John Wonnacott: A Biographical Study by Charles Saumarez Smith - review by Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding

Life Study

John Wonnacott: A Biographical Study


Lund Humphries 136pp £24.99

John Wonnacott, Charles Saumarez Smith tells us, is ‘currently totally out of fashion’, but his past successes are notable. For some years he was represented by two of London’s top dealers, Marlborough Fine Art and then Agnew’s. He has also attracted major commissions as a topographer and portrait painter. His sitters include a former prime minister, John Major, and at the time of the millennium he produced a conversation piece involving six members of the royal family clustered around the Queen Mother. Few artists can boast anything like his good fortune.

Despite this, Wonnacott’s position in the art world remains uneasy. His most comfortable period was probably the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was then that the dominant influence of American art and theory and conceptual art started to be called into question by such renegades as David Hockney and R B Kitaj, the latter in 1976 mounting the Hayward exhibition ‘The Human Clay’. It was partly this that caused Norwich School of Art, where Wonnacott was teaching, to reintroduce life drawing.

Saumarez Smith, in this biographical study, brings out the importance to Wonnacott of certain individuals. At the Slade he met John Lessore, whose mother, Helen, ran the Beaux Arts Gallery. It became, Wonnacott states, ‘my second art school’. As well as the paintings of the Kitchen Sink artists,

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