Joanna Carrington, 1931-2003, aka Reginald Pepper

Daughter of Noel Carrington – creator and designer of the Puffin imprint at Penguin Books – and niece of the painter, Dora Carrington, Joanna was born into the Bloomsbury circle. It might be regarded as inevitable, then, that she trained as an artist: but not inevitable that she was such an early star. Her talent was recognised just after the Second War, when she attended a summer school in Suffolk, taught by the painter, Cedric Morris. In Carrington’s Obituary, in The Guardian, Morris is quoted as enthusing about his pupil, who was, ‘a born painter’, with quite outstanding promise.

This ‘summer school’ must have been nothing other than the remarkable, ‘free’, East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing, run by Morris from Benton End, near Hadleigh, Suffolk[1]. The School was regarded by many as an extraordinarily exciting artistic hothouse - but not one dominated by discipline or conventional training. Morris’s own artistic education[2] had been picked up, along the way, in Paris, where he had lived in the 1920s; a time, of course, when the French capital was still the centre of radical art and the influence of Cézanne and the Post-Impressionists still pervasive. In Suffolk, energy was poured into discussing art, literature - and, no doubt, what England might look like after the War. Thus, Morris’s admiration for Carrington’s work suggests that, in this young woman (who must have imbibed some of the Bloomsbury enthusiasm for a life interwoven with art, literature, debate), he saw a reflection of his own passionate, profound, free spirit.

Also at Benton End, just after the War, was a fascinating band of artists, including the young Lucien Freud. There, too, was Freud’s old school friend, David Kentish: and, some years earlier, in 1941, both men had reportedly painted the portrait of another artist who was, in the late 1940s, sometimes at Benton End, Bettina Shaw Lawrence[3]. The point about introducing Shaw Lawrence at this juncture is that, though she was a decade older than Joanna Carrington, she might well have encouraged the latter to visit Paris in 1948, and there study with Fernand Léger - which is what Shaw Lawrence herself had done, in 1936, when she was a mere 15 years old.

On her return to England in 1949, Carrington went on to the Central School of Art & Design, at the time regarded as a ‘powerhouse of creativity and experimentation’, achieving considerable success. She was taught by Keith Vaughan[4] and Mervyn Peake[5] - finding herself, as at Benton End, at the heart of an artistic community which was preoccupied by the tension between the cool, crisp economy and spatial manipulation of Non-Objectivity and an intensely passionate involvement in English Neo-Romanticism, caught up in allegory, songs of Nature, the romance of death, the mystery of the human condition.

Thus, for a few, brief years after the War, Carrington plunged herself, marvellously, into something of an artistic maelstrom, with an emerging vision that was shaped by influences as diverse as English Neo-Romanticism and the mechanical forms of Fernand Léger[6].

In the early 1950s, Carrington went to live in Nigeria, with her first husband. On her return to London, she must have found taste considerably changed. She had left on a wave of success: in 1953, her education had concluded with her being selected as one of six Young Contemporaries to be shown at the ICA - the Institute founded, in 1946, as a place where artists could explore and celebrate their work, divorced from the conventions of the Royal Academy. Just five years later, she found that the Central School and the ICA were still firmaments of activity. But the leader was now Richard Hamilton, who taught at the Central School (and at King's College, Newcastle) from the early 1950s and had been largely responsible for founding the Independent Group, which met and exhibited at the ICA, from 1952. This was no longer an overt exploration of formal Non-Objectivity or of mythical Englishness: this was a celebration of the new, American-influenced, Pop culture. It was cool, intellectual, witty, sharp - and very different from what Carrington had been surrounded with, just a few years earlier.

Now teaching in London – Hornsey and Byam Shaw – Carrington became increasingly preoccupied with her first loves: landscapes, interiors, gardens, flowers. But these are not literal descriptions. Practising what Cedric Morris may well have passed on from his years in France, she focused intently on her subject; briefly sketched and scribbled; and then drew on her memory, her inner eye, her intense glance. Her paintings possess both a sophisticated manipulation of rich but subtly-related colour and a fresh vigour, touched with a tenderness of perception.

In 1966, Carrington married again, this time to the artist and film-maker, Christopher Mason, who, in 1973, made a film about the ‘primitive’, Cornish painter, Alfred Wallis. It is not surprising, perhaps, that this is seen as a ‘turning point’ for Carrington - it might be described as a ‘returning point’: she was, surely, inspired by Wallis’s painting, with which she must long have been familiar. She is likely to have been reminded of her earlier years, revelling in an art that was, at once, more primordial and more entertaining than the sophisticated work for which she had built up a reputation. It seems that, from this time on, Carrington’s alter ego, Reginald Pepper, appeared. This elusive painter, who cast ‘his’ innocent eye on the ridiculous, fabulous and funny lives of assorted families, hospitals, donkeys, hippos, rabbits, farmers and nuns, from the late 1970s exhibited with the Portal Gallery, home to the, ‘finest idiosyncratic painters’.

It was some years before the real identity of Reginald Pepper was revealed. The Portal Gallery, and others, reacted with good heart. In the end, they declared that, ‘Reg Pepper is a colourful and witty ‘sophisticated’ primitive and Joanna Carrington is a post-impressionist who paints beautifully observed still lifes and landscapes’. Indeed, all of her work – whether by the ‘real’ Joanna or the imaginary Reginald – is imbued with a vivid and tender joie de vivre which is irresistible.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] The School moved here from Pound Farm, which had been destroyed by fire in 1940.

[2] Though, as 9th Baronet, with a public school education to match, it would be foolish to pretend that Morris was in any way unsophisticated or culturally unaware.

[3] Both portraits, it seems, were left in store at Benton End. Kentish’s portrait of Bettina was included in the Cedric Morris Retrospective, at the Tate, in 1984.

[4] During the War, Vaughan struck up friendships with Graham Sutherland and John Minton, who deeply influenced his outlook.

[5] Peake's popular Gormenghast was published in 1950.

[6] During a War spent in the USA, Léger himself had responded to the shocking contrasts between War, industry, desolation and Nature, regrowth, the indomitable spirit of ordinary people.

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