Augustus John Ruskin Spear, CBE RA PLG (1911-1990)
Whatever subject he was tackling – be it human or animal, interior or townscape – Ruskin Spear observed it closely, and brought it to life, injecting an element of narrative and often humour. He cultivated his down-to-earth realism in the pubs and streets of Hammersmith, and passed it on to his many students. Styling himself ‘a working-class Cockney’, Ruskin Spear was born at 16 Overstone Road, Hammersmith, London, on 30 June 1911, the only son and youngest of five children of Augustus Spear, a coach builder and coach painter, and his wife, Matilda Jane (née Lemon), a cook. An attack of polio as a child gave him a permanent limp, so he attended Brook Green School ‘for physically defective children’, which is where his artistic talent was first recognised.
At the age of 15, Spear won a scholarship to Hammersmith School of Art. Four years later, in 1930, another scholarship took him to the Royal College of Art, and he studied there under William Rothenstein, Gilbert Spencer and Charles Mahoney.
While at the RCA, Spear worked as an assistant to another of its teachers, Alfred Egerton Cooper. He was also influenced by Walter Sickert in his choice of low-life subject matter and satirical approach.
Much later, his fellow artist, Robert Buhler, would reflect that ‘Ruskin Spear has done for Hammersmith what Sickert did for Camden Town’ (Ruskin Spear, RA, Royal Academy Retrospective Exhibition Catalogue, 1980, page 8). He would spend most of his life in Hammersmith, and frequently painted the seedier side of its streets and pubs.
Spear began to exhibit work regularly at the Royal Academy from 1932, while he was still studying at the RCA. Once he had received his RCA diploma in 1934, he supported himself by restoring pictures and teaching at various art schools, beginning with Croydon in 1935.
A gifted musician, he further supplemented his income by playing jazz piano in bars, clubs and dance halls. It was also in 1935 that he married Mary Hill. Together they would have one son, Roger (who was born in 1943, and in 1964 became a member of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band).
Following the outbreak of the Second World War, Spear ‘sold Peace News around Hammersmith Broadway and persistently refused to see army doctors’ (as quoted by Tom Cross in Artists and Bohemians: 100 Years with the Chelsea Arts Club, London: Quiller Press, 1992, page 147). In any event, his limp was likely to have prevented him from undertaking active service, and he spent increasing amounts of time confined to a wheelchair. He taught at St Martin’s, Sidcup and Hammersmith Schools of Art (the last until the 1970s), and added to his meagre income by making fashion drawings for Vogue. Then, from 1940, he received commissions from the Recording Britain scheme to produce drawings of Roche, in Cornwall and, from 1942, from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to paint factories and other subjects. He continued to exhibit with the London Group (becoming a member in 1942 and president in the years 1949-50) and at the Royal Academy (becoming an Associate in 1944 and a full Royal Academician a decade later).
At the end of the war, Spear began to teach at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, before accepting a position, in 1948, at the Royal College of Art, where he continued as a visiting teacher until 1977. However, teaching did not inhibit his production and, in March 1951, he held his first solo show at the Leicester Galleries. In 1957, he was represented in an expanded version of the exhibition, ‘Looking at People’, which was shown at the South London Art Gallery before touring to Moscow – where he attended the opening – and Leningrad. Indeed, many of his works were exhibited internationally. Late in the decade, he undertook two unusual commissions: an altarpiece for St Clement Danes, in the Strand, in 1958, and four portrait murals for the Cricketer’s Tavern on the liner Canberra, in 1959. By this time, he had a high reputation as a portraitist.
In 1956, Spear met the artist’s model, Claire Stafford, when she was 16 years of age, and had a long-lasting liaison with her – probably centring on the studio that he rented at 260 King Street, Hammersmith, from the character actor, Harry Locke. In 1957, Claire gave birth to their daughter, Rachel, who was long thought to be the younger child of Spear’s wife, Mary. Claire later became the keeper of tigers at London Zoo, and Spear produced a painting of a tigress and her cubs especially for her. Nevertheless, Spear remained with his wife and, through the 1960s and 70s, they lived at 20 Fielding Road, while he worked at a studio in Bath Road. They moved to 60 British Grove in 1980. Around this time, he received increasing recognition, being awarded a CBE in 1979, and becoming the subject of a retrospective at the Diploma Galleries of the Royal Academy in 1980. The exhibition was a critical and popular success. He died a decade later on 17 January 1990.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Arts Council, the Government Art Collection, the Imperial War Museums, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Academy of Arts and Tate; and Bristol Museum & Art Gallery and Plymouth Museum and Art Gallery.
Further reading Mervyn Levy, Ruskin Spear, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1985; Marina Vaizey, rev, ‘Spear, (Augustus John) Ruskin (1911-1990)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 51, pages 760-761