...CUNNINGHAM was bemused that anyone would want to talk about work he had produced almost 40 year ago.
I quickly became aware that he is a very guarded and cautious man, punctuating answers to questions with qualifiers such as, “I don’t want that on record” or “please don’t write that down”. During this slightly uncomfortable start, I noticed something else. There were lots of paintings stacked in groups, all facing the wall. Others on display had been carefully covered with sheets of paper. Intrigued I asked him for an explanation. He said that he understood our interview would centre on his graphic work and didn’t want to visually confuse matters.
(The Central School)
... He graduated in 1952 and, still yearning for a deeper creative education, he decided to take up a place at the Royal College of Art. At the suggestion of Abram Games, he went to see Rodrigo Moynihan, then the head of painting. Moynihan offered him a place on the fine art course. Here Cunningham worked alongside fellow students Joe Tilson, Frank Auerbach and David Methuen. At last he felt that his heart and mind were being fully engaged. During this time his paintings came to the attention of Sir Roger de Grey, Carol Weight and John Minton. They all agreed that Cunningham’s work showed originality and innovation. In 1956, he left the RCA clutching an impressive first, along with a travelling and continuation scholarship. This latter bonus would enable him to devote himself totally to painting without the pressure of money worries.
He used his travel bursary to explore Spain, but returned to London to complete his continuation scholarship. During this time he exhibited at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition, the Beaux Arts Gallery and later with the prestigious London Group show for two consecutive years.
This culminated in Cunningham being asked to submit work for full membership to the group - he declined. He then made the even more extraordinary decision to withdraw completely from any further public exhibition of his paintings. However, there are examples of his work in the Olinda Museum in Brazil, North West Trust Collection in Northern Ireland and the private collection of Elsbeth Juda.
... By our second meeting, I was becoming more intrigued by the hidden canvases. Dismissing my curiosity, he turned the subject back to his graphic work. I continued to chip away until he finally agreed to show me his work. A week later we strolled to a large, brooding industrial building, originally a laun- dry, but now converted into a centre for small businesses.
Cunningham has rented a studio here for 17 years and I was the 17th “invited” visitor during that time. This was not a building converted to the trendy workspace standards of London’s Shoreditch. It had simply been let out with its new inhabitants left to adapt the spaces to their particular needs.
Cunningham’s space was small, with most of its windows covered to frustrate prying eyes. The room was full to bursting with paintings, neatly covered and stacked to protect them from dust. The windows were sealed shut and the lack of air, combined with an extremely hot evening, made me feel faint.
I was allowed to leave the studio door open for some air, only to have it hastily closed by Cunningham when he heard footsteps, saying, “I don’t want any of those people snooping in here”. But I did have the pleasure of seeing the lifetime work of a man clearly obsessed and driven to paint, something he does every day.
We returned to his flat and over a chilled bottle of white wine we talked further as he showed me more recent work. These were drawings and watercolours, all meticulously placed in cellophane bags and housed in individual folders.
There were hundreds, if not thousands of these neatly stacked drawings and paintings, all signed, dated and often containing background notes on subject matter. He showed me a series of 20-odd skyscapes he’d painted from his balcony. These beautifully executed watercolours, each recording the subtle change of light and movement, were captured like images from a motordrive camera.
I left Cunningham on that balmy summer evening, leaving him to gather up the many drawings and watercolours that he had shown me.
Driving home, I pondered on the notion that this man had carefully balanced his life, using his design and teaching work to fund his private passion of painting. He had created pieces of work so personal to him that he finds it difficult to share it with others - for fear that they might loose something? Their integrity perhaps?
Maybe one day there will be an opportunity for more people to see the work of this very private man, whose book jacket design inspired me nearly 40 years ago.
Keith Cunningham passed away on December 4, 2014, at the age of 85.
Keith Cunningham: Unseen Paintings 1954-1960,
30 September - 13 October, Hoxton Gallery, 59 Old Street London EC1V 9HX