartment, where they discussed art and read poetry.

Rothko and Gottlieb visited Avery daily, paying great interest in Avery’s work. Known for his prolificness, Avery often completed a painting every day, which inspired his fellow artists. Despite his popularity, Avery did not talk much during gatherings, preferring to sit, listen and sketch the surroundings. Many of the objects he drew ended up in future paintings, as did portraits of the people in the room.

Avery’s early portraits, such as March in Babushka (1940), which depicts his daughter wearing a headscarf, became less detailed than his earlier landscapes. Despite winning a prize for portraiture in 1919, Avery did not produce many portraits in his early years. After the birth of his daughter, he moved away from landscape to focus on portraits of people within cityscapes. This change also signalled a new approach to colour and form, which he simplified and stripped of any layers or sentiment. Yet, in 1947, Avery held his first retrospective exhibition titled My Daughter March, which emphasised his love for his family.

During the 1940s, Avery stopped creating formal portraits but continued to include human figures in his work. Most of these figures lost any distinguishing features, such as the faceless girl in Seated Girl With Dog (1944), whose face is split between light and shadow with two contrasting colours. Avery no longer used the colours of nature, instead experimenting with various hues and tones. By thinning the paint, Avery covered large areas of the canvas with a single colour, focusing on the shape rather than perspective. He used the tone of colour to determine the atmosphere of the scene rather than rely on intricate details.

Avery’s change of style in the 1940s established him as one of America’s leading colourists. In hindsight, he greatly influenced the next generation of artists, who moved on to Abstract Expressionism and other forms of modern art. Avery revealed the possibilities of colour, particularly non-associative or unnatural tones, in scenes of everyday life.

Toward the end of the 1940s, Avery’s health began deteriorating, and doctors advised him to slow down and stay home. Avery did not follow medical advice and suffered a major heart attack in January 1949. After a six-week hospital stay and months of recuperating at home, Avery returned to the art scene with an exhibition at the newly founded Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York.

In 1952, Avery took his first and only trip to Europe with his family. They visited France and the United Kingdom, documenting his journey through sketches. Many of these drawings made their way into his paintings, such as Excursion on the Thames (1953). Avery sat on the steps of the Tate Gallery (Britain) to make the preliminary drawings for this painting. When speaking about his visit, Avery said, “I was visiting the Tate museum and got tired and went outside for a few minutes and saw this excursion boat and made this small sketch, and when I got back to New York City I painted a big canvas from it.”

With March now a young woman, Avery and his wife felt able to accept invitations to undertake summer residences, such as at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York. In 1957, Avery spent the summer in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he began creating large-scale paintings. The larger the canvas, the less detail Avery included. Instead, he focused on bold colours to draw people’s attention to the artwork. Yet, Avery still depicted some form of scene rather than a random pattern.

During the winter of 1959, Avery and Sally travelled to Key West, Florida, where the warmer climate was better for Avery’s health. During their stay, Avery completed several simplified beach scenes, such as Boathouse by the Sea (1959). Using only four colours, orange, blue, yellow and black, Avery created a sense of depth and perspective, although some people may need to know the title before the scene becomes clear. The large black portion of the painting represents the roof of the boathouse, presumably viewed from above by the artist. The yellow and blue represent the sea, and the orange is the sky. Either Avery intended to depict the sunset, or he used orange to contrast with the colour of the water.

Other seaside scenes feature less conventional colours, such as the pinks in Sails in Sunset Sea (1960). This painting differs from other works because Avery has included squiggly lines to represent the waves or ripples on the water’s surface. The choice of colour may not be as random as it first appears. Capturing only the two sailing boats rather than a larger scene, Avery has focused on the colours of the setting sun on the water. Whilst it may not be one of his better works, Avery’s thought process is still visible.

Avery suffered a second heart attack in 1960 and spent the following year recovering in New York. Most likely against doctors’ orders, he continued to produce paintings. In 1963, Avery was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, one of the oldest learned societies in the United States. Members are nominated and elected by peers, making it a great honour to be accepted into the Academy.

On 5th March 1964, Avery, now critically unwell, completed his final painting, Hills and Sunset Sky. The following day, Avery went into intensive care at Montefiore Hospital in New York. He remained there for the rest of the year, eventually passing away on 3rd January 1965 at the age of 75. He was buried in the Artist’s cemetery in Woodstock, New York, and his wife donated all his personal papers to the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

“He was, without question, our greatest colourist. … Among his European contemporaries, only Matisse—to whose art he owed much, of course—produced a greater achievement in this respect.” So said the art critic Hilton Kramer (1928-2012) in his 1981 book about Avery. Several artists thought of Avery as an American Matisse due to his colourful compositions, which echoed the works of Henri Matisse (1869-1954). Critics initially disliked Avery’s work, claiming it was too abstract, yet when Abstract Expressionism became popular, they said his work was too representational. Due to these opinions, Avery does not belong to a particular art category. Instead, he bridges the gap between two art movements, Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism.

Avery was not a rule follower, which allowed him to experiment with his art rather than conform to the accepted standards of the early 20th century. Visitors to the Milton Avery: American Colourist will see the progression of Avery’s work from Impressionism to something not quite Abstract Expressionism. Some will prefer his early paintings and not understand why he altered his style, but others will appreciate his use of colour and his ability to express himself in new ways that inspired a new generation of artists.

Milton Avery: American Colourist is open at the Royal Academy until 16th October 2022. Standard tickets cost £15, although concessions are available. To guarantee entry, booking is recommended.


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

If you would like to support my blog, become a Patreon from £5p/m or “buy me a coffee” for £3. Thank You!

Advertisement

Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea

44583368_10214999823220473_1332140611444146176_nCan you believe that Simeon had been abroad but had never seen the sea? The red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) knew he had to rectify that, so took advantage of the pleasant, late-October sunshine and travelled to Essex’s famous seaside, Southend-on-Sea. With a map produced by Treasure Trails to help him, Simeon was ready to explore.

Southend-on-Sea, more commonly known as Southend, lies on the north side of the Thames Estuary, approximately 40 miles from Central London. With a train service running directly to the capital, Southend has been a popular holiday and day trip destination for millions of people. Originally a handful of fishermen’s huts, the old village has developed into a large, commercial town, now home to the world’s longest pier, an airport and an amusement park.

Adventure Island, formerly known as Peter Pan’s Playground, lies either side of the entrance to the pier on Southend’s seafront. The area began as a seaside garden, appropriately named Sunken Gardens, in 1918, adding a couple of children’s rides two years later. It was not until 1976, when the site was extensively redeveloped, that it earned the title “amusement park”. Since then, the playground has expanded, regularly adding new rides, such as its first roller coaster Green Scream in 1999.

Simeon decided to give the amusement park a miss, the sight of the 97-degree drop on one of the newest rides making his stomach churn. Besides, he did not reach the height requirement to even ride the gentlest mini rides. Simeon was far more interested in the crashing waves and sandy beach.

Southend-on-Sea’s foreshore has been registered as a protected nature reserve due to its importance to migrating birds, particularly in the winter. Every year, Southend welcomes local and international birds to its beaches where they find food to survive the cold months. Southend and the rest of the Thames Estuary support the fifth largest amount of wintering waterfowl of any estuary in the United Kingdom. An estimated 153,000 birds flock to the muddy foreshore, which is full of burrowing creatures such as worms, cockles and mussels.

Along the sea walls and under the water are a number of different creatures. Crabs congregate in sheltered areas, including rock pools or under pebbles. Sea sponges and anemones are often found attached to the underside of the pier along with typical plant life that attracts many waterfowl. Under the sea, a rare plant called eelgrass has flourished, drawing the attention of Dark-bellied Brent Geese who particularly like the delicacy.

Other birds that are often found along the coastline at Southend are the common gull, black-headed gull, grey plover, ringed plover and shelduck. With protection, the natural landscape produces enough plants and sea creatures to feed these species and more.

Simeon was a little disappointed that it was not quite the winter season when he visited Southend and, therefore, was not able to meet the winter visitors. Nonetheless, he was intrigued to find out about the environment along the Essex coastline. Although hiding on the day of his visit, the Thames Estuary is home to Harbour Seals and, during the summer, the occasional Harbour Porpoise.

Those who travel to Southend purposely to see the wildlife do not have to rely on luck, good weather or time of year, instead they can visit Sealife Adventure along the Eastern Esplanade. Seemingly the number one aquarium in the south-east, Sealife Adventure is filled with fish, turtles and a walk-through tunnel shark tank.

As well as nature, Southend-on-Sea is full of history, some forgotten and some that have left their mark. There are a few things that Southend is particularly famous for; one is a traditional seaside delicacy – ice cream. Walking down to the seafront from the town centre, Simeon passed a few benches dedicated in memory to local inhabitants. One, however, stood out above the others: In Loving Memory Of Tony Rossi Founder Of Southend’s Famous Ice Cream. Died 7th August 1977.

On the Western Esplanade, beach-goers can be found taking refreshment at the original Rossi’s Ice Cream parlour. The shop was founded in 1932 by the Italian immigrant Fioravanti Figliolini and has remained open ever since. The famous name Rossi came about when Figliolini joined forces with Tony Rossi, another Italian immigrant. Although Figliolini eventually took over the business, he kept the easy-to-remember name and spread the ice cream establishment to Weymouth in Devon. Unfortunately, this entrepreneur has been forgotten, whilst Toni Rossi receives all the accolades.

“The Pier is Southend, Southend is the Pier”
– Sir John Betjeman (1906-84)

Whilst Rossi may be popular, there is no doubt that Southend’s greatest attraction is the pier. At 1.34 miles (2.16 km), Southend Pier is the longest pleasure pier in the world. Due to its length, a train regularly transports people from one end to another, although it is possible to walk. Simeon decided he would much rather look at the pier from the beach than join the crowds on the decking. Due to it being October, and thus almost Halloween, the train had temporarily been transformed into a spooky ghost train.

Now a Grade II listed building, the construction of the current pier began in 1887 based on designs by James Brunlees (1816-92). Prior to that, a wooden pier had been in place since the 1830s, however, the growing influx of visitors from London took its toll on the oak-wood timber. The new pier was built with iron piles to make it a much sturdier and endurable structure.

In 1927, the pier was extended further in order to accommodate larger steamboats and was officially opened by Prince George, Duke of Kent (1902-42) on 8th July 1929. Ten years later, however, it was closed to the public and overtaken by the Royal Navy for use during the Second World War. The pier was renamed HMS Leigh and the seafront from Southend to Chalkwell was given the title HMS Westcliff.

Despite surviving the war, the pier has had a succession of disasters that threatened to destroy the world famous structure. In the late 1940s and 50s, many additions were made, including cafes and a theatre. Unfortunately, much of this was lost during a fire in 1959. Later, a fire in 1976 destroyed most of the pier head followed by another fire the very next year. Some of the ruins can still be seen at the very end of the pier.

In 1980, the pier was condemned, however, protests and a grant from the Historic Buildings Committee allowed the pier to be repaired. After two decades of success, the pier head was redeveloped to accommodate the growing number of visitors and a lifeboat station was opened, which features the RNLI museum.

Everything was going well until 2005 when another blaze destroyed almost half the pier. Fortunately, no one was hurt and a lot of the structure was able to be salvaged, allowing the pier to reopen to the public by the end of the year. Two years later, Southend Pier was voted Pier of the Year and continues to thrive to this very day.

Redevelopments since the last fire are still in progress and the public has been encouraged to help with an “Adopt a Plank” scheme. For £100, people can have their name engraved on a plaque on the pier and their money goes towards the funds for the redevelopment programme.

Whilst most people come to Southend for the sea, it is not the only geological feature, the entire landscape from Southend towards Benfleet is made up of tall and slightly unstable cliffs. Simeon’s tour of the area took him down the pedestrianised section of the cliff to the seafront then back up through the recently developed Cliff Gardens.

Although Simeon walked up the paved slopes, there is the option of using the famous Southend Cliff Railway, which operates during the summer months. Constructed in 1912 by Waygood and Company, the single car funicular takes 12 people at a time up and down the 57 ft (17m) cliff for a fare of 50p each way.

By walking up through the cliff gardens, the hard work and steadfast dedication to nature can be witnessed by the carefully cut grass and well-maintained flower beds. The development process began at the beginning of the 20th century, coinciding with the opening of the Southend Cliff Railway.

Features were gradually added to the garden until 1939 when it evolved into the layout that remains today. These gardens are an important example of an English seaside resort and continue to be one of the best-loved characteristics of Southend.

44625138_10214999828380602_1999576643751903232_nIn 1921, a war memorial was unveiled in memory of the 1338 men of Southend-on-Sea who lost their lives during the Great War. Designed by Sir Edward Lutyens (1869-1944), it features painted stone flags on either side of a tall column. On the grass in front of the memorial, slabs of paving stones spell out the words “Lest We Forget.”

The names of “our glorious dead” were recorded on a tablet in the refectory at Prittlewell Priory. Prittlewell was the original name of the village, the Southend area being at the “south end” of the village. Prittlewell Priory was established in the 12th century by monks of the Cluniac Order, later becoming a private residence after the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII. Gradually, parts of the estate were sold off and developed into High Street and the terraces. With the arrival of the trains from London in the 19th century and a visit from Queen consort to George IV, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821), the remains of the Priory’s land was quickly redeveloped, eventually becoming the seaside resort it is today.

The name Prittlewell is remembered in Prittlewell Square, the oldest park in Southend-on-Sea. The entrance is marked with a clock donated by a local jeweller and philanthropist Robert Arthur Jones (1849-1925), who was the last owner of Prittlewell Priory and was responsible for the selling of the majority of the land. Today, Prittlewell Square contains a pond surrounded by well-kept lawns. Along the circular pathway, benches are dedicated to lost loved ones who lived in the area.

Positioned high on the cliffs, overlooking the charming Cliff Gardens and views over the Thames Estuary are a number of different establishments. One is the Westcliff Hotel built in 1891 and still running today. Over time it has been popular with celebrities, such as Billy Connolly and the Chelsea Football team and, more recently, has become a venue for weddings. There is, however, an older, more famous hotel in the area.

After parts of Prittlewell Priory were sold off, the Royal Hotel and Terrace was constructed between 1791 and 1793, however, it got its name much later. As already mentioned, Princess Caroline visited the area in 1803, staying in terrace rooms numbers 7 to 9. The hotel was renamed in commemoration of her visit.

Shortly after, the life of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson (1758-1805) was remembered in 1805 with a ball in his honour given by his mistress, Lady Emma Hamilton (1765-1815). The hotel was also used throughout the 19th century for special events and meetings, particularly by companies involved with the building of the pier and railway.

During the Second World War, the houses in the terrace were used as the headquarters of the Naval Control Service for the Organisation of Convoys. As a result, the hotel could no longer function and it was not until 1978 that it was fully restored to its former glory.

Another famous building upon the cliffs is the Cliffs Pavilion, which opened in 1964. Originally, a 500-seat art deco theatre was planned during the 1930s, however, the start of World War II put an end to its construction. Over a decade after the end of the war, construction began again but with very different plans. Today, the contemporary looking building contains a 1630-seat auditorium, bar and restaurant and puts on numerous plays and performances every year. Over the years, famous acts have included Paul McCartney, Oasis, Gloria Gaynor, The Drifters and Glen Campbell.

Further back from the cliff edge is a smaller but more intriguing theatre. The Clifftown Theatre, with a 150-seat auditorium, is located in a converted gothic church. The religious building was originally opened as a United Reformed Church in 1865 – a plaque on the side of the building from 1889 remembers the preacher and the architect, both whose surnames were Hamilton. Whilst the addition of a war memorial hall in the 1920s suggests the church initially flourished, it soon fell into desolation. After remaining empty for many years, it went under a four-year refurbishment, finally opening in 2008 as a state-of-the-art theatre. Since the Clifftown Theatre gave it a new purpose, the old church building has been awarded a Conservation Award from the Southend-on-Sea Borough Council Design Awards as a result of the “subtle integration into the street-scene, the intimate theatre space and the care taken to retain and record historic features”.

As Simeon discovered, Southend-on-Sea is much more than a seaside town to visit on sunny days. The area is steeped in history and is home to a wealth of naturally occurring features and marine life. Simeon’s two-mile round tour covered a large amount of Southend’s past and present, however, there is bound to be so much more out there to discover.

Whether you explore Southend via Treasure Trail, like Simeon, or come to relax on the beach, have a thrill in the fairground or have a shopping spree, you are guaranteed to experience one of the greatest natural seasides in Britain. No matter who you are or what you do, there is so much to discover if you are willing to look. Read the plaques around the town, look into the history of various buildings, walk along the quieter roads, what will you discover?

Certificate

 

For more information about Treasure Trails and the areas they cover, please visit their website.

Read more of Simeon’s adventures:
Amsterdam
Bloomsbury
Rainham Hall