Many today have never heard of Meredith Frampton, a British artist who died in obscurity in 1984. Alastair Sooke explains why it’s time to introduce the world to his brilliance.

One day in 1980, a talented curator at the Tate gallery set out for the village of Monkton Deverill on the River Wylye in Wiltshire, south-west England. His destination was Hill Barn, an isolated and distinctive house with two tall chimneys on a hill overlooking the village.

Inspired by historical French architecture, the house had been designed and built in the 1940s by its occupant, an obscure octogenarian artist who had not painted a single picture for three-and-a-half decades. The curator hoped to secure the blessing of this recluse – a decorous throwback to the Edwardian era who once told a reporter, “On August 4, 1914, civilisation came to an end” – for a retrospective of his work. 

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Two years later, the artist’s first one-man exhibition opened at the Tate, which held the national collection of British art, shortly before his 88th birthday. “Amazing, isn’t it?” the curator, Richard Morphet, who is now 78, told me recently.

The artist’s name was Meredith Frampton. Today, thanks in large part to Morphet’s efforts, Frampton’s icily sublime and eerily intense neo-classical portraits of the 1920s and 30s enjoy a degree of prominence. His Portrait of a Young Woman (1935), for instance, which depicts a beautiful auburn-haired woman wearing a floor-length ivory silk dress, can be seen on the walls of Tate Modern in London.

The smooth polish of his flawless technique is simply jaw-dropping

The same woman appears in A Game of Patience (1937), an equally ravishing canvas and one of four pictures by Frampton included in True to Life – an exhibition at Edinburgh’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art which is devoted to the overlooked tradition of British realist painting between World War One and Two.

Encountered in reality, Frampton’s paintings emit charisma and grace, as well as a compelling, if unsettling, sense of the uncanny. Frankly, they are in a different league to almost all the other pictures by his contemporaries in the True to Life exhibition. Aside from anything else, the smooth polish of his flawless technique – often, he would work on a single painting for an entire year – is jaw-dropping. 

“Every period has its geniuses,” says art historian Sacha Llewellyn, who wrote a catalogue essay to accompany the True to Life show, “and Frampton is definitely one of the greats of British art. His impeccable technique would be admired in any age. He had vision – but he was also a visionary.”

‘Order, clarity and reason’

Despite the manifest brilliance of his paintings, though, many people today have never heard of Frampton. The artist died in 1984, just two years after his only solo exhibition, at the Tate. Back in the 70s, when Morphet was considering his work, Frampton was even more obscure.

“He really was in the wilderness,” explains Morphet, who remembers coming across Portrait of a Young Woman in the Tate’s picture store. Despite being “impressed” by it, he failed for years to convince his superiors that it should be promoted to public display.

“At that time, the Tate was fixated on this idea that what mattered in 20th-Century art was the forward movement from one progressive ‘ism’ to the next, a kind of handing on of the torch,” Morphet recalls. “And art like Frampton’s, which didn’t exemplify stylistic innovation, was regarded as having nothing to do with that story. That’s why I wasn’t allowed to show it.” 

It wasn’t until a new director of the Tate, the art historian Alan Bowness, took over in 1980 that Morphet’s idea for a Frampton retrospective was taken seriously and the curator undertook his journey to Monkton Deverill. Morphet recalls feeling moved when Frampton told him that, until then, he had believed he would die and be completely forgotten by posterity, “but now he realised that would not be the case.” 

The fact that Frampton has not been the subject of an exhibition since the Tate retrospective of 1982 is, to my mind, a heinous oversight

Still, the fact that Frampton has not been the subject of an exhibition since the Tate retrospective of 1982 seems a heinous oversight. Surely it is time to introduce a new generation to this extraordinary artist, who combines the microscopic skill and technique of northern European masters such as Van Eyck and Vermeer with a peculiarly modern – and psychologically charged – sensibility. 

Meredith Frampton was born in 1894 in the affluent London neighbourhood of St John’s Wood –“into the purple,” as Morphet puts it, “of the art establishment.” His father was the “enormously distinguished and productive” sculptor Sir George Frampton, best known for his statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens as well as the memorial to the British nurse Edith Cavell outside London’s National Portrait Gallery. 

His mother, Lady Frampton, born Christabel Cockerell, a first cousin of a director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, was also a painter. “So, art was in Meredith’s blood,” says Morphet. The curator recalls encountering a silvered-bronze bust by George Frampton, depicting his young wife holding their infant son in her arms, outside the entrance to Hill Barn.

At the end of his life, an ill Frampton moved to a smaller house in the nearby town of Mere. He took the bust, which is now in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and had it placed on a plinth “in pride of place in the garden,” Morphet says, “just outside the window of his bedroom, so that he could see it every day.”

After attending the Royal Academy Schools between 1912 and 1915, Frampton had enlisted in the Artists’ Rifles. Given the preternatural clarity of his subsequent portraits, the nature of his service during World War One is significant: he was selected, presumably because of keen eyesight as well as his clear-cut ability as a draughtsman, to scrutinise aerial photographs and make maps of enemy trenches on the Western Front. “Precision of observation was absolutely crucial for him,” explains Morphet. “And you will notice that, throughout his mature work, maps and schematic diagrams of various kinds keep reappearing.”

Indeed, the recurrence of maps and diagrams in Frampton’s pictures, as well as tools and devices associated with measurement and precision – such as the prominent tape measure on a plinth in his enigmatic Still Life of 1932 – suggest that they were ciphers for the artist’s lifelong preoccupation with order, clarity and reason.

During the 20s, while working out of a studio adjoining his father’s in St John’s Wood, Frampton established himself as a portraitist of rare, and peculiar, distinction. He placed almost as much emphasis upon his sitters’ hands as he did upon their faces. Referring to human hands, he once told an interviewer: “They are lovely things to look at, the finest gadgets anyone ever invented.”

Mostly, Morphet says, Frampton painted “decisive people who had achieved a lot in the worlds of the arts or science or of public service” – such as the conductor Henry Wood and the architect Edwin Lutyens – rather than bright young things or high society.

That said, in 1929, he did paint the Duke of York (later King George VI), who had served in the Battle of Jutland. Meanwhile, some of his best-known pictures, including Portrait of a Young Woman and A Game of Patience, depict attractive young women in chic outfits.

For instance, the austere, classical dress worn in Portrait of a Young Woman by Margaret Austin-Jones, a Welsh friend of the artist who was then 23 years old, was made by Frampton’s mother based on a pattern he had selected from Vogue magazine.

Frampton also carefully sourced the sleek, pale dress worn by the professional artist’s model Marguerite Kelsey in his masterpiece Woman Reclining of 1928: the epitome, as it appears today, of chilly 20s glamour.

But the immaculate sangfroid of this scintillating picture is offset by the bright red colour of Kelsey’s shoes, as well as the hint of a nipple pressing against her dress. Both suggest, in the most controlled fashion, passion and sexuality.

The mystery years

During his career, Frampton never exhibited at a commercial gallery. His painstaking work rate – he required his sitters to commit to up to a dozen sittings of two hours at a time – ensured that he never had much to show. However, between 1920 and 1945, he did exhibit 32 paintings at the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition; in other words, he submitted a picture to the RA almost every year. Many of these paintings, mostly commissioned portraits, were acclaimed by the press and public alike. Eventually, in 1942, Frampton was elected Royal Academician.

Three years later, though, having moved to Wiltshire, his eyesight had deteriorated to such a degree that, as Morphet puts it, “he was prevented from working with the fineness of detail that was so important to him”. He stopped painting for good.

Quite how he filled his time after this point remains something of a mystery: Frampton, a charming but reserved man with a dry sense of humour, valued privacy, as did his delightful and more outgoing wife, Hilda, the daughter of a Scottish architect whom he married in 1951. That said, we know he was obsessed with the appearance of the beautiful interiors of Hill Barn – he spent a lot of time in his workshop renovating furniture and fashioning bases for lamps – and he was fascinated by the mechanisms of clocks. One interviewer who visited him towards the end of his life described his disused studio as a “cluttered” space full of chisels and tools, and considered him a “gentleman craftsman”. 

Art historians today sense an affinity between the uncanny, dream-like intensity of his pictures and Surrealism

In 2010, the last painting Frampton ever created, Sir Clive Forster-Cooper (1945), a portrait in which, curiously enough, as the art critic Waldemar Januszczak observed in 1982, the palaeontologist and director of the Natural History Museum is made to resemble “one of his own dinosaur skulls”, came up for auction. “Every detail has been painted as if it is the only one which matters,” Januszczak wrote.

At last, it seems people are beginning to understand the scope of Frampton’s achievement, rather than simply dismissing him as a stuffy reactionary out of step with the modern world. Indeed, even though Frampton distanced himself from modern art – claiming, for instance, never to have seen a reproduction of Picasso’s Guernica or set eyes on a sculpture by Henry Moore – many art historians today sense an affinity between the uncanny, dream-like intensity of his pictures, which are typically characterised by a disquieting stillness, and Surrealism.

Paintings such as Still Life (1932) and Trial and Error (1939) seem explicitly to evoke the enigmatic atmosphere of work by the Italian forerunner of Surrealism, De Chirico (something, indeed, that was recognised by art critics when they were first exhibited). Moreover, Frampton’s flawless, perfectionist finish bears comparison with that of both Magritte and Dalí, whose technique he admired. 

Morphet even sees a surprising link between Frampton’s portraits and progressive abstract art by his contemporaries Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, who most people would consider his opposite.

As Morphet explains: “The sensibilities of Nicholson and Hepworth aren’t a thousand miles away from Frampton’s preoccupation with absolute clarity and order, and the fall of light on geometrical objects, which often appear as elements in his pictures.”

In short, the paintings of this forgotten genius of British art are, paradoxically, unforgettable.

Alastair Sooke is Art Critic and Columnist of The Daily Telegraph

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