Anthony Gross, 1905-1984

Gross’s output was prodigious, exceptionally interesting, busy, witty and infused with energy. It is impossible to sum up his work in a few lines. The following quotation seems so aptly to evoke his work, that we cannot resist quoting it all.

‘Gross is garrulous. He has a hundred little remarks to make and, like so many good talkers, he makes them effectively and sometimes, as though by accident, unforgettable. In fact, his drawings resemble nothing so much as first-rate descriptive letters from abroad, written by a man bubbling with excitement at his experiences. They are discursive, full of little underlinings and parentheses. A sudden emphasis on a detail arrests your attention: a charming irrelevance lights up the scene: an afterthought gives it a new twist. They are elusive, even disjointed, yet they have a vividness and a unity that only comes when a man really has something to say.’[1]

Written in 1943, this invocation of the man and his work remains true for the following forty years. Here is an artist whose art consistently offers more to the viewer, the more intensely one looks at it.

Gross was born in Dulwich and it is, perhaps, significant that his Hungarian-born father was a map publisher[2]. So many of Gross’s pictures – his etchings and watercolours, in particular – have the quality not just of a descriptive, discursive letter, but also of a detailed map, full of marks, scrawls, symbols and lines laid over a broadly-washed ground[3]. Both similes – the letter and the map – conjure the visual character and the journalistic density of Gross’s work. And both convey something, too, about a man who was continually searching for new experiences, embracing change and sharing his adventures.

In 1923, Gross studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London, under Professor Henry Tonks. By this time, Tonks was immensely experienced. Having been trained as a surgeon, he turned to painting and started to teach at the Slade in 1892 (Slade Professor of Fine Art 1918-1930). Not surprisingly, Tonks’s work was firmly rooted in the late 19th century tradition, emphasising study from life, sketching figures in movement, training and employing the memory to capture effects and details, fostering deft execution. In many ways, this training could hardly have been bettered for Gross, in that it would help to shape the artist’s quick, vivid style. Equally, Tonks’s work in the First World War, drawing men with facial injuries for Harold Gillies, the renowned plastic surgeon, must have lent the Edwardian professor a degree of credibility in the eyes of young artists who had grown up in these difficult years.

Also in 1923, Gross studied etching, drypoint and engraving at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, under William P. Robins. The year before, Robins had not only published his first book, Etching Craft, A Guide for Students and Collectors, but had also exhibited his graphic work which had been the subject of high praise, by the influential critic and print dealer, Malcolm Salaman. Clearly, Gross was looking for advice and guidance from the best.

Again, in 1923, Gross spent his holidays with his sister, in France, painting and sketching in Normandy. Then, at the end of the year, he began to study at the Académie Julian – still functioning, as it has done for so many decades, as the atelier of choice for ambitious British art students. He also continued to focus on etching and engraving, studying at the Ecole de Beaux Arts, where the successful Charles Waltner ran his own etching studio. In the late 1920s, Gross continued to refine and develop his graphic skills, working closely with Joseph Hecht[4], who was a master engraver. Over the following few years, this pattern of studying, drawing and painting from life, as well as etching and engraving, became established, as Gross travelled to Paris, Madrid, Brussels and further afield, before settling in the Lot region of France, often spending time in Paris.

The early 1930s saw successful exhibitions of paintings and prints, mainly in Paris. Gross rapidly built up a reputation as an adventurous graphic artist, with a ceaseless enthusiasm for the idiosyncrasies of the places and people which surrounded him. The printed image was the medium of the moment, the most powerful way to communicate with the greatest number of people. His etching style became more linear, dense, conveying a sense of images caught on the wing, as if glimpsed from a passing vehicle. At the same time, his appetite for new media and ways of working was voracious - so it is not surprising that Gross designed sets and costumes for the ballet; in 1936, produced the first of his many illustrated books - no less than an edition of Jean Cocteau’s 1936 Les Enfants Terribles; and, between 1931-39, experimented with animation, working with the American photographer, Hector Hoppin, on (amongst others) the very popular, 1934, cartoon film, La Joie de Vivre[5].

The success of Gross’s and Hoppin’s animations[6] drew the attention of Alexander Korda[7] – leading film producer and director – who, in 1932, had founded London Films Productions. From 1934-37, both Gross[8] and Hoppin worked for Korda, on colour animated films, including the entertaining The Fox Hunt, released in 1936. In 1937, however, Gross returned to Paris, where he stayed until driven back to London, with the outbreak of the Second War.

In 1940, as an Official War Artist, Gross followed the campaigns in France, Egypt[9], India and Burma, drawing men in action and behind the lines, capturing the camaraderie of service life. Some of his most striking images were executed back in London; during the Blitz, he worked on watercolours and oil paintings - swiftly sketched, full of energy. His technique – already rehearsed in his pre-War etchings and animated films – was to explore the image with quick, short, strokes of ink, over broad washes of colour – details of figures, trees, grasses, birds, ruins, windows, chimneys – scattered over the picture plane.

These images are fascinating and not just because of their powerful subject matter. One can see that Gross experimented with his compositions: dramatic manipulation of the perspective, conjuring vertiginous spaces; close-ups and worm’s eye views; highlighting and enlarging apparently irrelevant details, which jump out of the picture, instilling a sense of panic and portent; slicing off elements of the composition, as if to suggest that this is just a still from a panning shot. Clearly, Gross’s adventurous and experimental spirit and his wide-ranging, pre-War experience was drawn on, to lend many of his images a quality of foreboding, anxiety, energy, immediacy and determination. In 1943, Gross’s paintings of British and Indian troops, India in Action, were shown in a successful exhibition at the National Gallery[10]. In the following year, Gross and Ardizzone stayed, for nearly a month, on the beach-heads above the D-Day Landings in Normandy. Gross then followed the troops into Paris and on, into Germany. About 500 paintings and drawings are witness to Gross’s remarkable time as a War artist.

Back in London in 1945, Gross continued his energetic – and now international – career. He illustrated books, produced commercial lithographs[11], illustrated the RadioTimes and, in 1954, held a one-man show at the Imperial War Museum[12], as well as elsewhere in London and New York. He taught at the Central School of Arts and Crafts until 1954, after which, until 1971, he was Head of the Department of Etching and Engraving at the Slade[13]. In his later years, Gross was showered with accolades. In 1960, the BBC produced The Artist Speaks - a Film about Anthony Gross, shot in France and London. In 1968, the V&A held a retrospective exhibition of his graphic work; in 1980, he was elected R.A.; and he received an OBE in 1982. Gross had continued to divide his time between London and Le Boulvé, in the Lot, where, after his retirement, he lived most of his time.

Gross’s post-War work did not lose the extraordinary sense of excited exploration, energy and sheer dedication which had characterised his earlier output. In etchings, lithographs and in the images he captured in oil, watercolour and evocative scribbles of pen and ink, his distinctive style was lent to a very wide range of subject matter. He celebrated the French and English countryside, the busy markets of rural France, the parks of London in the sunshine, life along the Thames and in the City, days of national celebration, working on the farm at plough-time or harvest, on the train or in the vineyard. Gross’s eye was sharp, wry, amused and charmed, and one can often feel that the artist has posed and taken the image, just so - magnifying space, zooming into a close-up, cutting and framing, emphasising light and shade, highlighting detail - using cinematic compositional devices to enhance immediacy, colour, texture, wit and poetry.

From the late 1950s, the marks Gross laid across the canvas or paper sometimes became more dense and busy than hitherto, often abstracted, colourful. The lines might be strong, architectonic, perhaps energised by the abstraction of Bridget Riley or the bold colour of Pop Art; elsewhere, the marks appear to have a life of their own, clearly infused with a kind of Surrealist delight. These images are not, however, detached from what lay before his eyes - rather, they represent the epitome of the life, character and colour which signify a field of wheat, a stony landscape, a valley, shadows in a woodland, reflections in a stream.

Anthony Gross, then, was an outstanding artist. He was witness to more than half a century of life - full of change, chaos, wonder and celebration. He was one of those artists whose capacity for revelling in whatever lay before him is conveyed with all the delight of a child, sharpness of a journalist and experimental sophistication of an artist at the top of his game. His work is irresistible.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] Eric Newton, reviewing, in The Sunday Times, the one-man exhibition of work Gross had produced when in India, India in Action. This was shown at the National Gallery in 1943 and was then taken to Australia and North America.

[2] The young Gross is said to have experimented with drawing on the stone with lithographic ink, in his father’s premises, in 1913.

[3] We are reminded that Gross’s younger sister, Phyllis Pearsall, produced the first Geographers’ A-Z map of London in the 1930s and established the company that still produces street maps of numerous towns and cities.

[4] Hecht was Polish, and arrived in Paris in c.1921, where he established his studio. He was a highly-regarded master-engraver.

[5] There is a clip of this wonderfully engaging animated film on You Tube, where the flavour of Gross’s and Hoppin’s work can be glimpsed. Gross’s linear style, at once delicate and energetic, is very apparent on screen. The film was bought by MOMA, New York, in 1935.

[6] Gross and Hoppin also turned their hands to writing, producing and directing their films, as well as working on the animations.

[7] Hungarian born Korda had worked in Hollywood, 1926-30. Once he arrived in Britain and established London Films Productions, the Denham Film Studios were opened in 1936. Korda obviously liked to contract energetic and capable young artists and writers and built up a very successful body of work quickly. His films included The Four Feathers (1939) and The Thief of Bagdad (completed in Hollywood, 1940). On both of these films, the very young Henty Henty-Creer (brother of Deirdre Henty-Creer, artist) was a film cameraman.

[8] Gross was appointed Art Director for London Films in 1936.

[9] Arriving in Cairo in 1942, Gross was attached to the 9th Army and travelled widely, sometimes accompanied by Edward Ardizzone and Edward Bawden. Gross also produced a series of paintings on the 8th Army’s desert operations.

[10] Eric Newton, art critic for The Guardian and The Sunday Times, was a man of influence. His broadcast series, The Artist and his Public, 1940, and his weekly programme, The Critics, made him a household name. Thus, his perspicacious observations about India in Action - quoted at the beginning of this essay - helped to ensure that Gross’s work was widely known and appreciated.

[11] In 1953, Gross's contribution to a portfolio of 40 prints, to celebrate the Coronation, was the delightfully busy lithograph, Hampstead Heath.

[12] The IWM now holds about 300 of Gross’s works of art.

[13] Gross’s expertise as an etcher and engraver ensured the success of his highly-regarded, Etching, Engraving and Intaglio Print, published in 1970.