Percy Kelly - painter, cross-dresser and footballer

Percy Kelly

Percy Kelly - Credit: Archant

The outstanding work of this remarkable artist is finally commemorated

Much of the early work of Percy Kelly was from his Workington home

Much of the early work of Percy Kelly was from his Workington home - Credit: Archant

One of Lakeland’s best and most eccentric artists is being celebrated with a series of walking trails taking admirers on a tour of the places that influenced his work.

Percy Kelly was born in Workington in the dying months of the First World War. He played for the town’s football team when it was managed by Bill Shankly and his art was admired by many, including Sir Winston Churchill and Princess Margaret.

Despite his obvious talent, his reluctance to sell any of his pictures meant his work was largely forgotten. At the end of his life he was a poverty-stricken recluse.

Kelly was also confused by his sexuality and in the 1980s he changed his name to Roberta – he’d previously been known as Bob – and spent his remaining years as a cross-dresser. In fact, his first wife threw him out when she came home and found him wearing her knitted dress. Well, it was a Jaeger!

None of this quirkiness or the irascibility he displayed, normally directed towards people who wanted to help him, diminished him as an artist. Today, his dramatic landscapes command anything up to £5,000 at auction.

To mark his remarkable life, Kelly’s biographer, Chris Wadsworth the former owner of Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth, has put together six unique art trails allowing walkers to follow in the artist’s footsteps, sit where he sat and to take in the views he captured in his strong, inimitable style.

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Kelly was likened to Lowry without the people but his often dark, brooding landscapes probably have more in common with another highly-regarded Lakeland artist, Sheila Fell. Like her, Kelly preferred to capture the raw edginess of the Western Lake District coast and fells rather than the prettiness of the Lake District.

However, his late the work shows a softer, more domestic and decorative style with flower paintings of harebells and poppies. He also created beautifully illustrated postcards for friends.

Kelly could draw as soon as he was able to hold a pencil and from an early age he wandered the docks near his home, drawn to the clear lines of boats, shipyards, railway tracks, buildings and pit heads.

When he died just over 20 years ago, he left a vast collection of paintings – further proof of his reluctance to let go of his work at any price. His large panoramas of the coast and harbours of the Western Lake District made in the 1960s are impressive and he is widely regarded as one of the most talented northern artists of the 20th Century.

Chris Wadsworth’s trails take fans on a journey of discovery - around the harbour where Kelly did his first drawings as a child, the house where he was born, his first school, the village where he lived and worked for 12 years. Also included are the little beach he painted in a letter to a friend and the 108 steps he drew, which were then famously drawn by Lowry.

Kelly seemed determined to remain out of the spotlight, convinced his talent would be recognised posthumously. Thanks to Chris Wadsworth, he has been proved right.

Walk this way

The Percy Kelly Trails can now be downloaded from and are further embellished on the Western Lake District website, which details the places to visit, see, eat and stay along each one, providing a thorough and practical way to learn more about Percy Kelly and properly explore the areas he loved. Images: Courtesy of Chris Wadsworth.