‘A soldier sits opposite you in the train. His mouth always open a little. Lips that were never meant to feel each other. His hands that you keep looking at – big and straight and generous. His body big and strong, harnessed over like a circus horse with brass and khaki. You felt you could love him? An impossible yearning to protect him – to put yourself between his clean body and the savage mechanism of destruction. Just to save this one fragment of the earth’s springtime from being stamped out utterly.’ Keith Vaughan, Journal: 22 June 1940

For Keith Vaughan (1912-77), the events of his young life, and especially those of the Second World War, were to define the underlying themes of his art. Aside from the more general experiences of wartime, he was marked profoundly by two events in close succession, the proximity of which can only have been devastating: both were to resonate in his art for the rest of his life. In May 1940, his brother Dick, who had enlisted as an RAF pilot, was shot down and killed over France. Then, working with the St John’s Ambulance only weeks later, he helped unload severely injured servicemen into ambulances as they arrived by train in Kent following their evacuation from Dunkirk.

As a conscientious objector, early in 1941 Vaughan was drafted to serve as a labourer in the Pioneer Corps, based initially in Wiltshire and then in Derbyshire. Later he became an assistant interpreter in a prisoner-of-war detainment camp in rural Yorkshire. Though not able to paint, he kept sketchbooks, and his drawings – of comrades at work and at leisure, in barracks, fields and woodland – form a visual diary of the period. He also began a written journal; a habit initiated on the eve of war, and kept up in multiple volumes until the point of his suicide in November 1977.

Vaughan did not attend art college, or indeed university. Though he showed great promise in art at boarding school, he went on instead to work from 1931 as a trainee layout designer with a London advertising agency, where he gained compositional skills and fluency in the use of gouache, painting in oils in his spare time. He regularly attended the theatre, especially the ballet, and read avidly: in the mid-Thirties Auden, Spender, MacNeice, Huxley, Eliot and Gide, the latter a lifelong favourite whose journals, read in the original French, he particularly prized. In wartime London artistic and literary circles were relatively accessible to a cultivated middle-class young man such as Vaughan, and he established contact with a number of prominent figures, several of whom helped in his career. Through Peter Watson, wealthy art collector and backer of the magazine Horizon, he befriended the painter Graham Sutherland, whose atmospheric landscapes, with their paraphrasing of the natural world, became a powerful influence.

Vaughan held an exhibition of his drawings at the Lefevre Gallery in London in 1944, though it was only after resuming civilian life that he felt his real work begun, certainly as a painter. His Sutherland-inspired works of the immediate post-war period are typically Neo-Romantic in mood. Towards the end of the decade however he began to align more keenly with European modernism, particularly that of Cézanne, the Cubists and Matisse. The canvas Rose Bathers (1949), though tinged in neo-romanticism, shows Vaughan finding inspiration in the figures of Picasso’s classical period.

Always uncertain of his position despite a burgeoning renown, Vaughan’s journals evince a man often in turmoil about his life and art. The Fifties were a transitional period in which he strove to develop his style and refine his technique, and he destroyed many paintings during the course of the decade. Around 1959 however, his painting underwent a fundamental change when, moving from his established practice of working from drawings in which composition was predetermined, he began to paint from the basis of an idea direct to canvas. He was inspired to do so by American Abstract Expressionist painting, first exhibited on a large-scale in London in 1956. Although sceptical about many of these artists, Vaughan was impressed by Willem de Kooning’s Woman and by Philip Guston’s work. He took from these painters the idea of the canvas as an arena in which to explore and extemporise, corralling formal elements to achieve something approaching equipoise.

With the exception of a handful of late works, Vaughan’s painting was never entirely abstract, though landscapes such as Porthmeor (1961) and High Easter (1967) show how he used abstraction as a means to pare down the motif within a taut pictorial structure. Figure paintings of the Sixties such as Standing Figure – Blue Background clearly reference the monumental heroism of classical sculpture and the exaggerated postures of ballet, as does Two Figures (Damson), its sexual tension clenched within interlocking positive and negative forms. Seventh Assembly – Nile Group is more elegiac in mood, akin to the memorial friezes of the Great War and to those of antiquity. In this and other canvases of the Sixties, painting acts for Vaughan as commemoration and catharsis. For though rooted at a primal level in his sexuality, and often carrying a homoerotic charge, his paintings of the male figure are informed also by a deeply felt humanism that gives his work universal meaning. In paintings such as Seventh Assembly – Nile Group the artist can be seen to memorialise not only his brother and the wounded of Dunkirk, but also lost friends and lovers, and the many smaller losses; fleeting visions of the beauty of young men witnessed over many years, like burrs in the memory.

Published in PN Review no. 210, March-April 2013

© Ian Massey 2013

All images © The Estate of Keith Vaughan, courtesy of Anthony Hepworth Fine Art

Posted in: Articles & Reviews, Keith Vaughan