‘A supremely gifted artist, of international stature’ – L’Arte (Milan)
‘Creffield’s work became more light, airy, and – an unusual quality, especially in post-war figurative art – joyous’ — Martin Gayford, author of Modernists and Mavericks
Many artists find their style, at some stage in their career, and remain more or less faithful to it. Dennis Creffield (1931–2018) preferred to work ‘like Billie Holiday sings the blues – and she says she never sings the same song twice.’
He began his career as part of the group of post-war British painters, including Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach, who had first been taught by David Bomberg. He won early praise from the likes of major critics John Berger and David Sylvester for massy, brooding paintings of London, influenced both by Bomberg and by the monumental style of Cézanne – these were represented in the Tate Britain’s ‘All Too Human’ survey of British painting in 2018. But Creffield moved beyond his master, particularly after he relocated to Brighton in 1968. Today, he is best remembered for drawing all 26 of England’s medieval cathedrals over the course of a marathon six-month stint in 1987. R.B. Kitaj called these electric large-scale charcoals ‘the best things of their kind since Mondrian’s church facades’.
But the spirit with which Creffield approached his cathedral drawings – one of ‘mutual embrace’ between artist and subject – was the same he took to everything he attempted, as he reinvented his style time and again over the course of a seven-decade career. Not for the sake of novelty, but because he wanted to tune the way he drew or painted to the true nature of all he encountered: from the dour mass of the city to the flicker of light on the sea off the Brighton coast; from religious to erotic subjects; and across his eclectic range of interests in history, architecture, poetry, philosophy and music. It is not surprising that his admirers and collectors included writers such as Peter Ackroyd, the chronicler of London, architects such as Colin St John Wilson, and poets such as the Russian Regia Derieva.
You can tell a Creffield by its line – quivering, almost crackling with energy, rendering cathedral or nude alike as living, pulsating entities. But this is perhaps the only constant; his mature work draws on a diffuse range of influences, from Turner to medieval art and Greek sculpture. He was an ardent Catholic, but his faith in the mysteries of the liturgy – the ‘spirit made flesh’ – was coupled with an equally fervent appreciation of carnal desire. ‘You have to fall in love with a subject before you can draw or paint it’, he believed – and his love, realised in everything from erotic nudes (shown in a solo display at the Serpentine Gallery in 1980) to brazenly fleshly depictions of The Visitation (1979–80), was equal parts sacred and profane. He made portraits of Beethoven from his death mask and of William Blake from his life mask, getting under the skin and into the mind. He made a series of self-portraits dressed as Horatio Nelson, complete with midshipman’s hat. Works from throughout his varied career are held in collections worldwide, from the Tate and the British Museum to LACMA, from the UK Government Art Collection to the House of Commons, and from a Japanese bank to a university in the US.
For Creffield, the act of painting or drawing (he held the two in like esteem) was not a means of imposing his vision of the world on canvas or paper, but of physically encountering it. It was an attempt to better comprehend how the shape of a spring lily, a naked body, the ribbed vault of a church, a poem or an aria or a liturgical sermon each, in its discrete way, shaped his experience of life. A celebratory encounter with the world, in all its abundance, that gives his work its distinctive edge in the post-war era. ‘An act,’ as he had it, ‘in which eye, mind, body and imagination are all one at the same time together.’