Ronald Ossory Dunlop, 1894-1973

It is somewhat frustrating to try and discover a great deal about the life, activities and pursuits of Dunlop beyond what he offers in his rather engaging, Struggling with Paint. This autobiography, published in 1956, is far from a full account of his life. Instead, Dunlop describes this as his, ‘personal effort to express the difficulties and the mental perplexities, the thrills and excitement, of one artist’[1].

This book gives no hint that Dunlop had a family, other than his parents. His sister, wife and daughter, his second wife and their children, are not mentioned. Nothing is said about his Quaker background and his time as a conscientious objector in World War I. In fact, though the tone of the book is thoughtful and even discursive, it is Dunlop’s inner life which is illuminated, with merely a glimmer cast upon the wider world.

We do learn a little about what sort of existence an artist might expect. The spark which first ignited Dunlop’s passion appeared as a ‘flash through my mind’;

‘a kind of light smiting me, and a dazed sort of feeling … and then I seemed to know that I was to make an important decision. I was to give up all jobs … I was to concentrate entirely upon being an artist’[2].

We are reminded, throughout the book, that there are consequences attendant on such a Romantic revelation. Firstly, the artist is likely to face a persistent struggle to achieve financial independence. Dunlop welcomes his elections to various exhibiting bodies - but notes that this could be a costly business. He was invited to join both the London Group and the NEAC - the former particularly pleasing him, as he regarded its members, under the gimlet eye of critic and artist, Roger Fry, as, ‘expressing all that was really good in painting of that day’[3]. Nevertheless, he also remarks that he, ‘had to pay out in subscriptions a good lump of my scanty earnings’ and ‘very rarely’ sold any pictures at the large, mixed shows. He was gratified to be elected ARA in 1939 and then RA, in 1950. At the same time, he ‘found that the duties of attending council meetings’, ‘made inroads on my pocket’[4]. Worse even than economic constraints, however, were the judgements of his associates. When he agreed that he might be put up for election to the RA, Dunlop feared that some of his fellow artists – those who were of an independent mind and who would not, ‘on any account’ let their names go forward as potential Associates of the RA – would look upon him askance. Thus, pecuniary pressures and peer review bedevilled his artistic life. It is not hard to feel irritated by Dunlop’s constant rehearsal of the role of struggling artist; and yet, at the same time, one cannot help but be beguiled by his insistent determination that he would dedicate his life to being an artist.

Curiously – despite his deliberate exclusion of much his family life from his memoir – Dunlop’s understanding that art was his vocation must, surely, have been nurtured from his boyhood.

He was born in Dublin to a Scottish-Irish Quaker family. His mother painted in watercolour, and expressed her, ‘disgust’ when she saw her son painting from nature: ‘How dare you be so conceited as to try and imitate nature in colour and shape’? His father – from whom Ronald Dunlop declared himself somewhat distant – was a close friend of William Butler Yeats and George William Russell (known as Æ). Both of these, as poets and critics, shared with Dunlop Snr. a preoccupation with contemporary Irish politics and cultural identity, and their work was infused by a profound mysticism, all of which found expression in a journal they printed and published, The Irish Theosophist, which included some of Yeats’s first poems[5]. An interest in Theosophy, which melded into Anthroposophy[6], was at the core of Dunlop Snr’s existence. Thus was fostered an approach to life which privileged the imagination, worked to strengthen inspiration, intuition and spirituality as a means of understanding and experiencing the world. The superficial appearance of things (and people) was as nothing in the face of their natural and empyrean realities. Hence, though reading an artist’s work through the lens of his or her biography may sometimes be questionable, it is fascinating to find – in the autobiography which tells so little of his family and friends – that the inspiration for much of Ronald Ossory Dunlop’s work must have dwelt in his home and heart from his earliest days.

It is not surprising, then, that the dedicated young artist launched his professional life in 1923 by establishing The Emotionist Group[7], accompanied by a magazine, Emotionism (of which there were two issues) and by a manifesto. Dunlop recalls that, though ‘we spoke so much about “significant form” and the pure aesthetic, and read Roger Fry’s Vision and Design[8] from morning to night, we .. clung to the view that painting should have a depth of soul in it, a consciousness, as well as being a painting’[9].

None of this discussion about the importance of intuition and emotional engagement should obscure the fact that Dunlop was also a very practical artist. His first job on leaving school was in a lithographic printer’s shop, whilst taking evening lessons at Manchester Art School and regularly studying in the City Art Gallery[10]. Wimbledon Art School followed and here, under the guidance of landscape painter, Alfred James Collister, Dunlop received his, ‘first really sound training in art’. After the First War, Dunlop’s dedication to his art was subsidised by his employment in an advertising agency and then in the publicity department of W.H. Smith. By the early 1920s, however, he focused exclusively on his goal of working as an artist.

This focus generated a good deal of experimentation with materials and finishes. Dunlop used different kinds of canvas (unbleached calico, lending a matt finish, in his early years, white-primed canvases later, because, ‘it gives the best effect of sunlight and open air’); employed oil paints of various consistency (straight from the tube for much of his career, then mixed with oil and turpentine until the paint was no more than a wash); worked with different tools (pliable steel palette knife, lent weight by accretion of old paint, for the dense impasto of his early and middle years, later replaced with sable brushes for fluid medium). He never severed his attachment to the visual world and always sketched and painted from nature, scouring his locality for subjects, travelling by bus and train, and carrying his paints and tools in a, ‘soldier’s haversack over my shoulder’, as well as a, ‘strong, fold-up easel’ and two canvases, pinned together[11].

Dunlop was rewarded for his dedication by his first successful one-man show at the Redfern Gallery in 1929, which allowed him to visit and study in ‘wonderful Paris’. This also resulted in his being invited to join the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) in that same year; the London Group followed, in 1934 and the NEAC in ’36.

It is interesting to find that Dunlop relished the work of dozens of his peers and predecessors. He admired, Whistler’s ‘moody, tonal’ painting and the black-and-white illustrators of Punch; the ‘dramatic intensity’ of Ford Madox Brown and the ‘vigour and energy’ of Frank Brangwyn; the ‘perceptive and true’ Corot and the Expressionism of Oscar Kokoschka; the ‘brilliant colour and emotional’ energy of Matthew Smith and the ‘quiet tones’ of Lawrence Gowing. Indeed, one does not often come across an artist whose taste is, at once, so catholic and so discriminating.

What was the outcome of all this imagination, discipline and effort? Dunlop’s is an intriguing art. It embraces landscape and seascape, portraiture and still life. He pays close attention to the composition – ‘in looking for a suitable subject always think of the shapes, the patches of colour, the design, not the subject itself’ – and also insists that the artist should, ‘make the focus point of the picture where the emotions have been most stirred’. The, ‘portrayal of detail’ is never the aim; instead, it is the, ‘enthusiasm, the emotion’ that make the picture. And yet, Dunlop worked to achieve a balance between portraying a recognisable place or person and revealing the ‘poetic moods of nature’. No wonder he struggled.  By the 1950s, however, after working prodigiously for several decades, he was able to offer a piece of advice that sums up the quality of his best work admirably.

‘A picture is finished when you have expressed all you can say, and sometimes perhaps just a little less than all you can or would say … leave something to the thought and imagination of the onlooker … leave off painting whilst the emotional energy is hot’[12].

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] Introduction to Struggling with Paint: Some Reminiscences, 1956, on inner fold of dust-wrapper. Dunlop also published other books, including, Modern Still Life Painting in Oil, 1938, Understanding Pictures, 1948, Painting for Pleasure, 1951 and Sketching for Pleasure, 1952.

[2]Struggling with Paint, pp.36-7.

[3]Op.cit., p.77. Fry was never the President of the London Group, but he was its very influential critical voice.

[4]Op.cit., p.81.

[5] R.O. Dunlop records that this journal was produced in the basement of his maternal grandparents’ house. It ran to 5 volumes, from 1892-97. Though, obviously, R.O. Dunlop was not born until 1894, he recalls that the bound volumes were, ‘always in our family bookcase’. Op.cit., p.28.

[6] Anthroposophy grew from Theosophy under the guidance of Rudolf Steiner, whom Dunlop Snr. met in England, in 1905. One of the fundamental differences between these branches of spiritual philosophy lies in their different approaches to Christianity. Whilst Theosophy began to respond to Eastern mysticism, Anthroposophy postulated a closer – a more ‘verifiable’ – relationship between mysticism, Christianity and even the natural sciences. This was apprehended via meditation, moral self-discipline and a refined spiritual sensitivity. After WWI, Anthroposophy commanded a growing influence amongst thinkers and teachers, planning for a better world.

[7] Amongst other members of this group was Peggy Ashcroft (a poet before she became an actor) and artists Jean Shepheard and Clifford Hooper Rowe (Cliff Rowe, later of the AIA).

[8] Published in 1920, this collection of essays written over two decades was (and still is) very influential. The central thrust of the volume is that there is a radical distinction between art and nature. Whilst the former might be a response to the latter, it is always mediated by the physiology of eye and brain and the psychology and experience of the artist; hence, ‘significant form’. It was the vitality of the creative process which preoccupied Fry – and, of course, Dunlop.

[9]Struggling with Paint, p.40.

[10] The family had moved to the US at the end of the 19th C, returning to London, then Manchester, before settling, once more, near London.

[11]Struggling with Paint, p.97.

[12]Op.cit., p.75.