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Dennis Creffield
Pictured: Dennis Creffield, 'East London Scene', c.1960–70. Oil on canvas, 70 x 91 cm, 27 1/2 x 35 7/8 ins.
4 July 2024 – 2 August 2024

Dennis Creffield: Cityscapes

The Artist Room presents Cityscapes, a solo presentation of works by the postwar British artist Dennis Creffield (1931–2018).

Pictured: Dennis Creffield, 'East London Scene', c.1960–70. Oil on canvas, 70 x 91 cm, 27 1/2 x 35 7/8 ins.
‘Pushing his work towards abstraction, yet at the same time remaining committed to the sensations he received in a particular location, Creffield discovered just how enthralling a lofty panorama can become. The restless shapes of the jagged brush-strokes settle down into a clear, precise, luminous structure.’
– Richard Cork, Dennis Creffield; Art and Life, London (2022), p. 40
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Dennis Creffield, East London Scene, c.1970

Oil on canvas
70 x 91 cm, 27 1/2 x 35 7/8 ins
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The Artist Room presents ‘Cityscapes’, a presentation of works by Dennis Creffield (1931- 2018). Spanning 1958-1970, exploring Creffield’s emotional and pictorial responses to three distinct British cities: London, Leeds and Brighton. 

Born  in 1931 in South London, Creffield emerged from a childhood of relative poverty to become one of Britain’s most influential post-war painters, notably receiving solo exhibitions at the Barbican and Serpentine Galleries in his lifetime. At the age of 17, Creffield began studying under the tutelage of David Bomberg at the Borough polytechnic and subsequently became a member of the Borough Group which included his contemporaries Dorothy Mead and Frank Auerbach.

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Dennis Creffield, Paysage (Leeds), 1965

Oil on canvas
76 x 63 cm, 29 7/8 x 24 3/4 ins
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Between 1957 and 1961, he studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, in which period he created numerous works on view including Greenwich from the Royal Observatory (1958), Royal Naval College, Greenwich (1959) and Greenwich, Looking down river (1960). In these early works he demonstrated his ability to collapse atmosphere into tangible entity, translating the essence of his subjects into bold forms that render the the energy of a city as object, alive and vibrating.

The act of climbing upward became recurrent throughout Creffield’s life. He notes this obsession early in his childhood describing ‘how, on the very rare occasions when his mother took him ‘up West’, he saw ‘the Monument’, where Creffield would savour the ‘thrill and exhaustion’ of climbing ‘up the stairs’,–at the top ‘you’re presented with this astounding view’’. 

– Richard Cork, Dennis Creffield; Art and Life, London (2022), p. 11

During his Slade years, Creffield spent a lot of time camped on the roof of the Royal Observatory. Canvases and paints were hoisted up as he worked quickly, en plein air, in all weather conditions with only two sentry boxes for shelter. It was under these conditions that he painted Greenwich, from the Royal Observatory (1958), and where his obsession with the panoramic vista developed. In Leeds he painted from the roof of the university looking down over the city and in Brighton, he had the sea to satisfy his need for the expansive horizon.

The notion of escape is also prevalent throughout Creffield’s life and work. The painted marks in his London works, though anchored firmly through technique, leap from their origin, attempting escape. This elasticity drags the depths of the work forward creating a sense of collapse and claustrophobia as we fall into the image.

A city such as London inevitably carves a person of extremes. Contradiction is standard: the city is both unbearably loud and deafeningly silent, expansive yet inescapable, oversaturated yet grey. Creffield distils these tensions in his architectural renderings, wholly capturing the energy of a city in each work. Creffield also imbues each individual mark with descriptive energy. Working predominantly between charcoal on paper and oil on canvas, both mediums offer Creffield a specific descriptive power. His charcoal lines crackle with an urgent immediacy. Cleary made at speed, a work such as Greenwich, Looking down river (1960), demonstrates Creffield’s instinctive ability to dual-wield intention, forcing a four-dimensional experience into a two-dimensional picture plane with precise pictorial accuracy. 

‘I don’t look at the drawings while drawing, I simply smell, listen and respond to them.’

 Dennis Creffield quoted in ‘The Guardian’, 10 July 2018

When working in oil, Creffield is afforded more depth and time, which he utilises to weight the work physically and experientially. Rather than the mark itself, as with charcoal, being an outcome to some energetic translation, his painted marks are carved and dug into, moving through colours: they describe and become the energy simultaneously.

In 1964, Creffield was awarded the Gregory Fellowship in Painting at the University of Leeds and lived there until 1968. His first major relocation after a period spent travelling Europe and later, in the British countryside, there is a clear release from the pressures of London. Works like Paysage (Leeds) (1965) are fresher, more expansive, whilst still describing the architecture and experience of a large city. 

In 1968 Creffield’s relationship with his wife dissolved and thus he made a solitary escape to Brighton. His first residence in Lewes Crescent is the subject of the work Lewes Crescent & Garden from the East (1970). 

’How do you paint all that? The dourness and grandeur of big cities like London and Leeds were replaced by this skittish, singing town. It released me.” -“In Brighton I found myself looking out over the sea, birds flying past the window, people shouting and running up and down, flags flapping. An animated world.”’

– Richard Cork, Dennis Creffield; Art and Life, London (2022), p. 53

There is a clear change in vitality to the work made in this period. Marks are finally unchained from their place of origin, no longer are forms collapsing and confined, they are building, escaping. His palette is lifted and more vibrant. Creffield remained mostly in Brighton for the rest of his life. Here the horizon is always easily accessible, Creffield’s studio windows opened onto the sea; the physical need to escape is void and redirected to imaginative escapism within his later work.

There was a freshness from my moving to Brighton. I was enraptured by the light and movement in the world outside my windows. It was such a change from the inland city airlessness…I drew and painted the beach with a sense of small forms in constant flux, the people, the flags and the seagulls.

– Richard Cork, Dennis Creffield; Art and Life, London (2022), p. 57

Like Creffield, we all have our own means of finding release from the unyielding pressures of the city: for those of us without means to escape, we must find solace from within its walls. Some search upwards, some seek water, but all seek horizon. This intimate presentation Dennis Creffield’s often overlooked practice ultimately documents through paint Creffield’s steady escape from an impoverished childhood to being shown alongside his Idol J. M. W. Turner at the Tate Britain, as the artist’s important place in the canon of British art is beginning to be rediscovered.

NOTES TO EDITORS

Notable solo exhibitions include Cathedrals of England and France, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (2014); Paintings of Petworth, Gillian Jason Gallery, London, touring to Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham; Peterborough Museum & Art Gallery; Durham Art Gallery; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (1993); Selected Paintings and Drawings 1963–83, Charleston Gallery, Sussex (1992);  Paintings and Drawings of London 1960–90, Barbican Gallery, London (1992); English Cathedrals, South Bank touring exhibition to Winchester; Wrexham; Norwich; Peterborough; Durham; Sheffield; Manchester; Brighton; Canterbury; Coventry; Worcester; Exeter; Camden Arts Centre, London, 1988–90;  Drawings, Serpentine Gallery, London (1980); and Paintings and Drawings, Leeds City Art Gallery (1966). 

Recent group exhibitions include All Too Human, Tate Britain, London (2018); Beyond Borough, Waterhouse & Dodd, London (2017); Borough: David Bomberg and his students, Waterhouse & Dodd, London (2015); Drawn from the Collection. 400 Years of British Drawing, Tate Britain, London (2008); Bomberg and the Borough Group, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (2007); and Bomberg and the Borough, Tate Britain, London (2004). 

 Creffield’s work resides in many prominent public collections, including Tate, UK; British Museum, UK; Arts Council Collection, UK; The Government Art Collection, UK; Guildhall Museum, London; Pallant House Gallery, UK; Towner Art Gallery, UK; Whitworth Museum, Manchester; City Art Gallery, UK; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, USA, among many others. 

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