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Percy Kelly,Artist, 1918 - 1993

Reproduced from EDP 11th Jan 2011

In 1993 Percy Kelly died,aged 76 in hospital in Norwich, aftermany years of lonliness, anxiety and poverty. His decrepit cottage in Rockland St Peter then revealed an unrealised fortune on the walls and heaped on floors and every other surface.
Here it seemed, was one more artist of great talent spurned by a cruel and stupid world. But the truth,especially in art-loving East Anglia was rather different.
Lady Fermoy had been among numerous arts scene movers and shakers to spot his gifts. She had arranged a show in King's Lynn at which the exhibits were withdrawn from sale by the painter when visitors tried to buy them.
The fame of this exiled son of Cumbria was such that writer and TV presenter Melvyn Bragg drove from London to Norfolk twice in 1982 - each time by appointment - in order to buy pictures. Both times he was rebuffed on arrival (and a Percy Kelly profile on the South Bank Show was possibly lost).
And that wasn't the worst of it. When LS Lowry had called to pay his respects to a fellow poetic painter of the north he had been denied entry to the studio for fear that he would steal ideas and images.
"I cannot paint for monetary gain," wrote Percy Kelly. "I would rather starve than sell one piece of my work, but I know that when I depart this world people will stop and wonder at the beauty and truth that I have endeavoured to portray."
Such acute secrecy and compulsion to hold onto every drawing and painting, even in dire need, may have owed much to the artist's increasingly confused identity.
Twice divorced, he became a transvestite erratically seeking a sex change. Beautifully illustrated letters to his fellow confidantes were often signed Roberta.
Well, contemporary British Artist Patrick Brill found he had most success in placing early work when he signed it Bob and Roberta Smith. Frocks, still more than brilliant pots, clinched Grayson Perrya Turner Prize.
Everyone is invited to the art party, withexhibitionsists most welcome. Confessional artist Tracey Emin shows us how to handle personal issues profitably.
But Percy/Roberta Kelly was born too soon - in 1918 - into a working class family in Workington. Although mum and siblings were proud of his talent, the Graet Depression ruled out art school and a creative livlihood.
They thought he was doing well to get a Post Office job. In 1939 he was certainly fortunate to be drafted into the Royal Signals and tasked with making maps and diagrams.
Painting materials had gone with him on youthful exploration of docks and fells. Now they went to war - in a Red Cross tin for the D-Day landings. By that point, when Kelly alone in his company relished the approaching French landscape, Winston Churchill had spied him drawing one evening while resting on a posting to the Cabinet War Rooms under Whitehall.
Premier and soldier then talked art all night, resuming their chat on later occasions. Marrying a local girl while on leave from the army, he became a village sub-postmaster, fathered a son and played soccer for Workington under Bill Shankly.
His long suffering wife did most of the work, especially when he turned to painting with renewed obsession after a nervous breakdown. Complaining of eye problems, he was checked and told that nothing was physically awry (hypochondria was already raging.) He then eloped with his consultant's wife.
They visited Cornwall and bought a ruin in Pembrokeshire, where imaginary illnesses were worsened by sickening bills and across-dressing habit, now spreading from private to public, shocked a staid Welsh community.
So they fled to South Norfolk in 1980 - where the artist shopped in Watton as Roberta, while in Attleborough he was always Percy. The second Mrs Kelly fled to Brighton in 1983 (never to return, nor ever to speak to her erstwhile husband again).

A decade later the poor old painter died intestate - cottage and pictures passing by default to the son, by then a Cumbrian factory worker, with whom there had been no contact for 27 years.
Happily he, before his own demise,entrusted the art to Lakeland dealer Chris Wadsworth who staged a first sell-out exhibition as early as 1994.
Now there is a memorial show in London. Percy Kelly's exquisite drawings and paintings soar above the muddle and trauma of life in a final note of triumph.