'Ten bob's worth of beauty?' Theodore Garman (1924-54) and his place in mid-20th-century British art.

Author:Gray, Jennifer


I've just sold a picture of some tulips to one of the psychologists down here ...

The old josser seemed quite pleased when I suggested 10/- and declared that his wife 'would love ten bob's worth of beauty!' (1)

SO wrote Theodore Garman to his mother, just before Christmas 1940. Until the beginning of the 21st century, Theodore Garman's work was almost unknown, and then a fortuitous visit to an art gallery set in motion a multifaceted research subject about an artist who seems, according to gallery records, to have had such an immediate appeal to members of the general public. (2) Fifteen of his works form part of the Garman-Ryan Collection at The New Art Gallery, Walsall, and include striking canvases of still life, portraits and landscapes, filling the gallery with colour and vitality. Most of his paintings remain in private collections around this country and overseas, including America and New Zealand. Some were destroyed by the artist and of those some had already been photographed by his friend, Ida Kar, the portrait photographer. One painting was donated by his parents to the Queensland Art Gallery, Australia, and another was given to the National Art Gallery, Armenia, by Ida Kar. Currently 108 paintings have been found, or identified from photographs.

Theodore Garman was the illegitimate son of Sir Jacob Epstein (1880-1959), and Kathleen Garman (1901-79), impoverished music student and model, who met and loved Epstein, and remained devoted to him until his death in 1959. During those years she had three children by him: Theodore in 1924, Kitty in 1926, and Esther in 1929. Epstein, already married, chose to live apart from Kathleen and their children, visiting them frequently, sharing outings with them and making provision for them. He never recognized his son publicly, and Theodore was the only member of the family not to be modelled by him, but a few Epstein sketches of him as a child exist, including the delightful Theo (1930, The New Art Gallery, Walsall). (3) There is no evidence that he accepted any advice or tuition from anyone, and there is no evidence that he ever painted his father. Perhaps the absence of any record of meaningful communication between them is the most significant fact about their relationship. (4) However, Garman was once offered an apprenticeship by Epstein to work in his studio but he refused this offer of help. (5) Most correspondance from Garman was to his mother, Kathleen, and only once in his letters does he mention his father. (6)

Until now, Theodore Garman's work has been overlooked and largely ignored by the artistic and academic world. He exhibited only three times during his lifetime, with three further posthumous exhibitions, and he was only known to his extended family and a close circle of friends connected with his parents. At the time that his own style was emerging, he developed a mental illness, which was to be the cause of his tragic death just before his 30th birthday. Garman was essentially a 'loner'. Self-taught in art, he learnt by studying the work of Classical and Renaissance painters, and some impressionists, especially Cezanne. He lived among cultured and educated people with whom he shared books and opinions, visited galleries and exhibitions and read voraciously. Some of his early letters, written when he was a schoolboy, capture the atmosphere of the times when people visited Kathleen's home in the King's Road, Chelsea. (7) He was a gifted child and was awarded a scholarship to Sloane School, Chelsea, in 1937, where he won several prizes. His love for landscape and the need to paint are reflected in some early letters sent to his mother while he was on holiday in France with his aunt. Most of his letters are signed 'Sonny' (his family nickname): 'Please dear Mum would you send me my paint-box because I found a little canvas and I want to paint the lake and that peninsular [sic] of land.' (8)

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Garman moved to a small house owned by his maternal grandmother in the village of South Hatting, Hampshire. Here, thriving amid the rural scenery, farming and village life he wrote letters full of optimism and humour. They focus mainly on the affairs of the village and his farm work, with passing references to books and music, and they describe some of the earlier works that he was producing and sometimes selling. In 1942 he became eligible for conscription, but his intense religious conviction led him to apply for the status of conscientious objector, and this was granted, allowing him to continue as an agricultural worker. (9)



In 1944 the mental illness that was finally to be the cause of his premature death presented itself initially with spells of depression of such severity that by the following year he required specialist treatment and was admitted to St Andrew's Hospital, Northampton, in May 1945. In due course he was diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia, which led his doctor to support him in his request for part-time work only. Despite this diagnosis he continued to paint as prolifically as before. By 1947 he had returned to London to live again with his mother. He was still actively painting, producing works with no evidence of a decline in his ability. But socially he was suffering, and according to those who knew him at the time, had become quite eccentric. He had adopted an odd gait, leaning to one side, muttering to himself much of the time, and often repeating phrases under his breath. (10) According to John Lade, a family friend, he was sufficiently aware to resent mockery of the kind he was subjected to by his sister Kitty's new husband, Lucian Freud. (11)

As he became progressively disturbed, he vented his frustration by attempting...

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