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Percy Shakespeare -
from the poor side of Dudley to the Paris Salon

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: April 06, 2006

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The works of Percy Shakespeare are these days sought out by knowing collectors of the art of the Twenties and Thirties. Highly original and luminous with colour, his radiant, animated canvases would confidently hold their own sharing a gallery with the finest works of the twentieth century’s greatest painters, and are, at last, now being requested for art exhibitions well beyond his home town.

Finally, more than half a century after his sudden, tragic death, the young painter’s work is beginning to be taken seriously by the art world. If he’d lived to hone his skills further and create a larger catalogue of work, it’s highly likely that Percy Shakespeare would have become known as one of the finest painters of his generation. Having come from one of the poorest parts of Dudley in an era when the working class were expected to go straight into the factory, and fought every step of the way just to be allowed to try his hand at painting, that sort of recognition would have been the least he deserved.

The vibrant hues of the paintings Percy left behind couldn’t contrast further with the squalid Kate’s Hill streets which he grew up in. These tiny, grim terraces on steep, narrow streets were recognised as unacceptable even in the early days of the twentieth century, and were among the first to be demolished once the town had found the money for its huge slum-clearance programmes; but in the meantime they were home to young Percy and his seven siblings, the children of a skilled but poorly-paid factory worker. Leaving school just after the Great War, he would no doubt have followed in his father’s footsteps, had it not been for an encounter in the gallery of Dudley School of Arts and Crafts.

Ivo Shaw, principal of the school and curator of the museum and gallery, saw the young ragamuffin drinking in the paintings on display in the grand St James's Road building. And as Ivo's son Robin Shaw, Percy’s biographer, told the Bugle, their initial brief conversation was to have a significant effect on the lives of both.

“During a break between lessons, my father went into the gallery and there was this really scruffy little boy in there, about twelve years old.” Robin explained. “He asked him what he was doing, if he was interested in pictures, and the boy said that he was. My father took him into the back room and gave him some paper, and he was astonished by what he drew. He never found anyone else with that sort of natural talent and ability, but coming from where he did, Percy had no chance of getting an education in art.”

There must, as Robin says in Percy Shakespeare's biography, have been some difficult discussions back at the young lad’s home, but such was Ivo Shaw’s faith in his ability that he agreed to waive the fees and foot the bill himself. Soon Percy was specialising in life drawing, which was taught by the principal himself, and he was, Mr Shaw saw immediately, a master of line. His talents were enough to secure a small grant from the local education committee.

It didn’t take Percy long to establish himself as the outstanding student in his class, and he began to supplement his small grant by doing a decent share of the commissioned work which would come to the school from local businesses in the form of signs and posters.

Robin’s research has revealed that at a 1922 exhibition of the school’s work, Councillor James Smellie, chairman of the education committee, spoke to the Dudley Herald about Percy’s talents, and mentioned that ‘arrangements had been made to send him to Birmingham Art School’. Percy’s home town was prepared to back him all the way, and to his credit, the boy, still only sixteen, wouldn’t forget it. Even when studying full time at Birmingham, he would very often return to Dudley’s school to attend evening classes. Ivo Shaw ensured that the door was always open for his young protege, and Percy’s visits continued for several years. When there wasn't space at his old school, Percy would paint in his bedroom. The principal was so enamoured of a group of pencil and watercolour sketches produced during this period that he kept and framed them; Robin has them on display to this day.

There was never any doubt that Percy would excel at his new school in the Second City’s Margaret Street, but Percy was still living with his family, and still poor. The depression was beginning to grip the country - the industrial regions in particular - and Percy must have been grateful when Dudley’s school bought a painting from him in 1932. A Mulatto was one of his early portraits and, money aside, the school’s purchase of his work must have given the young painter a tangible sense of his own worth. His mentors were aware that he and his work were going places.

“There was also a Dudley Arts Circle,” Robin told the Bugle, “where Percy first exhibited his work. His paintings always stood out as in a class of their own.”

Such was the impression he made on the Birmingham school, Percy was soon offered paid work as a teacher there, earning 5s 6d an hour for two evenings a week, the equivalent of half a working man’s weekly wage. He also needed commissions to supplement his income; and while they weren’t coming in great enough volume at present, Percy’s work was, at last, coming to the attention of the wider art world, both in the capital and in Paris. Two works were accepted by the Royal Academy for their summer exhibition of 1933, one hung alongside works by renowned artists of the day. He had further works accepted by the Academy for the following year’s exhibition, and expanded

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