The distinguished British painter John Blackburn’s start as a professional artist had its beginning in Auckland in the summer of 1959-60 when he was included in an exhibition with Tim Garity, Graeme Percy, Alwyn Lasenby, Robert Ellis and Hamish Keith at the Auckland City Art Gallery. The curator of the show, possibly Colin McCahon, then Keeper of the gallery, had been impressed by what at the time were Blackburn’s boldly avant-garde works – the flamed paint surfaces of his “Encaustic Series”.
Having arrived in Auckland in the mid-fifties and finding the city congenial, Blackburn found employment as a designer. He met and married a young businesswoman, Maudie McKinnon, and the couple set up home in Glenfield.
The painter had drifted down to New Zealand following three years National Service in the RAF. Before that he had studied textile design at the Margate School of Art, never considering that painting would become the dominant passion of his adult life.
At Glenfield he was overtaken by a compulsion to create paintings. Childhood memories of The Blitz, during which he sheltered from overhead bombers in a garden dugout, and his experiences serving in Malaysia had, over time, generated in him a philosophical position that demanded expression – he experimented and developed the completely non-objective but expressive encaustic works.
If his works had been noted by the ACAG, the local art world generally was in pursuit of a New Zealand centred art. Blackburn’s works did not fit. But one patron admired his courage and independence. Les Harvey, the visionary developer of Parnell Village, acquired a collection of the painter’s works. He counselled Blackburn to return to Britain where, he was certain, his chances of gaining recognition would be greater.
Years later an art collector, curious to know more about the painter of a work he had admired in a friend’s home, found the artist in a village with a studio and outbuilding crammed with the paintings he had continued to make throughout his years in obscurity.
Harvey’s prophecy was fulfilled. Back in Britain, collector Jim Ede, owner of the influential Kettle’s Yard Gallery at Cambridge, saw Blackburn’s first one-man show at London’s Woodstock Gallery and invited him to join his stable of British modernists. Blackburn’s profile rose to the point that he was linked with leading British abstractionists Peter Lanyon, William Scott and Roger Hilton.
When the Blackburn’s ten-year old daughter fell gravely ill with a kidney ailment and needed a donor, her father volunteered. Organ transplantation was in its infancy. A donor had to be in top physical condition. Blackburn went into training for six months, then following the successful operation, set out to raise awareness of the need for organ donors by walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End. While this was effective in its purpose, Blackburn the artist fell from view.
Blackburn’s rediscovery lead to a renewed career, exhibitions and respectful reviews.
He works from a moral position, seeking a formal equilibrium that invites contemplation and communion. He wishes his viewers to find a spiritual dimension in his works. There is certainly a remarkable combination of qualities in his paintings that entrance the eye and satisfy the mind. Improvised gesture, subtle colour and tactile surfaces, unexpected juxtapositions of forms, edges and linear elements create works that project a steady energy off the wall to an almost hypnotic effect. They have a persuasive, gently commanding, rather than a high impact, visual effect on the viewer.
After his showing with ARTIS a year ago, John Blackburn has held his second successful exhibition at the well-regarded London Osborne Samuel Gallery. Following the current Auckland exhibition, he will present a further collection at Louise Jones’ Lemon Street Gallery in Truro, Cornwall in May.