Image above: Hugh Cronyn sailing across the Channel to Dunquerque c. 1938
Guest blog by Krassi Kuneva of Chsiwick Auctions
Canadian-British painter Hugh Cronyn (1905-1996) led a fascinating life in America, Europe and England before World War II, thanks both to the support and connection of his family and friends, and his innate charm and talent. Young and impressionable, fresh from Vancouver, and with an irrepressible can-do New World outlook, Cronyn’s unpublished memoirs recount his study and travels and the many remarkable people whose paths he crossed.
He started out as an artist in Toronto under Franz Johnston (an early member of the Group of Seven or the Algonquin School of Canadian landscape painters in the 1920s and ’30s). He studied at the Arts Students League in New York and enjoyed Paris in the early 1930s. Tutored by André Lhote, he travelled widely across Europe (whether struggling over the Alps by bicycle, or rescued from puncture failure by his cousin’s chauffeur driven Bentley), and ended up in Hammersmith, where he immersed himself in the rich bohemian life he encountered in West London.
In Florence he was underwhelmed by his introduction to Roger Fry, but on his arrival in London was star struck by Ivon Hitchens, whose second solo exhibition at the Lefevre Gallery he helped hang. Living first in St Peter’s Square and thereafter in different studios on the Hammersmith-Chiswick borders by the Thames, he became acquainted with a swathe of leading artists and writers of the day, from Dylan Thomas to Henry Moore.
Image above: Hammersmith Mall
Painted in 1937, Hammersmith Mall captures the essence of the area as Cronyn knew it. The painting depicts the historic easterly end of Upper Mall, Hammersmith, leading to Dove’s Passage and its eponymous pub. Originally opened as a coffee house in the 18th century, The Dove is recognisable to the right of the composition from its cream pitched gable end, punctuated by a single window. To its right is 21 Upper Mall where the poet George Rostrevor Hamilton was living at the time. To its immediate left, at the end of Dove’s passage is 15 Upper Mall which once housed Doves Press, run by T.J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery Walker, and associated with the Arts and Crafts movement and William Morris, who had lived nearby at Kelmscott House. On the left of the composition are numbers 22, 20 (tucked away) and 18 Upper Mall.
Cronyn first moved to 27A St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith in 1935 and subsequently to 9A Black Lion Lane, with the pub immediately opposite. In his unpublished memoirs he recalls the landlord and his wife Arthur and Florrie with affection, the skittle alley where he played frequently, and the life surrounding St Peter’s Square, Hammersmith up to King Street and Chiswick – pre-construction of the A4 dual carriageway – as being ‘like a small village’. The writer, humourist and politician and close friend of Cronyn’s, AP Herbert (‘APH’), would hold court at the Black Lion every Sunday. It was through such gatherings that Hugh met so many artists, writers and thinkers of the day. At the lively gatherings and parties held at 12 Hammersmith Terrace, Cronyn met such artists as Edward Wadsworth, Mark Gertler, Leon Underwood and John Piper. Ceri Richards lived nearby, as did poets Robert Graves and Laura Riding in St Peter’s Square. Cronyn became friends with Julian Trevelyan at Durham Wharf. On a trip to Dorset with Trevelyan he visited Eileen Agar at her farm, and was introduced to Kitty Church, wife of Anthony West, son of H.G. Wells. In his own studio he held sketching classes with Victor Pasmore, Claude Rogers and Elsie Few.
Images above: Black Lion pub and its skittle alley
Pillars of the local community, many were regulars at the local Black Lion pub. Having acquired passion for wood engraving from his neighbour Gertrude Hermes, Cronyn created some expressive pieces of The Black Lion and the new Skittle alley in 1939.
The pub had an additional importance for Cronyn, as it was there, at one of the many gatherings organised by A P Herbert, that the artist met his wife Jean Cronyn (née Harris; 1919-2003) in 1941. At the time, fresh out of Oxford, she was working for the Board of Trade, while Cronyn was on leave from the Navy; they married the following year. Jean later became secretary to AP Herbert at 12 Hammersmith Terrace.
Image above: Portrait of the artist’s wife Jean Cronyn
In this portrait of his wife, Cronyn uses free bold brushstrokes, strong outlines and vivid colours. On the left of the composition is an early dish by the studio potter Michael Cardew (1901-83).
Following the outbreak of War, Cronyn was commissioned into the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. His distinguished war record began with the award of a George Medal (GM) when he defused a 500lb bomb that had lodged unexploded in the hold of an oil tanker. He subsequently served on board ship in the North Sea and the Pacific, ending his naval service with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. From 1949-69 Cronyn was tutor of painting at Colchester School of Art alongside John Nash who became a great friend.
On 30th January 1965, the day of Sir Winston Churchill’s funeral, Cronyn, a lifelong lover of the Thames and an ardent supporter of Churchill, secured a spot on the Embankment on the north side of the river. From there he looked across the floating pier on the South Bank, with the Royal Festival Hall to the right. Following the service at St Paul’s Cathedral that morning, Havengore bore Churchill’s coffin from the Tower of London up the Thames to the Festival Pier. From there his body was taken by train to its final resting place at St Martin’s Church, Bladon, close to Blenheim Palace.
In the ensuing oil Cronyn captured the stately arrival of Havengore at Festival Pier escorted by two bobbing pilot boats with Churchill’s body draped with the Union Jack. Above, silhouetted against the blue hoardings hiding the construction site of Queen Elizabeth Hall, is the heavy black form of the hearse to take Churchill’s coffin to the waiting train at Waterloo Station.
The first state funeral for a non-Royal for thirty years, at the time it was the largest and most watched event in history. Over 320,000 people queued to pay tribute whilst Churchill’s body lay in state in Westminster Hall for three days, 3,500 attended his funeral service at St Paul’s, and over 350 million tuned into the BBC to follow the occasion. During Havengore’s journey up the Thames sixteen RAF fighter jets flew in formation over Churchills’s coffin. Churchill’s widow, Lady Churchill memorably remarked to her youngest daughter at the end of what would surely have been an exhausting day for her: ‘It wasn’t a funeral, Mary – it was a triumph’, a note clearly borne out by the sense of celebration that Cronyn captures in the present vibrant depiction of this historic moment, despite the sobriety of the occasion.
Following Cronyn’s appointment as Tutor of Painting at Colchester School of Art in 1949, the family moved to Suffolk. In 1975 the Cronyns moved back to Chiswick Mall to live at 3 St Peter’s Wharf overlooking the Thames, the artists’ studios recently constructed by his old friend Julian Trevelyan. Cronyn exhibited widely during his lifetime, especially in London and Suffolk, including as a regular contributor to the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, and in Toronto, Canada. His paintings are in private and public collections in France, Sweden the USA, Canada and the UK.
Chiswick Auctions is excited to present a group of works by the artist for the first time at the secondary market. We hope to shed more light to Cronyn’s life and work, as they certainly deserve a wider attention and appreciation. Hugh Cronyn’s works will be offered as part of the forthcoming Modern & Post-War British Art sale at Chiswick Auctions, which will take place on Wednesday, 22 April at 11.00am.
Krassi Kuneva is a specialist in Modern and postwar British Art. Before joining Chiswick Auctions she worked for Christie’s. She studied Art History at the University of Warwick.