Gerald Philip Levene, RA (1938-2010), known as Ben Levene
Ben Levene took a highly independent approach to painting. As a result, he produced many exquisite, intimate still life compositions, interiors and landscapes, and inspired a generation of artists through his teaching.
Known as Ben Levene from his schooldays, Gerald Levene was born in London on 23 December 1938, the son of Mark Levene and his wife, Charlotte (née Leapman). During the Second World War, his father became incapacitated when an ammunition lorry exploded. His mother then became the main breadwinner, managing a tobacco kiosk in Queensway, and later working in the accounts department of Dickens and Jones.
At the age of 11, Ben Levene fell off his bicycle and fractured his ankle; while he was recovering in hospital, his Aunt Ethel brought him paints and a sketchbook, so instigating an interest in art. He was encouraged in this by Max Flett, his art master at St Clement Danes Grammar School, Hammersmith, and he developed rapidly.
Flett also helped him gain a place in Carel Weight’s evening class at Hammersmith School of Art.
In 1956, Levene won a scholarship to the Slade School of Fine Art, where he studied under Claude Rogers and William Coldstream, and began a lifelong friendship with his fellow student, Anthony Green. Even as a student, he exhibited with the Young Contemporaries and the London Group, and at the Beaux Arts Gallery. He won a University of London postgraduateship (1960-61) and the Boise Scholarship (1961), the latter enabling him to spend a year in Spain, which inspired some of his finest early works.
Levene was joined in Spain by his new wife, Jane (née Fogarty), and their first daughter, Rachel. A second daughter, Sophie, was born in 1962. Their marriage was dissolved in 1977 and, in the following year, he married the artist, Susan Williams. Their son, Jacob, was born in 1979.
On his return from Spain to London in 1962, Levene initially supported himself by running a jewellery stall in Portobello Road. From 1963 to 1989, he was a visiting lecturer at Camberwell School of Art. Proving to be an inspiring teacher, he also gained a reputation among members of the Euston Road School and protégés of David Bomberg. He shared an exhibition with Olwyn Bowey at the New Grafton Gallery in 1969, and between 1973 and 1981 was represented by the Thackeray Gallery. Then, from 1986, he was represented by Browse & Darby.
Beginning to exhibit at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, regularly and without fail, from 1974, Levene was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1975, and a full Royal Academician in 1986. His engagement with the Royal Academy affected the direction of his work, as when ‘The Great Japan Exhibition’ of 1981 influenced his use of gold and silver leaf on gessoed grounds. He was a visiting tutor at the Royal Academy Schools, between 1980 and 1995, and then Curator of the RA Schools until 1998. (Between 1990 and 1995, he was also a visiting tutor at the City & Guilds of London Art School.) In 2006, he held a solo show in the Friends’ Room of the Royal Academy.
Having lived at 26 Netherby Road, Forest Hill, London, from the late 1960s, Ben Levene died on 15 September 2010.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the Ben Uri Gallery & Museum, the Government Art Collection and the UCL Art Museum.
Further reading Anthony Green, ‘Ben Levene’ [obituary], Guardian, 10 November 2010