Liz Kay’s final instalment in her 3 part series about the life and work of artist Joash Woodrow looks at his later years in Leeds. In 1955 Woodrow returned to his family home, which would evolve into his unique artistic studio and retreat from the world, where familiar surroundings provided limitless fuel for his creativity.
Woodrow made many portraits and people are at the heart of the drawings Leeds City Art Gallery has from this period. Family friend Danny Padmore recalled the experience of meeting Woodrow and sitting for a portrait. Expecting an ‘eccentric’ artist, he was surprised that Woodrow looked like ‘a non-descript clerk in his neat suit’. To his renewed surprise, as soon as Woodrow lifted brush to canvas, any traces of awkwardness dissolved to reveal an assured artist, calm and in control.
Influence of Picasso
Woodrow greatly admired Picasso, and in 1960 he visited London to see the exhibition causing a sensation at the Tate that year. Featuring five decades of Picasso’s work, the exhibition drew such huge crowds it became known as the UK’s first ‘blockbuster’, sparking a craze for all things Spanish. Woodrow was hooked and visited numerous times. In questioning what led Woodrow to amass such an extraordinary horde of his own artwork, we might look at the impact this enormous exhibition made on him.
Scholars have noted a strong Picasso-esque flavour to Woodrow’s work in the 60s and 70s, including a shared fascination for making studies of seated women, with both artists producing countless variations on this theme. Compare one of Picasso’s most famous ‘Seated Woman’ paintings at the Musee Picasso, Paris with these two drawings by Joash Woodrow at Leeds City Art Gallery.
Although similar, these two drawings from 1965 create two very different moods: one tense and anxious, the other relaxed and expansive. These drawings also form an important link, showing how Woodrow developed his motif of the seated woman, in both sensitive and playful ways, from his earliest studies of his mother Rebecca, resting after a hard day’s work, to his later collages.
The Family Home
As Woodrow’s close family network loosened, through the deaths of his parents and his eight siblings leaving home, he stayed on in the family home, taking over one room after another with his artwork. 1972 seems to mark the last time that Joash attempted to exhibit this work. Disillusioned with the search for critical success, he had decided to paint only for himself.
Spending three days a week sketching and the rest of his time painting, he became only more prolific, often working through the night. Laying his work out on the floor, he worked vigorously, trowelling and scraping his paint across the canvas. His drawings achieve a similar effect through the forcefulness of his lines, each one carving an indentation in the paper.
Woodrow and Leeds
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the city of Leeds increasingly captivated Woodrow, as he sketched and painted the cityscape. Giving more attention to allotments and industrial areas than to grand architecture, he creates a poetic and intimate portrait of the city from within. Mapping these spaces had a compulsive appeal, and Woodrow often rapidly drew the same scene many times, perhaps searching out the rhythms of repeating elements like fences and trees.
Leeds City Art Gallery has three of these drawings, all from around 1980. In two of these, the locations can be identified and compared to the Leodis archive’s photographs from a similar time.
One drawing shows Alexander Street, close to the gallery itself. The other features the former post office tower and water tower at Cookridge. In this drawing the idea of visual rhythm and musical rhythm come into play, as Woodrow collages sheet music for Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 2 in F onto the landscape, the form of the printed staves repeating the pattern of the fence. You can hear this music performed here.
For Joash Woodrow, music, books, plays and art were as much a part of the fabric of his world as the city streets of Leeds. In 2013 Woodrow’s life was made into a play and his artwork has been exhibited all over the country, securing his own place in the cultural landscape.
Written by Liz Kay, Volunteer Cataloguer, Leeds Art Gallery.
(All images within this blog © The estate of Joash Woodrow. All Rights Reserved.)