Most Dudley folk will be familiar with the 'Bird House' painting, which captured, in unique style, a day at Dudley Zoo in 1939. It crops up time and again in postcards and in books on the town, and is often on display at Dudley Museum and Art Gallery, its permanent home.
Its creator, Percy Shakespeare, was a Kates Hill lad, born in hard times to a working class family. He possessed such artistic talent and drive to succeed as a painter that he lived almost hand to mouth so that he could devote all his energies to making a name for himself in his chosen field - one quite alien to a lad of his background in the hungry inter-war years.
In 1920, the schoolboy's talent was discovered and carefully nurtured by Ivo Shaw, principal of Dudley School of Art, and just when Percy's work was showing signs of being acknowledged nationwide - he exhibited several times at the Royal Academy and at the Paris Salon - he was killed in a bombing raid while serving on the south coast during the Second World War. His talent would surely have reached a wider, appreciative audience had he lived a longer life.
During his short life, however, Percy did manage to produce a fine body of work, in a style which was modern and of the period, but very much his own. Many of his paintings and drawings are in the safe hands of the Museum and Art Gallery, the St James's Road building which once housed the School of Art, and others are in private collections, occasionally changing hands for four-figure sums which are slowly increasing in line with Percy's reputation. Several works, some of which are known to have been exhibited, have been missing for decades.
But three Percy Shakespeare originals, sketches in his bold, unmistakable hand, have just been presented to Dudley Musuem and Art Gallery by two donors, and will for the next couple of months be on display, along with paintings both from the collection and on loan from private individuals.
Barbara Jennings, originally a Dudley girl but now resident in rural Worcestershire, was a child model for several of Percy's finest paintings - her father Charles Wilkinson was a friend of the artist due to his position as curator of the gallery during the thirties when Percy was at his prolific best. She has long had in her possession a pencil study of her head and shoulders, drawn by Percy when she was only six or seven years old, and she was a guest of honour at the museum last week as she gifted it to the town's own collection.
"I was very young at the time, in 1936, and I had to sit still for an hour or more - though it may have just seemed like it!" Barbara told the Bugle. "I can't remember now what Percy looked like, it was so long ago, but I do remember that he was very nice to me. He mentioned working the sketch up into a painting, but when war broke out he went away, and of course he was killed".
Barbara also modelled for the famous Bird House painting (she is the little girl on the right with her back to the viewer) and another large scale work, Caravanners.
Along with Barbara were Anna Maudlin and her brother Richard Yates, whose mother Sheila Ross as she then was attended Birmingham Art College, where Percy both studied and taught, just before the war. Sheila, now 87 and unfortunately not well enough to attend the unveiling, was portrayed by Percy as a young student in an oil study which has long been part of the gallery's collection, and the family have now given two of the artist's preliminary sketches to the gallery.
"Our mother used to tell us about the painting which followed the sketches but we didn't know where it was." Anna told us. "I remember her saying that Percy liked to draw her because she had what he called strong features. And he told her she should always wear bright colours!"
Robin Shaw, Percy's biographer and son of his mentor Ivo Shaw, was also on hand to see the unveiling of the sketches. Robin, who has catalogued every known Shakespeare work and treasures a few examples of his own, is even now adding sketches and paintings to the list. Several drawings and watercolours have surfaced in recent months, and he recently received an email from California; where, it turns out, an American collector is in posession of a long-lost painting which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in the nineteen-thirties. Even though Percy is long gone, his legacy is alive, and still growing.
The Percy Shakespeare exhibition, including the newly acquired sketches and several of his paintings, runs until June 30th at Dudley Museum and Art Gallery. Admission is free.
Do you know of any Percy Shakespeare works which have yet to see the light of day? If so, we'd love to hear from you.