As we approach the centenary year of artist Percy Kelly’s birth in Workington, Cumberland (1918) and mark the twenty five years since his death in lonely exile in Norfolk (1993), it is timely to fulfil his express wish for a retrospective exhibition. It seems appropriate that the venue for such an exhibition should be here at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, a place familiar to Kelly who, at the age of 41, gathered in the Old Tullie House building among students half his age to hear the inaugural address of the Principal of Carlisle College of Art, Tennant Moon.
This major retrospective celebrates Kelly’s extraordinary talent, and for the first time many facets of Kelly’s prolific output are represented amongst the 100 works on display - some for the first time. Curator, Chris Wadsworth has selected work that charts the development of his art from his early love of the lonely Cumbrian landscapes, quiet villages and industrial harbours as well as Cornwall, Brittany, Pembrokeshire and Norfolk, all captured with his confident emotionally charged charcoal drawings and ink over translucent washes, to the later sensitive flower studies, in keeping perhaps with his emerging alter ego - Roberta Penelope Kelly.
Kelly had very few exhibitions in his lifetime and they were rarely successful - he would keep his best work back, unable to let is go, occasionally promising exhibitions only to cancel at the last minute. During his life, Kelly rebuffed many approaches to exhibit his work, amongst them Crane Kalman Gallery in London, Tib Lane Gallery, Manchester, and Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham as well as local galleries. It was not until after his death that it was possible to really examine, exhibit and promote his work.
There is a lot now known about this obsessive, retentive artist. Anecdotes have become part of Cumbrian folklore - the artist in the dress, the man who couldn’t stop drawing, Cumbria’s own Lowry - but there is still plenty yet to be discovered about the man who met Winston Churchill during an air-raid, dined with Royalty (Princess Margaret was one of his admirers) and twice refused to sell a painting to Melvyn Bragg.
Kelly lived a chaotic rather sad life but amidst the turmoil remained a compulsive artist and letter writer until the end. He said, ‘One day my letters will be seen as the most unique ever written.’ This retrospective certainly gives his drawings, paintings and letters the close attention and exposure they deserve and the immortality Percy Kelly craved. Line of Beauty, is accompanied by a catalogue with an introduction by Chris Wadsworth, that explores the development of Percy Kelly’s work from the age of 9 to the end of his extraordinary life.