At the turn of the millennium, Joash Woodrow’s life’s work lay undiscovered in a house in Chapel Allerton in Leeds. For forty-five years he had lived and worked there, making art with a singular passion that eclipsed more everyday concerns.
Woodrow lived alone, becoming increasingly reserved after experiencing a mental-health crisis as a young man. For a long time however, he was content and purposeful in the pursuit of his artwork. Paintings, drawings and sculptures blossomed and came to rest in teetering piles, crowding every corner of his house.
Woodrow grew into old age, surrounded by his art, until a house fire tipped his life’s balance precariously. Supported by his family, Woodrow agreed to move into sheltered accommodation, on one condition: his family must promise to take care of his art.
Never before exhibited, few had ever seen these artworks. His brother felt these paintings and drawings were almost as private to Joash as a diary. Now they were blanketed by dust; their colours obscured by smoke damage.
Many of the canvases were stacked so high they had become stuck together. The family’s promise to rescue this huge body of work posed a daunting challenge. Only a chance discovery would kick-start the chain reaction that snatched Joash Woodrow’s artwork from the brink of obscurity.
A year later, artist Christopher P. Wood was browsing a second-hand bookshop, when he stumbled across every book-hunter’s dream, something more unique than the rarest first edition. The issue of the Victorian ‘Magazine of Art’ that he picked up was intriguing in itself, but this copy had belonged to Joash Woodrow, who had reworked every page by hand. Using paint, collage and drawing, Woodrow had reinvented the old magazine as a book of completely original artworks. They were funny, clever and brimming over with personality.
Wood bought the unusual artefact and showed it to the conservator and gallery-owner Andrew Stewart, whose interest was piqued. Stewart contacted Woodrow’s family, who were shocked to discover they had accidently sold one of Joash’s artworks and explained the dilemma of the houseful of art that needed a new home.
Arranging to visit, Stewart found portraits, still-lifes, and landscapes of contemporary Leeds. Vividly rendered, their lavishly thick paint clung to all manner of rough-hewn supports. From sackcloth to advertising signs, anything Woodrow came upon could become part of an artwork.
As these unconventional pieces were brought out and painstakingly cleaned, brilliant colours emerged, to reveal a style that combined expressive vigour with insightful clarity of purpose. Woodrow’s work showed a deep knowledge of 20th century artistic movements, while his exuberantly direct approach animated everyday subjects in a way all his own.
Joash Woodrow’s first solo exhibition was arranged by 108 Fine Art Gallery in Harrogate in 2002, while Leeds Art Gallery was the first public gallery to show his work soon after. Further exhibitions crystallised Woodrow’s reputation as one of the great undiscovered talents of 20th century art. Though his health had become fragile, Joash Woodrow attended one of the first exhibitions of his own work, just a short time before his death in 2006.
In other ways Woodrow is enigmatic. He left little writing, joined no artistic groups and hadn’t attempted to exhibit his work since the early 1970s. Without these familiar building blocks it can be challenging to fit someone into a conventional art history, but Woodrow’s drawings give us a first-hand account of places he visited, people he saw and what was on his mind. This short series will highlight the illuminating details of Woodrow’s life and work that these drawings capture.
Some of Woodrow’s drawings are now part of Leeds City Art Gallery’s collection and they span a wide period of the artist’s life. In my role as a volunteer cataloguer, I have been intrigued to study Woodrow’s drawings. He drew constantly – amongst the discoveries in Woodrow’s house, the kitchen table alone was submerged beneath over 1000 drawings.
By Liz Kay, Volunteer Cataloguer, Leeds Art Gallery.
(All images within this blog © The estate of Joash Woodrow. All Rights Reserved.)