In May, 1983, when he was 65 and living in Norfolk, Percy Kelly, wrote to Mary Burkett: “As you may have guessed, I am a very complicated individual with never two days alike. My health and sensitive and creative nature is almost too much to bear. Were it not for your concern and Joan David’s too I would never have emerged from the black pit.”
This letter, despairing, self-anaytical, written at a time of mental crisis, is illustrated with a picture of a small cottage, heavy and squat beneath the rounded hills. As in so many of his paintings, a bright road leads into the heart of the picture. Kelly writes, “I cannot but reflect on my true self when people turn their backs because of a quirk of nature my gender is all mixed up. In a way it is a curse because it has affected my life so adversely and brought with it enforced solitude and loneliness.”
Mary Burkett must have phoned as soon as she received the letter. As curator of Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, she had been Kelly’s artistic advisor, and, more importantly close friend and confidante since 1968. The letter he wrote immediately after her phone call is full of sympathy for her sore throat and breezy gossip about seeing the doctor after he’d severed his toes in a lawn mower accident.
The richness of these letters lies in their variety, the switch of mood and personality from Bob to Robert to Roberta, and in the intense shorthand exchanges of a close, intimate and caring relationship. Together, and there are hundreds of them, they form a partial autobiography of one of Cumbria’s greatest artists.
His landscapes were the dark clouds above the huddled houses of the west coast, the crowding hills besides the road into Lorton, but he also painted intense flowers, cornflake packets, armchairs, the world in front of his eyes, constantly sketching in crayon or felt tips, in school water-colours or poster paints, on scraps of paper, on the envelopes he sent, processing, remaking his complicated world, fixing it with delight and darkness.
He recalls going home from Carlisle on a winter’s evening. “Approaching Mealsgate I suddenly saw the silver road framed by dark black trees as an exciting shape. I saw other similar vistas and when I reached Allonby I jotted them down in charcoal. . . I visited Lorton and Loweswater and did a series of drawings influenced by the road at Mealsgate. Shape became uppermost in my mind.”
Percy Kelly’s life, even without the painting would have been remarkable: soldier – he had late-night chats with Churchill in his bunker - footballer, postman, mechanic, teacher, transvestite. He left his glamorous first wife and eloped with his ophthalmologist’s wife to a cold and miserable cottage in Pembroke, where he wrote many of these letters. He moved to Norfolk and, living alone, died of cancer in 1993.
Despite the hardship, the nervous breakdowns, the despair, the complex personality, it was a life lived with an obsessive tenacity and intensity.
These remarkable letters show that it was also a life lived with a painful honesty. He considered that “Everything an artist does is an expression of his true self”.
It is the very integrity of these letters, their detailed account of the daily joys and despairs of a creative life, that make this book an important artistic biography.
David Cross has provided a useful and succinct introduction and the book is beautifully produced with many fine illustrations of the letters.
But it was Mary Burkett who provided the care and support over many years that enabled Percy Kelly to spin his creative thread.