Jack D. Pountney, 1921-1997

Pountney was a formidable artist as well as a subtle one. His sophisticated handling of the medium – whether oil or watercolour – is demonstrated in his ability to express, with bold and gritty gesture or smooth and fluent stroke, the quintessence of the scene before him. And what he often searched out were views of London’s old Docklands, the Thames at Greenwich, the Medway estuary and the sea on the Kent coast.

Pountney was attracted to the great, iconic ships of the mid-20th century. He was also fascinated by the unexpected, the out-of-hours: the River, still and steely blue in the gathering gloom; the shipping busy in the silver-grey light of early morning; a monumental hulk, rotting in its moorings, the crust of rust corroding its iron sides; a boat in dry dock, smart above the waterline – someone’s pride and joy – barnacled below. And, time and again, he chose to picture this life when the tide was slack, when the light silhouetted the scattering of people against the skyline, when the Docks were falling quiet after almost three centuries of intense endeavour, when the infrastructure of industry was lapsing into disuse.

Pountney lived and worked, for most of his life, near the Thames, at Blackheath. Painting the life and light of the rivers, estuaries, wharves and docks after the Second War was not simply an exercise in Romantic nostalgia: there is something very powerful and compelling about Pountney’s paintings, which ensures that a number of them are no less than markers of history. Though pictures of inanimate ships and marine infrastructure, they have a flavour of the human heroism depicted in the best of the grand history paintings of the late 18th and 19th centuries.

One of the earliest of Pountney’s pictures we have come across was executed in 1959, a picture of the monumental HMTS ‘Monarch’, on the Thames at Greenwich. When ‘Monarch’ was built and handed over to the GPO, in 1946, she was the largest cable-laying ship afloat. The first task of this ship was to repair and replace existing telephone cable networks, which had been neglected during the War. In 1959, ‘Monarch’ was at the height of her power: Pountney paints her in the majestic setting of the Royal Naval College, Wren’s two domes vying for dominance on the horizon with the great cranes of Greenwich docklands. Over the next decade, ‘Monarch’ was modified more than once and, when the GPO ceased to have its own ships, in 1969, she was sold to Cable & Wireless Ltd. Less than ten years later, she was sent for scrapping.

The glory and the decline of England’s post-War ships and docks appear again, when Pountney showed at the Royal Academy in 1967. Saturday, p.m., Surrey Commercial Docks[1], characteristically depicted the Docks on the south side of the Thames, at Rotherhithe, as they approached their end - heavily bombed during WWII and, thereafter, never able to accommodate the ever-larger container ships[2].

Pountney regularly exhibited with the Royal Society of Marine Artists (RSMA) and there, in 1976, he showed the powerful ‘Arethusa’ at Upnor[3]. Lower Upnor, part of the Chatham Docks on the Medway, was then the site of the 'Arethusa' training ship, first run by The Shaftesbury Homes as a place where poor and orphaned boys could be taught trades that would fit them for the Royal and Merchant Navies[4]. By 1975, she had become too expensive to maintain and was sold to a museum in New York. The ‘Arethusa’ left Lower Upnor for drydock at Blackwall, in March 1975, to be repaired and prepared for her final journey to North America.

Not all of Pountney’s most potent paintings were of such iconic ships. In 1973, the City of London purchased the undeniably melancholy Evening, Greenwich (now to be seen at the Guildhall Art Gallery). Here, the tide is out, the anonymous, flat-bottomed barges rest on the mud, the soft light suffuses everything and only the miscellany of houses and warehouses along the bank signal that this is – was – a place where generations have lived and worked.

It is not surprising that Pountney built up a considerable reputation. In 1972, he had a solo show at The Room, Greenwich; in ’74, he showed at the Court Lodge Gallery, Horton Kirby, SE of Dartford. In 1975, the Woodlands Art Gallery, Blackheath – which, in 1972, launched a mission to show contemporary art – presented Greenwich and the Thames, an exhibition of Pountey’s work, together with that of his neighbour, Anne Christopherson[5].

Whilst Pountney was, clearly, preoccupied with recording and conveying something of the significance of London’s historic Docklands – once providing the life-blood of the capital and the country, now in a savage decline – he also ventured further afield, especially to other coastal areas in England’s South and South-West. He exhibited pictures of Poole, Dorset, and Porthleven, Cornwall, for example. Very often, however, he continued to concentrate on the ports and estuaries, where the quality of light and the activity of shipping combined to capture his attention. In 1978 and 1984, at the Royal Society of Marine Artists, he showed pictures of Holes Bay, at the mouth of the estuary near Poole[6]; in 1978, he exhibited Evening, Porthleven Harbour[7]; and in 1982, The Cob, Lyme Regis[8]. But, though Pountney spent the later years of his life in Dorset, he continued to haunt the reaches of the Thames Docklands. Only when these were so changed that he no longer found its reaches compelling, did he seem to let them go.

Following Pountney’s death, in 1997, the Manser Callaghan Gallery (now Manser Fine Paintings), Shrewsbury, held a very successful exhibition of his work. Though he seems to have been an artist who tended to avoid the commercial limelight in his lifetime, his work continues to attract. At its best, it displays a tremendously sophisticated and masterly manipulation of paint, thrilling at its most vigorous, enchanting at its most serene. And, it is often a monument to a slice of British history – a slice of British character – that has now, to a great degree, gone.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2012

[1] Pountney exhibited No. 1234, from 86 Merriman Road, Blackheath.

[2] ‘Surrey Quays’ now exists as a smart residential area of London.

[3] No. 13, on sale for £45. He also showed ‘Nell’ under repair, No. 16.

[4] This was one of the oldest surviving children’s charities, founded in 1843. The Arethusa shown in 1976 was, in fact, the successor to the first HMS Arethusa, bought by Shaftesbury Homes in 1874, after she had been the last Royal Navy warship to go into action under sail alone. In 1933, she was replaced by a German-built Peking, which became the second Arethusa.

[5] Anne’s husband, John Christopherson, was also a painter, but of more mystical kind. The two collected modern art, especially Non-Objective pieces by Ben Nicholson and other post-War St Ives artists. The Christophersons regularly visited St Ives and other areas in Cornwall and it may have been with their encouragement that Pountney did likewise.

[6] 1978, No. 124, Evening, Holes Bay, Poole, Dorset and, in 1984, No. 230, Corner of Holes Bay, Dorset.

[7] No. 130, RSMA, 1978

[8] No.246, RSMA, 1982.