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Art review: John Kirby: All Passion Spent, at Flowers Gallery in London

01 March 2019

Nicholas Cranfield on a 70-year-old artist’s Mayfair retrospective

© john kirby, courtesy of flowers gallery, london and new york

John Kirby, Ordinary People, 2001

John Kirby, Ordinary People, 2001

FLOWERS GALLERY has been showing work by the artist John Kirby for 20 years, both in London and in New York and California. This exhibition includes new work, as well as paintings from the past two decades (Being Afraid dates from 1997 and A Growing Boy from a year later). It offers an affectionate retrospective to mark the artist’s 70th birthday.

The title of the exhibition, like that of Vita Sackville-West’s popular 1931 novel, is drawn from Milton’s dramatic poem Samson Agonistes: artists share a preoccupation to find a “calm of mind” in a haunting and beguiling world of sudden silences, broken promises, and restorative hope.

Those who have read Frank Delaney’s 1989 My Dark Rosaleen, or Jean Genet’s The Miracle of the Rose in a 1980s Penguin paperback edition, will readily understand why the publishers turned to Kirby’s oeuvre to illustrate book covers.

His own world-view was shaped by back-street Roman Catholicism in the Liverpool of the 1950s and 1960s, a stint living and working in Ireland, and two years in India working with St Teresa of Calcutta. Much of Britain he has seen through the eyes of a probation officer and social worker before he enrolled at an art college.

© john kirby, courtesy of flowers gallery, london and new yorkJohn Kirby, House of Fun, 2012

Two large oil paintings dominate the show; Ordinary People (2001) is nearly two metres tall, and depicts a naked ginger-headed boy standing between the knees of a suited man, his right hand splayed on the man’s shoulder, as his father holds his hands awkwardly around him. Whether it is a bath-time image or not, there is something puzzlingly honest about the way in which many fathers, probably until the 1990s, found it difficult to relate to their children.

The calm assurance of it makes it a wonderful companion to The Little King (2003), the only Kirby painting to be in a church (so it is sadly not on show here). In that painting, in Santa Lucia del Gonfalone, Rome, a woman in a long black dress gently crowns a naked boy standing in front of her, his arms outstretched to foreshadow his role Christ the King).

Equally tranquil is the scene enacted in House of Fun (2012), which depicts two suited men, one crowned and seated at table, the other wearing a pink dunce’s cap and standing behind it, although their passive silence would seem to belie the title.

Of the smaller canvases, I particularly enjoyed Bird I, in which a solitary thrush is observed alone in the hot, dried-up grass of the 2018 summer, and the poetry of Dog Dream. Kirby’s own passion, on this showing, is by no means spent, but we are drawn to contemplate.


“John Kirby: All Passion Spent” is at Flowers Gallery, 21 Cork Street, London W1, until 30 March. Phone 020 7439 7766. www.flowersgallery.com

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