Tom Quinn, 1918-2015

Tom Quinn died in 2015. His enigmatic and captivating pictures remain as a fine memorial to the man and the artist.

Tom Quinn lived and worked in a, 'rambling, light-filled studio', in the Dordogne area of France, for many years. One of the most striking things about his work is his preoccupation with the southern sunlight, with the pulsating heat-haze which dissolves the line between figures and the outside world on a summer afternoon and – in contrast – with the soft shadows which enshroud an interior. Quinn’s work has been described as Romantic. There are terms in which this description is apt.

‘Romantic art deals with the particular. The particularisation of Bewick about a bird’s wing, or Turner about a waterfall or a hill town, or of Rossetti about Elizabeth Siddall, is the result of a vision that can see in these things something significant beyond (the) ordinary ..; something that for a moment seems to contain the whole world’[1].

Quinn’s figures, flowers, domestic objects, glimpses of life, are evanescent patches of colour and abbreviated form, intimations of delight, sometimes profoundly contemplative, subtle evocations of the warmth of the southern sun and of human companionship. At the same time, and at their best, they can seem, ‘to contain the whole world’.

Born to Northern Irish parents, the son of a commercial lithographer, Quinn was apprenticed to his father’s firm. When the Second War came, he served in the RAF. After the War, like so many others, Quinn must have decided to follow his dream and went to study at Camberwell School of Art in the late 1940s. This was a period when there was a lively mix of students - youngsters and ex-service people who were in their mid-late 20s or even older. Moreover, many of the more mature students, in particular, were greedy for information and were well-used to hard work.

Amongst Quinn’s tutors were the charismatic John Minton, who joined the staff in 1943, and Susan Einzig, who had left Berlin just before the War and started teaching at Camberwell in 1946. Both of these inspiring and prolific artists taught drawing, illustration and composition. Minton had already turned his attention to theatre design as well as illustration and painting, whilst Einzig’s first commission, in 1945, was from Noel Carrington, then launching his Transatlantic Arts series of illustrated books. There were others, too, at Camberwell in the later 1940s. Toni del Renzio, though born in Russia, had grown up in Italy, and thus found himself drafted into Mussolini’s cavalry, before deserting - first, for Paris, where he was deeply influenced by Picasso and the Surrealists, and then for London, ahead of Hitler’s advance through France. Once in London, del Renzio led the reinvigoration of English Surrealism, worked on illustrations and articles, and started to teach at Camberwell. There, he found that William Coldstream – who, with Victor Pasmore, Claude Rogers and Graham Bell, had launched the Euston Road School in 1937 – was also a tutor. Coldstream’s attachment to the visual world was uncompromising. But his means of articulating that attachment was shaped by his understanding of European abstraction. His method involved persistent, almost obsessive, measuring and testing spatial and perspectival relationships with the guidance of his raised thumb, held at arm’s length against his view of the scene in front of him. This resulted in painstakingly-composed pictures, which reveal clear evidence of their deliberate construction in the vertical and horizontal marks laid across the canvas, defining and co-ordinating his images, asserting their formal integrity.

One need go no further: it is quite clear that Quinn was being taught by a body of artists who were very different from one another and yet shared a lack of any preciousness about working in a variety of media, from fine art to advertising. They were well-informed about the development of European art and yet were emphatically engaged with fostering a British - probably an English - artistic voice, which acknowledged the power of the unconscious whilst celebrating what they saw in the world about them, committed to the view that the duty of art was to be accessible, communicative, reflecting and inspiring the lives of ordinary people. They were all much the same age as Quinn and yet brought with them a huge wealth of experience, in worldly matters as well as artistic ones. Such a bevy of personalities and ideas can only have been exceptionally stimulating.

In the early 1970s, partly from necessity and partly an expression of his belief in art as a social good, Tom Quinn exhibited his work on the railings of Green Park - with many others, joining the regular Open Air Art Shows, which attracted local people and tourists alike. It was there that Quinn met Roy Petley, an aspiring artist some thirty years his junior. It seems probable that Quinn’s dedication to his painting offered a model to the younger man. It is also the case that Petley’s enthusiasm for painting en plein air and the effects of light and delight experienced under the luminous skies of Norfolk or in the sun-drenched Dordogne, where Petley has a house, was very influential for Quinn.

Quinn moved from London and made his permanent home in the Dordogne. There, he dedicated himself to painting; deliberately and with manifest pleasure, he recorded and celebrated the lives of family and friends. He depicted, ‘in beautifully soft, chalky hues, the world around him - busy cafés, bustling markets, intimate interiors, a game of boules, dappled sunlight in a summer garden and colour-splashed picnics by the river’[2]. And, through this work, Quinn continued to explore, in modestly-sized, carefully-composed, pictures, his appreciation of human life, full of everyday, communal pleasures and his grasp of something more imaginative, contemplative, quintessential - that, in the end, life for each individual is profoundly private, introspective and evanescent.

© Dr Hilary Taylor, 2012


[1] John Piper, British Romantic Artists, quoted by Richard Ingrams, Piper’s Places, 1983, p.12.

[2] Introduction to an exhibition of Tom Quinn’s art, to celebrate his 93rd birthday, at Roy Petley’s Cork Street Gallery, September 2011. Further work by Quinn can be found in the Stables Gallery, Northern Ireland, www.stables-gallery.co.uk.