Cyril Hardy, fl.c.1900-1940

The first question one must ask is - who is Cyril Hardy? Is he, as the general consensus seems to be, one and the same as watercolour artist, Noel Harry Leaver (1889-1951)?

We know that, in c.1929, Leaver left his fine art dealer / agent, Louis Lever, of Southport. At about the same time, ‘Cyril Hardy’ appeared (though it is probable that some of Hardy’s work also pre-dates this). It was not – perhaps, is not – unknown for an artist to use a pseudonym, if he should be tied into a contract with one agent or dealer and wished to exhibit with, or sell to, another. Any comparison between the paintings by ‘Leaver’ and ‘Hardy’ does not help: the two rendered a very similar range of subject matter, with a swift brush and brilliant watercolour. It has been said that Hardy’s work can lack the, ‘understanding and control of perspective, colour balance and distance’ to be found in Leaver’s work[1]. But we have not been able to discern such a consistent distinction - though, of course, there is variation between the quality of one painting and another, issued under both names. Indeed, in our view, were it not for the separate signatures (and, of course, the difference in their prices today[2]), one would be hard pressed to distinguish between the work attached to these two names.

Accordingly, we turn, briefly, to Noel H. Leaver. He studied at Burnley School of Art and then at the Royal College. He was highly skilled from a young age and he was awarded a Travelling Scholarship in 1911, which allowed him to explore Europe and North Africa and fostered a taste for travel. From 1918, after his return from the First War, Leaver exhibited and sold his watercolours, finding a ready audience in England and in America. Today, Leaver’s work is highly prized; his paintings of Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, in particular, are luminous works of art.

Returning to Cyril Hardy, we find that he, too, focused on watercolour paintings of North Africa, as well as of Palestine, Brittany and other parts of Northern France, Holland and picturesque, historic corners of England. Without doubt, however, the most colourful, confident and evocative paintings tend to be of the Middle East and North Africa. These watercolours are, above all, about colour, light and mood.

The artist plays with the contrasts between the dark, shadowed, narrow streets, the pale stone of the mosques, minarets and city gates, and the canopy of a luminous blue sky. The streets and souks are inhabited by figures - but these are, essentially decorative. They do not betray character. These are figures painted because the artist wanted a note of colour here, a mark, a pattern of light and shade there, to balance his harmonious composition. Nevertheless, the flowing robes of the figures, like the distinctive, Moorish architecture – especially the arched, town gates, which Hardy so often depicts, and which open, so invitingly, onto another corner, another part of the city – introduce a note of the exotic, the mysterious.

This search for the exotic was not, of course, new in the early 20th century. Such a taste has infused aspects of Western art for centuries. In Britain, in the 18th and 19th centuries – in painting, decoration and even in architecture and landscape design – a sequence of influential styles and motifs was introduced, from China, Egypt, Turkey, Palestine and Japan. Rarely were the cultural sources examined; still more rarely were they understood. The use of such styles was about exciting the palate, garnishing a western diet with a hot and spicy relish.

Nevertheless, by the second half of the 19th century, more and more artists, writers and explorers (often preceded, of course, by missionaries), travelled further afield and wrote and painted about what they experienced. This is not the place to discuss in any depth the significance of these representations / collections of the exotic ‘other’. We must agree that – as the influential Edward Said argued in his 1978 book, Orientalism – for many Western audiences, the ‘exotic East’ was (and must, to some degree, remain) an ideological construction[3]. Though this is a theme which needs to be explored in detail, and is by no means without its inherent contradictions, there is a profound truth in such an analysis. Even amongst those who travelled extensively, it was possible only to appreciate, to respond to, these ‘exotic’ places – especially Islamic places – with eyes and brains informed by Western Christianity and Imperialism (usually found to be two sides of the same coin). 

Having affirmed such a stance, however, it would be wilful not to be beguiled by these painted images of North Africa and the Middle East which were produced by some exceptionally gifted artists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Before Cyril Hardy (and / or Noel Harry Leaver), one only has to think of Arthur Melville, who travelled widely in the 1880s, and produced watercolour paintings of the most glorious delicacy and richness. Love of sunshine, jewel-bright colour, pattern, light, shade and gracefulness – found in profusion in such works – must be seen not only as a search for exoticism, with a hinterland of Imperialism, but also as an expression of the long tradition of exploring and rendering the Picturesque beauties of the new landscapes witnessed by travellers (think of William Gilpin’s tours and Observations about the more inaccessible places of England and Wales in the late 18th century). Indeed, we would also add that the desire to paint so that light seems to emanate from a picture – colour capturing and communicating light – must be seen as a response to the work of yet another artist who changed people’s perception of the world - that great genius of the mid-19th century, J.M.W. Turner.

Thus, we know that Cyril Hardy – whatever else we do not know about him – belongs to a long tradition of British art and conjures the most engaging and exquisite images of the heat, brilliant light and colours of the East in watercolour paintings which are a constant delight.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] See, a site dedicated to Leaver’s work.

[2] A watercolour of similar subjects – especially eastern subjects – signed by Noel Harry Leaver commands prices in the range of £3k.

[3] Said’s ‘most influential book, Orientalism (1978), is credited with helping to change the direction of several disciplines by exposing an unholy alliance between the enlightenment and colonialism.’ See Malise Ruthven, ‘Edward Said, Obituary’, The Guardian, 26th September, 2003.