John Blackburn, abstract artist who explored the dark side of life and founded a company that made teddy bears – obituary

John Blackburn in front of one of his paintings – Courtesy OSBORNE SAMUEL GALLERY

John Blackburn, who died at the age of 90, was a critically acclaimed abstract artist in the 1960s, which earned him a devoted following, including influential collector Jim Ede, founder of Kettle’s gallery. Yard in Cambridge.

He later fell into relative obscurity when, as a father of three, one of whom had serious health problems, he needed a regular income. In the 1960s and 1970s he worked in various capacities, including as a graphic designer – and in 1979, with his wife Maude, he founded Canterbury Bears, a company that produces teddy bears.

Although Blackburn restored his reputation as an artist, the business grew and flourished under Maude and their daughter Kerstin, and in 2013 he was appointed MBE for manufacturing and export services.

He continued to paint in his day, gradually forming an important body of work. Its rediscovery by art consultant Christopher Penn in 2002 was followed four years later by a major exhibition, co-curated by the artist and Penn, at the Metropole Galleries in Folkestone.

John Blackburn painting from the 1960s - Slater Crosby Photographic / Courtesy OSBORNE SAMUEL GALLERY

John Blackburn painting from the 1960s – Slater Crosby Photographic / Courtesy OSBORNE SAMUEL GALLERY

Blackburn’s abstracts typically featured loose geometric shapes, sometimes identifiable but mostly allusive symbols, splashed and smeared on broad canvas backgrounds (often recycled) of whites and creams, structured with objets trouvés: fabric scraps, pill bags discarded, bandages, lead sheets glued with bent nails and so on.

His paintings used everything from acrylic paint, oil paint and encaustic to resin, house paint and varnish, often mixed with grit or iron filings to give a rougher texture. “I use anything and everything,” she told an interviewer. “The use of found materials brings the image to life before the image has even begun.”

One of his strongest influences was the artist Francis Bacon, with whom he shared his concern for what he described as “the brutality of being alive”.

“I’m an optimistic type,” he said in 2012, “but you can’t really escape certain facts, and it’s not always man’s inhumanity to man that’s terrible: sometimes life itself, just the simple fact. to be alive, you are faced with a natural brutality … for me, painting must have a connection with the physical ”.

In a 2016 essay on the artist, Ian Massey observed: “The themes in his work have remained consistent over the years, the ways he revisits them continually open up to experimentation and re-evaluation, to new inventions of form and material as he strives for what it describes as an elusive truth.

John Blackburn was born in a village near Luton on 2 June 1932 and from the age of 14 he attended the Thanet School of Art, Margate, where he specialized in textile design. He completed his training on the day of his release at the Maidenhead School of Art during his national service in the RAF. He recalled that his RAF training came from “men fresh out of World War II, themselves brutalized”.

Escaping the austerities of post-war Britain, following demobilization in 1952 he emigrated to New Zealand with his parents and sister, who soon decided to return to England. Blackburn stayed and met, and in 1956 married Maude McKinnon, who had founded the country’s first modeling agency. They would have three children, Victoria, Kerstin and Mark.

Settling with his wife and young family in Auckland, Blackburn began thinking about becoming a painter. A series of large experimental “Encaustic” paintings – loose sheets on oil-worked hardboard and house paints before being burned and burned – have been exhibited at the Circle Gallery in Auckland. Conservative New Zealand was not ready for such radical work. But the paintings won at least one admirer who advised Blackburn to return to Britain and bought the entire collection, giving him the means to do so.

John Blackburn painting from the 1960s - Slater Crosby Photographic / Courtesy OSBORNE SAMUEL GALLERY

John Blackburn painting from the 1960s – Slater Crosby Photographic / Courtesy OSBORNE SAMUEL GALLERY

In 1961 Blackburn appeared alongside Ben Nicholson, Victor Pasmore, Terry Frost and others in the John Moores painting exhibition in Liverpool. The following year the Woodstock Gallery in London offered him a solo exhibition that so impressed Jim Ede, that he noticed Blackburn’s “immense vigor and sensitivity for texture and color and a joy in doing it” that he began to add Blackburn’s work to the collection at his home, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.

In addition to purchasing many of Blackburn’s more domestic-sized paintings, displaying them alongside sculptures by Gaudier-Brzeska, pottery by Lucie Rie, and paintings by Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, Ede has continued to promote Blackburn to many private collectors.

In the mid-1960s, however, Blackburn’s 10-year-old daughter Victoria fell ill with kidney disease, which led to a long battle to keep her alive. She underwent two kidney transplants, a groundbreaking procedure at the time, her father became one of her donors, and her health problems had a profound effect on the family, causing Blackburn to abandon her eyes. public. Victoria eventually recovered, and in 1979 her parents completed a 3,400-mile charity walk along the coast of Britain in aid of kidney transplant awareness.

Blackburn’s heightened awareness of the fragility of human life would be explored in his 1970s “Hostages” series, paintings influenced by French artist Jean Fautrier’s “Les Otages”. His worries reached their apogee in 1979, in the extraordinary visceral performance “Earthworks”, in which his own naked body was the vehicle of expression.

In part it involved the artist’s burial in a tomb excavated near his home, with offal placed on the body and worms in the beard. Emotionally and psychologically fraught, the “Earthworks” actually formed an end point, after which Blackburn did not paint for nearly twenty years.

At the time of his 2005 exhibition in Folkestone, Blackburn’s art had not appeared in a commercial gallery since 1967. The exhibition led to a revival of interest in his work, both new and retrospective, and he continued to hold exhibitions at the Osborne Samuel gallery in Mayfair (he celebrated his 90th birthday earlier this year at his seventh gallery show) and elsewhere.

Blackburn and his wife lived in their half-timbered house in Kent for many years, with annual return visits in subsequent years to New Zealand, where his work was exhibited at the Artis Gallery in Auckland.

His wife and children outlive him.

John Blackburn, born June 2, 1932, died October 22, 2022

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