John Blackburn, abstract artist who explored life’s dark side and founded a company making teddy bears – obituary
John Blackburn, who has died aged 90, was an abstract artist who found critical success in the 1960s which won him a devoted following including the influential collector Jim Ede, founder of the Kettle’s Yard gallery in Cambridge.
Thereafter he fell into relative obscurity when, as a father of three children, one of whom had severe health problems, he needed a regular income. During the 1960s and ‘70s he worked in various capacities, including as a graphic designer – and in 1979, with his wife Maude, founded Canterbury Bears, a company making teddy bears.
Even as Blackburn restored his reputation as an artist, the business grew and flourished under Maude and their daughter Kerstin, and in 2013 he was appointed MBE for services to manufacturing and export.
He continued to paint in his own time, gradually forming a major body of work. His rediscovery by the art consultant Christopher Penn in 2002 was followed four years later by a large show, co-curated by the artist and Penn, at the Metropole Galleries in Folkestone.
Blackburn’s abstracts typically involved loose geometric shapes, sometime identifiable symbols but mostly allusive, spattered and slathered over expansive (often recycled) canvas backgrounds of whites and creams, textured with objets trouvés – scraps of fabric, discarded pill sachets, bandages, lead sheeting stuck with bent nails and so on.
His paintings utilised everything from acrylic paint, oil paint, and encaustic to resin, house-paint, and varnish, often mixed with grit or iron filings to give a rougher texture. “I use anything and everything” he told an interviewer. “The use of found materials gives the picture a life before the picture has even started.”
One of his strongest influences was the artist Francis Bacon, with whom he shared a concern with what he described as “the brutality of being alive”.
“I’m an upbeat sort of guy,” he said in 2012, “but you cannot really escape from certain facts, and it’s not always man’s inhumanity to man that is the terrible thing: sometimes life itself, just the mere fact of being alive, you are faced with a natural brutality … for me, painting has got to have a connection with the physical.”
In a 2016 essay on the artist, Ian Massey observed: “The themes in his work have remained consistent down the years, the ways in which he revisits them continually open to experiment and reassessment, to new inventions of form and material as he strives for what he describes as an elusive truth.”
John Blackburn was born in a village near Luton on June 2 1932 and from the age of 14 attended the Thanet School of Art, Margate, where he specialised in textile design. He completed his training on day release to Maidenhead School of Art during National Service in the RAF. He recalled his RAF training came from “men fresh out of WWII, themselves brutalised”.
Escaping the austerities of post-war Britain, following demobilisation in 1952 he emigrated to New Zealand with his parents and sister, who soon decided to return to England. Blackburn stayed on and met, and in 1956 married, Maude McKinnon, who had established the first modelling agency in the country. They were to have three children, Victoria, Kerstin and Mark.
Settled with his wife and young family in Auckland, Blackburn began to think of becoming a painter. A series of large experimental “Encaustic” paintings – unstretched sheets on hardboard worked in oil and household paints before being scorched and burnt – were exhibited at the Circle Gallery in Auckland. Conservative New Zealand was not ready for such radical work. But the paintings won at least one admirer who advised Blackburn to return to Britain and bought the entire collection, giving him the means to do so.
In 1961 Blackburn featured alongside Ben Nicholson, Victor Pasmore, Terry Frost and others in the John Moores Liverpool painting exhibition. The following year London’s Woodstock Gallery gave him a one-man show which so impressed Jim Ede, who noted Blackburn’s “immense vigour and sensitivity to texture and colour and a joy in the doing of it” that he began to add Blackburn’s work to the collection at his home, Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge.
As well as buying many of Blackburn’s more domestic-sized pictures, displaying them alongside sculpture by Gaudier-Brzeska, ceramics by Lucie Rie, and paintings by Ben Nicholson and Alfred Wallis, Ede went on to promote Blackburn among many private collectors.
In the mid-1960s, however, Blackburn’s ten-year-old daughter Victoria became ill with kidney disease, which led to a prolonged battle to keep her alive. She underwent two kidney transplants, a revolutionary procedure at the time, her father becoming one of the donors, and her health problems had a profound effect on the family, causing Blackburn to drop out of the public eye. Victoria ultimately recovered, and in 1979 her parents completed a 3,400 mile charity walk around the coast of Britain in aid of kidney transplant awareness.
Blackburn’s heightened consciousness of the fragility of human life would be explored in his “Hostages” series of the 1970s, paintings influenced by the “Les Otages” of the French artist Jean Fautrier. His concerns reached an apogee in 1979, in the extraordinary visceral performance “Earthworks”, in which his own naked body formed the vehicle of expression.
In part it entailed the artist’s burial in a grave dug near his home, with offal placed over his body and maggots in his beard. Emotionally and psychologically fraught, the “Earthworks” effectively formed an endpoint, after which Blackburn did not paint for almost twenty years.
By the time of his 2005 show in Folkestone, Blackburn’s art had not appeared in a commercial gallery since 1967. The exhibition led to a revival of interest in his work, both new and retrospective, and he went on to have shows at the Osborne Samuel gallery in Mayfair (he celebrated his ninetieth birthday earlier this year at his seventh show at the gallery) and elsewhere.
Blackburn and his wife lived for many years at their purpose-built timber-framed house in Kent, with annual return visits in later years to New Zealand, where his work was exhibited at the Artis Gallery in Auckland.
His wife and children survive him.
John Blackburn, born June 2 1932, died October 22 2022