His life seemed intentionally chaotic as though he was possessed by a demon never to succeed, never to be happy, never even to be himself.
Percy Kelly should have been a very fortunate man. He was born, a twin, at 113 Corporation Road, Workington. The family, with seven children and a carpenter father, were poor. Percy, holding a pencil before he could walk and even from the age of two drawing everything around him, was the favoured child. “A piece of charcoal or chalk became like an extension of my forefinger.”
Workington nurtured him, it gave him the beauty and the strong shapes and defined colours that marked his work. “I love boats,” he wrote, “ and have vivid memories of countless days spent by the harbour at Workington watching the steam cranes unloading tramp steamers with chipped black hulls, raw sienna painted superstructures, red oxide docks and long tall smokestacks of innumerable colours. I have always loved birds, butterflies, flowers and bees. What a world it was between the shore, hills and slagheaps.”
He moved to Salterbeck, was rapidly promoted from telegraph boy to postal officer, in Kendal. At twenty-one, in 1939, he joined the Border Regiment and spent his war years drawing diagrams and maps and visually feeding on everything he saw. Churchill, sheltering in his bunker during a raid, found him “doing a detailed sketch of a teleprinter” and sent him off to see the Constables and Gainsboroughs and Impressionists in the National Gallery.
In 1942 he married the socially ambitious Audrey James from Frostroms Road in Workington. They had one son, Brian, four years later. Audrey stuck with Percy, holding their life together through twenty-five years of depression and artistic obsession. Percy, failing as a husband and a worker despite his extraordinary abilities – he might have been a professional footballer or cyclist - abandoned his position as sub-postmaster in Great Broughton. He found support from perceptive influential friends such as the poet Norman Nicholson, the industrialist Miki Sekers and art-collector, Helen Sutherland, and eventually, at the age of forty-two enrolled as an art student in Carlisle.
Miki Sekers showed him the route to commercial and social success, but Percy needed to follow his own personal and creative journey. In 1970, Audrey, then a nurse at Dovenby, returned to their Allonby cottage to find Percy sitting by the fire “wearing her grey Jaeger knitted dress” and asking her to help him apply her mascara. She threw him out and never saw him again.
He eloped with Chris Griffith, the young, attractive wife of his ophthalmologist. She exchanged a comfortable life in Pardshaw for a desperately poor existence in a leaking cottage in Pembroke with a feckless, self-obsessed husband whom she loved for his artistic genius. Their life might have been good if only Percy had not refused to sell his paintings. They moved house to the flatlands of Norfolk. Chris accepted his confused sexuality, but even she, after her children paid the price of life with this gifted but impossible man, found she could live with him no longer and left him in 1983 after twelve years of marriage.
Percy (Roberta) Kelly died ten years later and left a small, disordered, damp cottage piled high with paintings, prints and drawings. They, together with the wonderful illustrated letters, his intimate autobiography, which he sent to his close, supportive friends, represented the high artistic achievement of his failed life.
Percy painted constantly, compulsively, obsessively, just as someone else might think or talk. He painted peaceful, tidy, comfortable homely kitchens and sweeping lanes that led to white cottages beneath dark overwhelming hills.
He might have been a fortunate man but his life was disabled by his greatest gift.
Chris Wadsworth of Castlegate Gallery in Cockermouth, who has done so much to promote Kelly’s legacy, has written a sympathetic, affectionate biography.
She allows Percy Kelly to tell his own remarkable story through his own searching words and his wonderful pictures.