Postwar work



From 1947 to 1951 Canney studied at Goldsmiths’ College School of Art in London. Fellow students included Bridget Riley, Mary Quant, Albert Irvin and Molly Parkin. While studying, he lived in Blackheath and encountered Victor Pasmore, at the time of his conversion to abstraction. In 1947 he saw a major Picasso exhibition in London and the London Gallery’s anthology of Cubist painting organised by Edouard Mesens, and was much impressed.

At Goldsmiths’ Canney studied illustration under Betty Swanwick, but decided upon a programme of auto-didactic study at home, in painting. He recalled: ‘I became an obsessional Neo-Cubist, because at that time, in the late 1940s, Abstract Expressionism had not yet crossed the Atlantic, and Cubism seemed as good a place as any for a young painter to start from. Kenneth Martin taught a small group at Goldsmiths’, but their interests seemed too esoteric for me, although I had a good relationship with Kenneth, who always wanted to know what was going on down in Cornwall.“What are they up to?” he would say. It could be, in retrospect, that Kenneth’s “Constructivist” influence finally reached me, many years later, when I began making my white reliefs.’

During art college vacations, Canney painted at Redruth in Cornwall and saw further Crypt Group exhibitions, and the new Penwith Gallery in St Ives. He also worked on Festival of Britain projects on the South Bank Exhibition site in London, in particular the ‘Dome of Discovery’ exhibit on the origins of man. Additionally he worked as a senior art master at a secondary modern school in Essex for three years (an experience he subsequently described as ‘traumatic – along the line of “The Blackboard Jungle”)’, and did any odd jobs he could find in freelance illustration and design, even painting inn signs. He also visited Italy, Paris and Brittany, where he did a number of paintings.

From 1950 to 1952 Canney was incapacitated intermittently with a serious attack of pulmonary tuberculosis, and returned to Cornwall to convalesce. When recovered, he painted extensively in West Cornwall, especially at Newlyn and Mousehole. He also spent six months in postgraduate study at the Patrick Allan-Fraser Art College, Arbroath, where he met John Eardley, Robin Philipson, and other Scottish artists. ‘My illness, which at first seemed a disaster, turned out to be the best thing that could have happened,’ he said later, ‘as it gave me the opportunity to paint full time, without any external pressures or worries, apart from the occasional painful treatment for a collapsed lung.’

In 1951 Canney exhibited his first works in London, and the following year worked in St Ives with sculptor Denis Mitchell, at that time Barbara Hepworth’s assistant, on a number of large mobiles in sheet aluminium, for the St Ives Festival. Through Mitchell, he met other artists in St Ives. The years from 1952 to 1957 were spent teaching and lecturing in London, and he began making reliefs, while continuing with Neo-Cubist works, the subject matter including still lifes, portraits, suburban scenes, and motifs from Cornwall; however, the pictures were now tending towards abstraction. He made frequent visits to Cornwall and met his wife, Madeleine, there, in Penzance, in 1954. Their son, Simon, was born in London in 1955. One of Canney’s last professional engagements in London was to give a lecture to Southgate Art Society and find Sir Ralph Richardson in the front row.




Student days

Above: at Goldsmiths’ with fellow students Bob Powter (centre) and Albert Irvin (right)

Right, from top: untitled woodcut of church scene, late 1940s; ‘Newlyn Mousetrap’, 1955; painting at Perranporth, Cornwall, 1950s; wedding day, 1954

London and Cornwall