How Britten and Pears Saved Sutton
Philip Sutton celebrated his 90th birthday on 20 October with two exhibitions, in what has become his home town of Bridport in Dorset. One of them was of charcoal drawings, the other was a retrospective of the last seven decades, including some new canvases, ‘my whole life’. Painting still is his life, and although his eyes are not good any more and the sight is gone in one eye he paints constantly and walks the West Bay beach three times every day.
Less conspicuously, there was also a small exhibition at the Red House, the Britten-Pears Library at their home in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, of the seven Suttons the library owns, including his portrait of Peter Pears and the picture that changed his life.
Sutton says he owes his profession to chance – that he was able to make use of the ex-serviceman’s grant scheme for higher education in 1949, that the Slade saw something in his evening class drawings of car badges, that William Coldstream was the Slade professor, that the dealers Henry Roland and Gustave Delbanco went to the Slade’s 1953 degree show on Coldstream’s recommendation and saw Sutton’s melancholy portrait of a fellow student. And that the singer Peter Pears happened to pass the Roland, Browse & Delbanco gallery in Cork Street.
The ex-aircraftman arrived at the Slade, as did Coldstream, in 1949 with an intake that included Ewan Uglow, Craigie Aitchison and Michael Andrews, whose different kinds of genius were recognised and nurtured by the avuncular, taciturn Coldstream – not least Phil Sutton’s. His friend Derry Irvine – Lord Irvine of Lairgs – recalls Coldstream telling him: ‘Phil can never be written off. His work can go through bad phases, but he is and always will be capable of producing something that is really good because he is a gifted, intuitive painter’.
The college career – at the Slade he met the film-maker Heather Cooke, his wife of 64 years, who died last year – was auspicious by any standards, but graduation reality in austerity London was hard. He and Heather escaped to Europe for a while on bursaries he’d won, and at one point Uglow found them living in Menton on a diet of potatoes. Heather became pregnant and they returned to London penniless with baby Jake in a woven straw carrycot.
Sutton got low-paid teaching shifts at the Slade and another college friend, Harold Cohen – later to be the pioneer of computer art in the United States where he developed the ‘cybernetic artist’, AARON – found the family a room in the house where he had a flat. Toilet, kitchen and bathroom were shared, Jake slept in a cardboard box, and it was a fairly squalid environment from which to launch a career, a career Sutton was not sure was there to be had.
It was at about this time that Peter Pears happened to pass the gallery window and had his eye caught by Sutton’s sombre, expressionistic portrait of a fellow student, Tony Tice, who was later to commit suicide. Struck by the vibrant colour use he bought it on an impulse – the first Philip Sutton picture to be sold through a commercial gallery – got into conversation with Delbanco and heard of the poverty the family were subsisting in, got Sutton’s address and asked him to lunch with Benjamin Britten at their favourite Covent Garden restaurant, Bertorelli’s. ‘All I can remember of it was that I was starving hungry but so nervous I couldn’t eat anything’, he says.
Britten and Pears thought the family were in need of a holiday and offered them the use of a cottage in Snape, Suffolk, for a fortnight. It was called Joy Cottage and they stayed for three years, during which two more children were born, and Sutton commuted three days a week to the Slade.
He arrived at Joy Cottage at a crossroads in his painting. He was aware of developments in St Ives, saw the American Expressionists’ exhibition
at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956, and was agonising on whether abstractism was the way he should go. Several canvases were destroyed in his frustration, before he finally rejected it.
At periods in your life when something’s floating in the air you pick it up, almost like a virus’, he says. Instead he felt the power of the landscape outside his windows. ‘All I can do is respond to how things fall. But I was a different painter when I left Snape than the one that went there.
The invitation was a life-changing, career-making, act of kindness. Britten and Pears used to take the family off in their car on fine days for beach picnics, and it was at the cottage that Pears’s portrait was painted. The family lived a spartan life and when Delbanco visited he found ‘a most disorderly household… the piss-pot stood in the kitchen and so on’ and he found it ‘amusing to have to sleep in my overcoat because it was so cold’.
But Delbanco liked what he saw. Sutton’s style matured and coalesced at Joy Cottage, the colours became less hectic and less mordant, the paint thinner on the canvas, the strokes more lyrical; there were pale seascapes, dreamy landscapes from the open country that had inspired Constable and Gainsborough, and many happy depictions of his growing family. ‘As an extrovert colourist – because there are introvert colourists – this complete lack of hesitation with the handling of paint, this instinctive understanding of the nature of colour, is a thing so rare in the English school, and it’s Sutton’s greatest asset,’ Delbanco said. The art began to sell.
In 1958 the family left Suffolk for affordable Battersea, transported by their friend Jeffrey Camp, for a phase in which Philip Sutton became popular, and then in the 60s and 70s fashionable. Their house, bought thanks to a loan from Heather’s father, became a salon, the work was collected by the Tate, the Government Art Collection, Harrison Birtwistle, Albert Finney, Penelope Wilton, Arnold Wesker, Nell Dunn, Irvine, Carl Davis and Lord Snowdon, who did an elegiac photographic feature of the Sutton household for the Sunday Times Magazine. In the 70s Sutton was elected an RA and
never misses showing and selling in the Summer Exhibition. It was in the Suffolk years that Sutton became assured that he was a painter by profession, not a teacher that paints. He arrived at Battersea with confidence and ease in the depiction of form and colour that he found within himself, thanks to the tranquility of Joy Cottage.
He says now:
I was looking for a target, what I should be painting, and realised it was in myself and I found it by chance. Chance has been so important…As long as you bump into something you don’t know is there and can take it on, that’s being creative, but if you bump into something you know is there and look no further, that is not a creative act. The essence of a spirit of adventure is that you don’t know the result, and for that you need courage.