“The 1950s is of particular interest to us because it was a significant time in British painting,” says Steve Swallow, co-owner of Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth, Cumbria.
The art expert is talking about a new exhibition of abstract figurative post-war paintings by North West artist Bob Crossley which has recently opened at Castlegate. In partnership with his wife, Christine, Steve has been collecting the work of mid-20th century figurative painters for quite some time.
As for Crossley, his painterly, abstract figures strike out from gloomy backdrops. “There was an economy of palette,” explains Swallow. “Dull colours were much cheaper during this post-war period. Crossley was making this work at an important turning point in British art. The colour is muted, but his semi-abstract painting is full of energy and expression.”
He adds: “Crossley’s paintings are intriguing. While at first glance appearing relatively thinly applied, the execution is complex, multi-layered with energetic brush strokes helping create a true painterly depth and energy.”
Born in Northwich and raised in Rochdale, Crossley was a self-taught artist. After leaving school at 14, he entered a trade as a sign writer followed by a period designing cinema posters. Returning from Italy, where he was posted with the RAF during the Second World War, he joined the Rochdale Art Society and attended drawing classes.
“We visited Bob Crossley in his Porthmeor studio around 15 years ago,” says Swallow. “We didn’t have the gallery then, and the abstract paintings he was working on didn’t really excite us.
“It was in 2012, when I was delivering a painting to a collector, that I first saw one of his earlier figurative works and I was blown away by it.”
Swallow continues: “There are very few of Bob Crossley’s mid-century paintings that have survived, possibly only 12 or so. So, to have eight from that era right here in Cumbria, this is a rare opportunity to see the little-known work of an artist who demonstrates the essence of post-war modernist painting. Looking at them, they couldn’t be from any other era and that is part of their magic.”
Before he moved to St Ives in Cornwall, Crossley was a significant figure in the Manchester art scene. He was accepted into the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts (MAFA) and secured a major exhibition at Reid Gallery in London for his early works, one of which was bought by close friend, L.S. Lowry.
Moving to St Ives gave the artist the freedom to paint whatever he liked, with Crossley alternating between painting and running a beachside shop, which supported both his family and his practice. It’s here that he met Ben Nicholson and Terry Frost and became involved in the St Ives painting community. Soon, his work changed into formal abstraction.
The move also opened up his colour palette although, allegedly, he blocked his studio window with thick curtains, shutting out views of the sea and, probably to the horror of his St Ives contemporaries, the beautiful St Ives light. Crossley was still living and painting in St Ives when he died in 2010, aged 98.
Like Crossley, Swallow grew up in Rochdale but moved to London to pursue a career in finance. When he turned 40, Swallow decided that he wanted to become a full-time art dealer instead and made the move to Cumbria.
He says: “We wanted to open a gallery and it took us two years to find the right building. Then, in 2012, we eventually found the Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth.”
The Georgian building now hosts work by mid-century artists like Sheila Fell, Percy Kelly, Frank Auerbach, Patrick Heron and Winifred Nicholson alongside living artists such as Grayson Perry and David Hockney. Normally, you’d have to make the journey to London to see this sort of work.
Although the gallery is in Cumbria and has a strong local collector base, Swallow’s collection offers a much broader appeal, which sees him travelling around the country to carry out art dealings.
“I’ve just returned from a two-day round trip to Cornwall to visit an artist and a collector,” he reveals. “Many of my collectors are in London. However, there are people who will visit the gallery to buy art that they respond to.
“I go out and find emerging artists to show in the gallery, young artists who are at the start of their career, including Will Reinsch, Katya Granova and Alice Campbell, to satisfy a growing demand for contemporary affordable art, too. It’s important that we champion new artists and we have launched a biennial art prize, the Castlegate Prize, to support and identify new and exciting artists.”
The exhibition of Bob Crossley’s eight works will be open until May 15, 2021 at Castlegate House Gallery.