The Oldie Review: Like Mother, Like Son (Sept 2016)

Like mother, like son

Last April, Heatherley’s School of Fine Art in Chelsea hosted an exhibition of work by three generations of the Eyton family. Alongside paintings by Anthony Eyton RA, there were sculptures, ceramics and jewellery by his three daughters, Jane, Clare and Sarah, and a selection of small oil landscapes by his mother, Phyllis, who had been a student at the school in the 1920s.

Despite the modest scale of Phyllis Eyton’s pictures, there was little doubt about who was the star of the show. If any remained, it was swept aside when the 93-year-old Tony Eyton stood up in front of a roomful of his fellow Academicians and delivered a potted history of modern British plein air painters from William Nicholson to Augustus John which concluded that none of them was a patch on his mother. When he followed it with a poll on whether Phyllis Eyton was the best landscape painter of her generation, his audience had no option but to raise their hands.

Eyton lost his mother in a hunting accident in 1929 when he was six, and he has been tending her flame ever since. Brought up in a house surrounded by her paintings, he still claims her as his first and most lasting influence. ‘Corot, Rembrandt, Masaccio, Caravaggio, these are my mentors, and my mother,’ he told his biographer Jenny Pery in 2004. After forty years as an Academician, it grieves him to think of her promising career having been cut short at the age of 29, just months after having her first painting accepted for the Summer Exhibition. ‘She was wild with joy and danced up and down,’ her husband recorded in his diary. Dancing was another one of her talents.

Since then her pictures have remained a family secret, but this September they will be thrust into the spotlight in a joint exhibition, Anthony and Phyllis Eyton: Capturing Light, at Browse & Darby in Cork Street. The downstairs gallery will be filled with the large exuberant paintings for which Eyton fils has become famous, while the upstairs walls will be dotted with the little light-dappled landscapes for which Eyton mère deserves to be better known. They record the woods, fields and streams around Silchester, Hampshire, where she settled in 1921 with her husband, John, after a year spent in the Indian Civil Service.

From the rather droll accounts in his wife’s Indian diary, Captain John Seymour Eyton seems to have spent more time hunting, and missing, leopards from the back of an elephant than fulfilling his duties as a rural magistrate, though the impression of a colonial duffer, says his son, is unfair. But his father did have a Basil Fawlty-like disposition to ‘terrible eruptions of temper’. Tony remembers ‘a sort of rumpus at the breakfast table’ over his mother’s correspondence with a young man they had met in India of which his father, twelve years older, didn’t approve, ‘quite apart from her going dancing with God knows who’.

‘The trouble with you, John,’ she used to say to him, ‘is you don’t like life.’ She, au contraire, was ‘a real liver’ and ‘pretty stubborn’ with it, remembers her son. A photograph recording her challenging look from under the rim of a flapper-style beret gives an idea of what John was up against. Phyllis was a free spirit of the 1920s. She was a fabulous dancer and a racy driver, on one occasion driving into the ditch, on another putting Tony through the windscreen. She was also a gutsy horsewoman who insisted on riding an unruly hunter from which she was notorious for taking tumbles. Perhaps she was simply too busy looking around with an artist’s eye at the beauty of the landscape: it was certainly a beautiful autumn morning when the six-year-old Tony waved her off at a meet for the last time.

He was fifteen when, during the school holidays, he found her paint-box – her ‘sun-box’, she called it – and nineteen when, on leave from the Army, he discovered a hoard of her paintings hidden in a trunk. Seven decades later, what marks has she left on his work? Stylistically their paintings are very different, hers crisp and incisive with sharp tonal contrasts, his rangy and expressive with flurries of marks. Yet both proclaim a love of colour, and both are products of the same compulsion to paint. What John described as Phyllis’s ‘almost intolerable’ desire to paint is clearly echoed in the seventeen-year-old Tony’s note to self in his diary: ‘Must just paint and paint.’

Paint and paint he has ever since, with unstoppable energy – when his heart is set on a particular subject, nothing stands in his way. Refused entry to Bankside Power Station during its 1990s transformation into Tate Modern, he ‘took a bottle of whisky to the gate man who said: “I think I’ll let you in tomorrow”. Then I was the blue-eyed boy for three months’, until they started dismantling the machinery and turned him out. His quest for ‘industrial poetry’ on building sites from Bankside to Battersea Power Station has brought him into endless conflict with health and safety officers; they always win in the end, but he goes down fighting. Once he has got his teeth into a subject, his tenacity is terrier-like. After being banned from drawing in Mecca’s Hammersmith Palais de Danse in the 1950s on suspicion of industrial espionage – they thought he was passing details of fixtures and fittings to rivals – he bought shares in the company so as to plead his cause at a shareholders’ meeting. It didn’t work: ‘I said all the wrong things; nobody supported me.’ Mecca tried to palm him off with a dance hall in Streatham where the fixtures and fittings were apparently less high-security, but he wasn’t having it. His latest project, in his tenth decade, is recording the grounds at Stowe in the steps of John Piper. Since being appointed artist-in-residence at the school last summer he has been painting the temples and Palladian Bridge, and he now has plans for a 3x2ft pastel of the dining hall with pupils sitting at the tables, drawn from life. Isn’t that rather ambitious, when school meals only last half an hour? ‘All that’s got to be negotiated,’ he says. He’ll have to stick around for a while yet, as the headmaster, Anthony Wallersteiner, is counting on him being there to launch a book of his prints on the school’s centenary in 2023.

Meanwhile the compulsion to paint is as strong as ever. He’s in the studio every day by 10.30am: ‘Deskwork over, coffee, then spring into action.’ His days of globetrotting are past, but his plan chest bulges with enough sketches from former travels to last a lifetime. And then there are all the light-filled corners of his Georgian house in Brixton to explore, not to mention his luxuriantly verdant garden, a riotous little patch of Giverny in south London.

Over a long career, Tony Eyton has established himself as one of our most vibrant and versatile figurative artists. What would Phyllis have achieved if she had lived? It’s a question to which her son will never have the answer but which he touchingly refuses to stop asking. ‘She was a much better painter than me,’ he insists; ‘she was a much more grown-up painter, anyway.’

Anthony and Phyllis Eyton: Capturing Light at Browse & Darby, 14th September to 7th October.