Harry Greville Wood Irwin, 1893-1947

Surprisingly little is known about Greville Irwin - which is frustrating, because he seems most interesting, both as an artist and as an individual. Doubtless, careful research would reveal much more; and that will be a task for the future. In the meantime, we are enjoying his paintings enormously.

Irwin studied in Paris, at the Académie Julian. This must have been shortly before the Great War, at a time when it was still regarded as one of the leading independent art schools. Indeed, the very fact that Irwin travelled to France to study does suggest that he was not only interested in becoming an artist from a young age, but that he had already taken advice about where he might find some of the most challenging artistic developments. We should be reminded that, in London, in 1910, Roger Fry had organised the exhibition entitled, ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’, which opened at the Grafton Galleries and immediately caused outrage.

‘ “On or about December 1910," wrote Virginia Woolf in her essay Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, "human character changed." She wasn't talking about the general election, or even the Suffragette movement, but an art exhibition.[1]

And Paris was, incontrovertibly, the place where ‘human character’ appeared – on the evidence of this exhibition – to have changed in the most exciting ways.

Also studying at the Académie Julian, in c.1912-13, were other significant artists from Britain and from further afield. Jean Arp, born in Alsace, had turned up, in 1908; the American, Preston Dickinson, arrived in 1911; and C.R.W. Nevinson spent 1911-12 at the Académie Julian[2], and soon found himself sharing a studio with Modigliani, encountering Cubism and meeting several of the Italian Futurists, notably Marinetti. Clearly, Irwin could have found much to excite and challenge him in Paris, at this hectic time.

How long Irwin was in France remains unclear. He is recorded as having made the first of several visit to Brittany before the Great War, perhaps inspired, still, by Paul Gauguin’s Breton pictures of the 1880s (Irwin exhibited a painting, Pontaven: le jour du Pardon, at the Royal Academy in 1938, which has strong echoes of Gauguin). Once there, he might well have met the artist Terrick Williams, some of whose paintings of people and boats chime closely with Irwin’s own.

At the outbreak of the Great War, Irwin was called up. Almost certainly, he was the Lieutenant H.G.W. Irwin, of the 2nd South Lancashires, who was wounded by shrapnel and later taken prisoner at the Battle of Mons, right at the outset of the War. It seems that this wound, probably in the spine, blighted his life, leaving him partially paralysed. Nevertheless, there are paintings, executed during the War or shortly afterwards, which reveal that Irwin was keen not only to convey something of the harsh realities of war, but was also still experimenting with new artistic ideas.

At a small and marvellous exhibition of Irwin’s work at the Panter & Hall Gallery, in summer 2012, there was a painting entitled, Rearguard Action, French Cavalry Charging - clearly a slice of battle at the outset of WWI. The indeterminate mass of figures and limbs – men, still dressed in red-plumed helmets and silver breast-plates, and horses, soon to become redundant on the muddy plains of northern France – surges across a field which is spotted with green, red, blue, ochre, beneath a sky rent by the startling colours of a great rainbow. It is not hard to see, in this remarkable picture, evidence of Irwin’s encounters with Post-Impressionism and even Futurism.

After the War, Irwin continued to travel. He worked in St. Ives, Mevagissey, Polperro; and also revisited Brittany, painting in Concarneau. He even went to study at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts, in Brussels, in 1926 - a Brussels which, in the mid-‘20s, accommodated a radical group of Surrealists who had established a critical distance from Paris and were exploring much more subversive ideas. There is little sign of this trip in any of Irwin’s paintings that we have seen; but in this restless round, one does get a sense of an artist searching for a challenge, perhaps driven, still, by a painful awareness of his own disability and the black futility of war.

By the mid-1930s, however, Irwin was settled near London, in Ewell, Surrey, and was regularly exhibiting his work. At this time, his paintings are vivid and energetic. Many celebrate the colour and crowds of London in its pomp - the Guards' regiments parading through the streets, or gathering in informal groups, the startling red of their jackets and black of their busbies making bold patterns across the canvas. Several of these paintings were shown during the 1930s at the Royal Society of British Artists, of which Irwin became a member, as well as at the Royal Academy.

In 1935, London hosted parades to celebrate the Silver Jubilee of King George V. Crowds of people – whether the milling masses or the martial troops – filled Irwin’s canvases, which were usually relatively small, at 20” x 24”. Again, the 2012 exhibition at the Panter & Hall Gallery included several of these striking images - pictures which, intriguingly, seem to herald the character and buoyancy of the post-WWII paintings of national pageants and celebrations, by Paul Maze.

With the arrival, once more, of World War, Irwin went to live in Leamington Spa and also, in 1946, sent work to the RA from Porthmeor, St. Ives, where painting and teaching studios had first been set up by visiting artists in the 1890s.

Irwin’s last picture at the RA was Low tide, St. Ives. This was exhibited posthumously, in the summer of 1947, because he had taken his own life, in January of the same year.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Will Hodgkinson, ‘Culture Quake: Manet and Post Impressionism’, The Telegraph, 14th June, 2004.

[2] Nevinson had been at the Slade from 1908-12, where his contemporaries had included Mark Gertler, Paul Nash, Dora Carrington, Stanley Spencer and Edward Wadsworth.