Group report

This is an article published in the Winter 2017 edition of the Hayling Island U3A newsletter...

We have covered many interesting places, events and people this year but the most interesting was an English Artist who lived and painted in Portsmouth under sad and unfortunate conditions.

Edward King, an English artist in Portsmouth from 1926 until his death in 1951 was known for his Blitz paintings. He went mad and was committed to St James' Hospital, Portsmouth. However, this seems to be all that is common knowledge of the Impressionistic painter and illustrator, and does not do him justice. On researching further we found out more about the sad circumstances of his life in Portsmouth.

Born in 1862 Edward King was a relatively notable British artist. Early in his career his illustrations were featured in the Illustrated London News and his paintings shown in museums and galleries including the Royal Academy where he exhibited over 50 works up until 1924. He was a member of the Society of British Artists and a contemporary of J M Whistler, Augustus John and Paul Nash. He joined the Plein-Air Movement in St Ives, an artist’s colony founded by Walter Sickert and James McNeil Whistler. Van Gogh admired his work and bought one of King's drawings and is commonly believed to have influenced the young Van Gogh.

After his wife died from TB, King suffered a breakdown and in 1925 he was committed to St James' Hospital in Milton. The conditions under which mental health patients lived, at that time, would have plunged him into even more depression, loneliness, and desolation, without stimulation, he would withdraw and become unresponsive. His drawing and painting became his solace and salvation. Staff recognised the importance of his art to aid his recovery and after several years he was allowed to wander around the hospital grounds to paint and was a familiar sight around the hospital farm, painting the landscape and trees.

Eventually he was free to go to the beach at Langstone Harbour and Milton Locks where he became a familiar character, painting everything around, houseboats, seascapes, buildings and self-portraits. He would use any surface to paint on, be it wood, cardboard or paper. People would sit and watch him paint and he was found by all to be 'a most loveable, eccentric gentleman, who could talk lucidly and graphically.... his very blue eyes carefully studied and weighed up all he saw'. He created a huge number of works during this time, every day, all day he would sit and paint, often giving paintings to the locals.

After the 1941 Blitz he was commissioned by the Mayor of Portsmouth to paint the devastation that Portsmouth had suffered. His Impressionist style shows scenes of crumbling architecture, burnt brick and the desolation of a blitzed city. His beautiful haunting paintings of the bombed buildings of Old Portsmouth are a testament to his wonderful talent. Despite this, Edward King remains largely unknown. He died in 1951 and his works were bequeathed to Portsmouth City Council, in whose care they have remained.

An exhibition of the Blitz paintings is on show at the Portsmouth Museum until December 31st 2017. A rare opportunity not to be missed.

Karen Walker

Go to the Local history 3 group page