Geoffrey Key - Lancashire’s greatest living artist

Studies of Commedia dell'arte form a new project

Studies of Commedia dell'arte form a new project - Credit: Archant

Geoffrey Key is regarded as Lancashire’s greatest living artist yet he still uses empty sardine tins as palettes. Sue Riley met him

One of Geoffrey's works of art

One of Geoffrey's works of art - Credit: Archant

As a young man, Geoffrey Key spent a year of his life painting a hill. Just the one, The Nab in Derbyshire. After completing hundreds of sketches, paintings and watercolours he finally discovered his own style and he has been using it to great effect for the past five decades.

His exhibition of oil paintings at a prestigious London gallery virtually sold out last year and they have now commissioned another one-man show this autumn. ‘Every year just gets better,’ says the Manchester-born artist. His bold, colourful style is instantly recognisable whether his subject matter is a scene in a pub or a still life.

‘When I was at college I was hugely influenced by my tutor, Harry Rutherford. He was a friend and pupil of Sickert so Harry was influenced by Walter Sickert and I was influenced by Harry. In painting the hill (The Nab) I burnt off all the influence I had from Harry, not the mathematics of painting, but I ended up with work which was hopefully me,’ he said.

His talent was evident from a young age. On the wall of his bedroom is a small still life of gin and port bottles - he bought it back at a recent auction – which he can remember painting in his childhood home, a two-up two-down terrace in Rushholme, where his mother let him have the front room as his studio when he was 11 or 12. ‘She was a cracker,’ he remembers fondly.

Geoffrey Key's signature book contains 450 illustrations

Geoffrey Key's signature book contains 450 illustrations - Credit: Archant

His current home in Salford, which he shares with his long-term partner Judith, is very different; the couple upsized two years ago when Geoffrey was 70 as he needed a larger studio. Now he uses the upper rooms of the large, detached redbrick house as his studio and storage area. In the studio are four large oil-encrusted palettes which Geoffrey laughingly says sums up a big part of his life: one for each decade.

These days the artist - whose works sell for tens of thousands of pounds (and they do sell, a lot) - uses empty sardine tins as palettes. He works away in solitude, either with the radio on or listening to one of his hundreds of CDs; a complete contrast to his larger than life personality so evident in his paintings.

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Although he often carries a sketchbook with him most of his work is based on ‘mental sketching’. ‘My work is based on memory. With the clown series, well, I was force fed circus (as a child) because I lived opposite Platt Field Park in Manchester and the circus used to be there. I loved the circus, the horses, the lasses in spangles. But the clowns - they put the fear of God up me. That series was me fighting back!’ he says.

His process of painting is an interesting one. ‘The sketches I do would be nonsense to most people, just the odd line, little doodles. It’s a memory note. If I do a still life I will set it up, look at it for about an hour and put the objects away and then paint it. I have a fear of copying! You can get a camera to do that,’ he says. If he’s out he’ll notice people, their gestures and shapes and then sometimes commit them to canvas days or weeks later. In his studio he pulls out a picture of a large, buxom woman in a bar with three men studiously ignoring her. ‘I saw this rather tarty lass learning on a bar, it was the manner she was leaning and surrounded by a group of chaps who had no interest in this lass,’ he says. A few days later he remembered the image and created the painting. ‘It’s weird when I’m working, it’s close to meditation in a way. I’m not into that by the way but I am on a totally different planet. The structure of a picture is more important than the subject matter, whether a figure or a landscape it’s the same problem.’ Even now he often destroys completed pictures because they are not quite right. ‘Each month that happens. I never let a picture go unless I am totally happy with it.’

Geoffrey and his partner moved to Salford because he needed a bigger studio

Geoffrey and his partner moved to Salford because he needed a bigger studio - Credit: Archant

He’s been like that all his artistic life, even when he was studying at the Regional College of Art in Manchester and then completing his Postgraduate scholarship in sculpture. It was after that he took on a teaching job but it wasn’t long before he decided he had a choice to make: to become a painter or teach. He chose to paint. It was around this time that 80 of his pictures were exhibited at Salford Art Gallery to a rave review in the Daily Express which led to people buying up his works, some without even seeing them. So he moved from his flat in Eccles into a house in Salford where he lived for the next 40 years. ‘It was quite a jump going from a full-time salary. It was tough but at the same time I was having regular exhibitions and managed to survive.’ Since then he has exhibited internationally and has never stopped work. ‘The work has its own feet,’ he says. Apart from LS Lowry, Geoffrey is arguably Lancashire’s best known and most collected contemporary artist. ‘I knew Lowry and he was a lovely, lovely man. But he did not like my work and I did not like his!’ he said.

Now 72, he still starts work every day at 6am, including weekends, and loathes holidays. One themed project leads to another. ‘My work has been like one long chain of progression. I latch on to one theme and that decides what the next series will be and then I shoot off on another tangent. Since leaving college that has not stopped.’ He’s gone from figure painting to monumental horses to jesters, clowns, dancers, musicians, and now Commedia dell’arte for the forthcoming show in London in November. ‘I realised Commedia dell’arte epitomised everything I had done in the past.’

He’s also hoping to free up time to do more sculpting and woodcarving which he has done in the past and loves. But he never does things by halves; when he had his first show in Hong Kong he got rid of all the furniture in his house and replaced it with Chinese furniture. ‘If I have my head set on something it’s done,’ he says. His dog is also called Han.

His work is collected around the world but as with most artists he rarely knows who buys it. However at his recent London show he says that three pictures were sold to Beijing, three to Moscow and The Who’s Pete Townshend also bought one. ‘That was my highlight,’ he said. Among his contemporaries at art college were Bernie Dwyer (of Freddie and the Dreamers) and British blues musician John Mayall. ‘It’s My Generation!’ he says with a twinkle.