Anthony Benjamin was born in England in 1931. He began his study at Southall Technical College in 1947 as an engineering draughtsman and was then accepted into Regent Street Polytechnic, now known as the University of Westminster (1950–1954). After his first year at Regent Street, Benjamin travelled to Paris and studied for three months with Fernand Léger (1951). After graduating, while working and travelling between St. Ives and Paris, he was awarded a one-year French Government Fellowship for painting and printmaking, studying at Atelier 17 with WS Hayter in Paris (1958–1959). Following his time with WS Hayter, he was awarded an Italian Government Fellowship in Anticoli Corrado near Rome (1960–1961). Between 1961 and 1973 Benjamin lectured and taught in the United Kingdom (Ealing, Ipswitch, Winchester, Ravensbourne, Colchester, and St. Martin’s School of Art), the United States (California State College) and in Canada (University of Calgary, York University). He returned to London in 1974 and in 1986 moved to Norfolk. Benjamin was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (FRSA) and a member of the Royal Society of Painter-Printmakers (RE). He died in London on 17 February 2002.
Born in Boarhunt in 1931 to a working class family his ambitions toward the visual arts gained him a place at Southall Technical College as an engineering draughtsman. After school in 1947, he began an apprenticeship at the firm of Bell Punch, in Hayes, Middlesex. Benjamin had an aptitude for careful drawing, as well as an appreciation and understanding of the logical principles of three-dimensional construction. However, the lack of creative possibilities frustrated him. He dropped out of the apprenticeship in 1949 and was accepted into the sculpture program at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Unhappy with the academic restrictions prevailing in the department at the time, and going against the current convention, he applied colour to a carving he was working on. When told to remove the paint or face expulsion from the department, he decided to leave.
Benjamin's talent was recognized by a senior member of staff, Norman Blamey and accepted into the painting department, where soon Benjamin produced some accomplished work. Using a restricted, almost monochromatic palette, his subject matter featured the surroundings of the dark basement flat he shared with fellow student and partner, Stella, whom he drew and painted many times. As well as portraits of his neighbours, ‘Bill and Nellie’, he also painted some exotic London ‘Pearly Kings and Queens’. At the end of the term, he travelled to Paris where he studied drawing with Fernand Leger for three months.
1950's and the St. Ives School
When Benjamin graduated from college in 1954, his paintings were accepted for exhibition by Helen Lesore, the hardline Social Realist director of the Beaux Arts Gallery, the London home of the kitchen-sink artists. However, when Benjamin started using a broader range of colour and looser brushwork, including elements of abstraction, he was told by Lesore to ‘toe the line’ or leave the gallery. Once again, faced with established restrictions, he chose to leave rather than compromise his freedom to explore the possibilities of extending his creativity in new directions. This refusal to conform is one of Benjamin's defining characteristics, which throughout his life shapes his career and work. The most direct impact was his He also served time in prison as a conscientious objector; not just against military service, he was opposed to all forms of conscription.
Benjamin moved to St. Ives, he used a legacy from his mother, to buy a small cottage that had belonged to sculptor Sven Berlin. St. Ives had been dominated by the influence of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, but by 1956 the ‘Middle Generation’ of Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter, and Terry Frost were becoming well established in Britain and were soon to be known in the wider art world. Peter Lanyon invited Benjamin to join the Newlyn Society of Artists and had his first one-man exhibition there in 1958. His work, inspired by the Cornish landscape and seascape, as well as the American Abstract Expressionist movement, became more expansive and colourful, and gradually more abstract in concept.
Italy and France
In 1959, Benjamin was awarded a coveted French Government Bourse to study etching at S.W. Hayter's renowned Atelier 17 in Paris (where some revolutionary new techniques of plate making and colour printing were being explored). The poet W.S. Graham, who lived in the Coastguard Cottage at Gurnard’s Head, and a friend of Benjamin's gave him a copy of his recently published collection of poems titled, The Nightfishing. This work became the inspiration for a suite of etchings which Benjamin named A Homage to the Nightfishing. These plates were discovered in the 1990’s still wrapped in French newspaper. Partial editions were printed and shown in 1994 as part of The Constructed Space, a group exhibition curated by Chris Stephens, about Sidney Graham and his artist friends. The A Homage to the Nightfishing suite is now in the Tate Britain Collection.
In 1960, Benjamin was awarded an Italian Travel Study Scholarship. He was profoundly moved by the art of the Early Renaissance that he saw in the museums, palaces and cathedrals. He was struck by the use of repeated flat geometrical shapes in many works, particularly by the strong impact and visual rhythm set up by the rows of saints’ halos in Duccio’s Madonna in Majesty in the Siena Duomo. When he returned to London in mid 1961, this rediscovery of defined, flat shapes, shallow but articulate space and much more vibrant colour informed his new painting. Full of renewed energy as a result of his Italian experiences, he painted prolifically and exhibited widely. He had several one-man shows at the Grabowski Gallery in South Kensington, as well as at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford and Belfast University.
Ealing Art School: The Ground Course
At the end of 1961, Benjamin was asked by Roy Ascott to join the faculty at the Ealing School of Art and to take part in the Ground Course, Ascott's groundbreaking experiment in radical creative education. One year before, the First Report of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (1960) under Sir William Coldstream, ushered in fundamental changes to British art education. The changes in pedagogies towards a broader definition of art education and practice through experimental and radical means, allowed Ascott to develop a course that explored process inspired by his interest in Cybernetics and communication. Benjamin, Dennis Bowen, Bernard Cohen, Harold Cohen, R.B. Kitaj, Stroud Cornock, Peter Startop, Adrian Berg and Brian Wall were all faculty teaching the Ground Course at Ealing .
From Ealing, Benjamin took a position at Ravensbourne, followed by an appointment as a Senior Lecture in Painting at Ipswitch Civic College to implement the newly established Diploma in Art and Design Course. About this time, Benjamin was starting to experiment with a new approach to three-dimensional works. He did not want to follow the conventional sculptural approach of carving and modelling figure-like shapes from the usual materials such as stone, wood, clay, etc.
Benjamin intended to make ‘sculpture’ that was more relevant to the exciting modern, fast-moving, transient world that was opening up at the time in London. He wanted to use modern materials, coloured plastic, fibreglass, polished metal, stainless steel and bronze. Intense glowing colour and reflections, amorphous and ambiguous shapes, he wanted to create works that crossed the conventional boundaries. He also started making a series of silkscreen prints that used the same vibrant colours and similar shapes as the sculpture.
Working with Nancy Patterson, a Canadian artist and industrial model maker, he started making maquettes for larger pieces, using both the opaque and the transparent, fluorescent coloured Perspex. Intense heat was used to bend the shiny, expensive and unforgiving material into undulating ribbons that flowed off the rectangular ‘bases’ that were fixed to the walls. The reflections danced and enchanted viewers. Julie Lawson, assistant to Roland Penrose, Director of the ICA, was supportive and arranged to have the work, which included related paintings, shown in 1966. Norbert Lynton, Dennis Bowen, David Bindman, and others wrote enthusiastic reviews. Photographers loved the work. Theatrical celebrity photographer Lewis Morley took some stunning photos of the work as well as many innovative portraits of Benjamin. Similar shows were held soon after at the Oxford Museum of Modern Art and at the Winchester Contemporary Art Society. Pieces were also shown at the Gimpel Fils Gallery in Davies Street and a show was arranged for the new Gimpel & Weizenhoffer Gallery on Madison Avenue in New York.
When Benjamin moved on in 1965 to teach at Winchester College of Art, he managed to convince the reluctant but adventurous Head of the College, sculptor Heinz Henges, to accept Brian Eno on the Diploma in Painting course, although as the authorities later observed when discussing the 'Eno Problem': ‘Eno was not a painter, and had no intention of becoming one’. He did eventually receive a diploma for painting although he never made any actual ‘paintings’. He was interested in painting soundscapes, not landscapes. He and Anthony remained in contact exchanging correspondence.
In the early 1970’s, Eno, as a member of Roxy Music, started developing music using synthesizers. After a long and enthusiastic conversation about the new possibilities, Anthony was inspired to make some screen prints that paralleled visually the effects that Eno produced with electronics. Working in partnership with master silkscreen printer Kevin Harris, the suite of six images they named Roxy Bias was produced by a complicated method of interchangeable stencils and endless colour proofing. The titles - Ringing Filter, Butterfly Echo, Inverse Echo, Erase Function, Multi–Mode Jitter - all came from the realm of electronic music. The images effectively demonstrated Benjamin’s visionary conception and Harris's patience and incredible skill. Together, they achieved a remarkable partnership. The colours and images vibrated and danced on the surfaces, a visual and joyful equivalent of music creating ‘maximum visual aggression’. The suite was hugely successful and won several major graphic prizes, the first at the San Paulo Biennale in 1974.
1990's and beyond
In the late 1990’s, after several years of working only in pencil and graphite, Benjamin started painting again in colour on large canvases, inspired by frequent visits to Marrakech, where he became immersed in colour and surrounded by music.
In the 2002 catalogue for the posthumous exhibition of Anthony’s work at The Belgrave Gallery, St. Ives, Chris Stevens wrote:
Benjamin seems to have been exploring the possibility of suggesting movement by the use of colour and form alone. In such works he also managed to create a spatial separation between these geometric figures and the endlessly varied grounds … to achieve the degree of density and intensity required, he developed a complex method of masking to ensure the precision of their straight edges. The result is that the smaller forms seem to hover slightly in front of a field of warm colour, while their tapering forms seem to have been designed to accentuate the kaleidoscopic effect of their tumbling pattern… but such is the relationship between figure and ground and between the different colors and texture that they appear to shimmer before the viewer’s eyes. Evoking, perhaps, the sun and heat of Morocco, the effect is not simply one of extreme sensory stimulation but almost one of physical disequilibrium.
There seems little doubt that with these late paintings Benjamin fulfilled his own belief that ‘...art is about everything. Art isn’t just related to art. It’s personal. You draw on almost everything. It can be serious, but it ought to be playful too… You should enjoy it.’
Benjamin was certainly enjoying himself fully when he was working on these late paintings, completely engaged and immersed in the act of painting and bursting with new ideas. He was also revisiting and developing the spatial and colour concepts and the connection to musical ideas that he had first explored in the 70’s in the Roxy Bias screen prints. This involved establishing surface rhythms by the use of repeated geometrical shapes that he had discovered in the early Italian Renaissance paintings and used in his own work in the 1960’s. He was also using the skill and precision he had learned as an engineering draughtsman at Bell Punch in Hayes, Middlesex.
It seems especially cruel for him to have been so abruptly halted in what seems like mid-flow, at a creative peak. It was on the way to sign a new suite of etchings at the print workshop that he had established twenty-five years earlier, and with a new suite of very large etchings already being discussed, that Benjamin collapsed and died. - Chris Stephens