The Top Boxes, Arthur English and Monsewer Eddy Grey
Oil on canvas, 1989 -92
RWA Curatorial and Technical Manager Tristan Pollard discusses this month’s painting from the Permanent Collection, which has a theatrical theme.
Francis Hewlett was born in Bristol in 1930 – a time when theatres and cinemas proliferated in the city and queues to see the latest Hollywood movies or the plethora of music-hall turns would have been a common sight.
Hewlett began studying at the West of England College of Art and in 1949 he began taking regular visits to the Bristol Empire Theatre, Old Market, to sketch. He would arrive late, following his daytime drawing classes, and sketched throughout the performances for another two hours. Audiences were already in decline by this time, however, due to the rise in popularity of television. With so many empty seats available, Hewlett was treated by the management as a non-paying fixture in the back row of the circle.
His late-night drawing sessions, which continued until 1952, saw him amass hundreds of detailed drawings which he found too daunting at the time to turn into paintings. Thoughts of creating large and elaborate paintings seemed too ambitious for his unskilled hand. It wasn’t until 1981, after years of sporadic attempts to make something of the sketches, that he settled down to compose a series of paintings which eventually formed the basis of an exhibition that opened at Browse and Darby, London, in 1993.
This month’s POTM came from that exhibition and portrays two music hall performers from the Crazy Gang – a group of British entertainers that formed in the early 1930s. The duo playfully heckle the act on stage from above. Ironically, Arthur English was later to become a well-known television actor, joining the very medium which was helping to undermine theatrical entertainment.
Hewlett was heavily influenced by the French Impressionists and artists such as Corot, Corbet and Chardin, as well as English artists such as William Coldstream, Claude Rogers and Walter Sickert. His theatre paintings convey the dramatic effects of the harsh theatrical lighting on the figures in the audience, the acts on the stage and the internal architecture, where pools of light bleach colours like an over-exposed photograph, while deep shadows create murky depths in which anything could be happening. Each painting, full of detail in both the ornate decoration and expressions of the faces in the audience, took Hewlett months to complete, and were carefully re-constructed from the original sketches to create these evocative snapshots of a bygone era.
The Empire Theatre slowly deteriorated, both physically and artistically, with strip and drag shows becoming a regular occurrence, interspersed with performances of notoriously dubious plays. It was taken over for a short time as a BBC theatre, but eventually succumbed to the requirements of town planning and was demolished in the 1960s to make way for traffic improvements.