When in 1948 Pasmore started to make and exhibit his abstract reliefs, the great British art critic Herbert Read – somewhat bombastically, but nevertheless with a degree of accuracy – proclaimed that what had taken place was the ‘most revolutionary event in post-war British art’. Pasmore’s conversion to abstraction was all the more surprising because he had by then began to establish himself as an exceptional and accomplished realist painter.
Victor Pasmore was born on 3rd December 1908, in Chelsham, Surrey, the eldest son of Edwin Stephen Pasmore (1866-1927), physician and specialist in mental disorders, and Gertrude Eva Screech (1884-1974) amateur painter. His parents encouraged their son’s interest in art, as too did Maurice Clarke, the art master at Harrow, the school Pasmore attended (1922-1926). On leaving Harrow it was thought that Pasmore would go to art school, but his father died, and needing to find employment Pasmore worked as a clerk in the Public Health Department, London County Council – a position he held for the next ten years (1927-1937). This did not stop tuition in art, however, and in the evenings Pasmore attended classes at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. Here he began to develop an interest in 20th century art – especially in the work of Braque, Picasso, Matisse and Bonnard. He also became a member of the London Group which sought to advance public awareness of contemporary visual art; the London Artist’s Association founded by Roger Fry, and Objective Abstractions, a group which, referencing the late paintings of Turner and Monet, more clearly espoused an exploration of abstraction.
Pasmore befriended two realist painters, William Coldstream, member of Objective Abstractions, and Claude Rogers, member of the London Artist’s Association, and together the three opened The Euston Road School of Drawing and Painting (1937). The Euston Road School asserted the importance of painting traditional subjects in a representational manner and lasted until the outbreak of war in 1939. It was dissolved partly because there were differing approaches to curriculum: Coldstream advocated teaching art with a social and political conscience, Pasmore argued that art need not make reference to anything outside of itself – that great art, in fact, needed independence from political aims.
At an exhibition of London Group paintings, Pasmore’s Tea Gardens – resembling work by Pierre Bonnard – was bought by Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, London. This was the first of many Pasmore paintings to be bought by Clark; and it was the beginning, too, of a patronage which enabled Pasmore, in 1938, to leave employment with the London County Council and to start to paint full time.
Clark’s patronage was felt in several ways. In 1940 Pasmore married Wendy Blood, and they would have two children, a son and a daughter. Marital life was interrupted by conscription, however, and despite registering as a conscientious objector Pasmore was sent for training at Sandhurst. He did well at Sandhurst – excelling particularly as a marksman – but, again asserting his objections to war, he this time deserted his training. For this Pasmore was briefly incarcerated before Clark intervened to bring about his release.
Up until this point in his life – and despite, as noted, his affiliations to groups exploring abstraction – Pasmore’s art had stayed essentially within the bounds of the representational. He had always read widely in art history and theory, however, and towards the end of the 1940’s he began to read Kandinsky, Mondrian and Arp,
and to transpose his theoretical understanding of abstract art into experimentation – first by taking geometrical shapes – the square, the spiral, etc – and introducing these into his landscape paintings, and then through the making of more purely abstract reliefs.
Pasmore’s reliefs in many ways echoed exciting architectural practice at the time, both in terms of the materials used (transparent Perspex and painted Plywood) and in the geometrical shapes explored. He was at this point (1954-61) teaching art at Durham University, Newcastle, where a new architectural practice, Ryder and Yates, was being formed. Led by Gordon Ryder and Peter Yates the practice was influenced by Le Corbusier and Berthold Lubetkin, and in its exploration of modernism it would, in the decades 1950-70, come to dominate much that was innovative in architecture in the North East of England. The new town of Peterlee, County Durham, was one project on which both of these architects would work, and Pasmore was appointed Consulting Director of Urban Design for Peterlee. In this capacity he created the Apollo Pavilion. Made of reinforced white concrete the Pavilion consists of large geometric planes spanning a small lake; and in many ways the building evidences a translation of smaller scale relief work into successful architectural reality.
In 1966 Pasmore bought a house and studio in Malta; here he painted, but he also worked on prints. He developed a rich abstract language of line and colour, referencing natural and organic forms and using a variety of marks from the stippled to the sprayed. He stayed in Malta, working right up until his death in 1998.
Pasmore’s breakthrough into abstraction and his achievements therewith resulted in sales and celebrity. He was made CBE in 1959 and Companion of Honour in 1981, and he was elected a Royal Academician in 1983. His work is held in many public collections including the Tate, London; Manchester City Art Gallery; Leeds City Art Gallery; the Ashmolean, Oxford; the Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.
Public Collections holding work by Victor Pasmore include:
Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Tate, London; Manchester City Art Gallery; Leeds City Art Gallery; the Ashmolean, Oxford, and the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.