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Arts

Percy Kelly: Line of Beauty. A Retrospective

Percy Kelly: Yellow Landscape, Cumberland. Newlands Valley

[A] retrospective exhibition by the reclusive Cumbrian artist Percy Kelly opens up the world of a cross-dressing postman who couldn’t stop drawing.

As we approach the centenary year of artist Percy Kelly’s birth in Workington, Cumberland (1918) and mark the twenty five years since his death in lonely exile in Norfolk (1993), it is timely to fulfil his express wish for a retrospective exhibition. It seems appropriate that the venue for such an exhibition should be here at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, a place familiar to Kelly who, at the age of 41, gathered in the Old Tullie House building among students half his age to hear the inaugural address of the Principal of Carlisle College of Art, Tennant Moon.

This major retrospective celebrates Kelly’s extraordinary talent, and for the first time many facets of Kelly’s prolific output are represented amongst the 100 works on display – some for the first time. Curator, Chris Wadsworth has selected work that charts the development of his art from his early love of the lonely Cumbrian landscapes, quiet villages and industrial harbours as well as Cornwall, Brittany, Pembrokeshire and Norfolk, all captured with his confident emotionally charged charcoal drawings and ink over translucent washes, to the later sensitive flower studies, in keeping perhaps with his emerging alter ego – Roberta Penelope Kelly.

Kelly had very few exhibitions in his lifetime he rebuffed many approaches to exhibit his work, amongst them Crane Kalman Gallery in London, Tib Lane Gallery, Manchester, and Goldmark Gallery, Uppingham.

Curator Chris Wadsworth’s passion for Kelly is tireless. Years of research has resulted in a comprehensive knowledge of the artist and his work, as well as an equally comprehensive collection of anecdotes – stories that have become part of Cumbrian folklore. This exhibition recounts the progress of an extraordinary life through paintings drawings, film and stories about…

…the artist in a frock

Predating that contemporary metropolitan sophisticate Grayson Perry by several decades, Robert Percy was born and known by many as Bob, changing his name by deed poll to Roberta Penelope in 1985 he spent much of his later years in women’s clothes. The cross-dressing had begun many years before; his first marriage ended when his wife Audrey came home one evening to find him wearing one of her dresses – horrified, she threw him out – it was, after all, her best Jaeger dress.

Kelly’s cross-dressing may have answered a deep need. “I cannot stand the male species,” he complained; “I find them quite pitiful. They have brought me so much misery.” His only reason for not having a sex-change operation, apart from the cost, was that he thought it superfluous. Kelly was not a big spender. He bought his clothes at the nearly new shop and once went to a builder’s merchant for cement as Roberta because he thought he would get a better price.

…who played centre forward for Workington Town FC – under Bill Shankly.

Percy Kelly was born in Workington in the dying months of the First World War. He played for the town’s football club in the 50’s when it was managed by Bill Shankly. Perhaps it’s surprising to hear of one of such a vulnerable constitution that he may have actually have rolled round in the mud under Bill Shankly – is it were.

…Cumbria’s own Lowry?

Kelly’s style is hard to define. Some have compared him to Lowry without people. Like Lowry, Kelly could be described as a ‘modern’ primitive: the seeming simplicity of his paintings of empty roads, lonely houses, drystone walls and bare fells is deceptive.

Mention LS Lowry to anyone in Britain today and a ‘familiar’ urban landscape will be evoked: factory walls, belching chimneys, looming mills and city streets – actually a vision so far removed from Salford today that Lowry’s art is now taught in schools as a means to understanding a Britain that now barely exists.

It may one day be so in Cumbria. Kelly’s images of empty roads, brooding harbours, black mine heads and bleak farms are not the Cumbria of today – Maryport’s Jazz festival and Whitehaven’s Taste festival draw visitors to bright lively towns and villages in England’s newest world heritage site.
These are but a few stories and there is still plenty yet to be told about the man who met Winston Churchill during an air-raid and dined with royalty.

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