Artist’s traumatic experience as a prisoner of war came out in his paintings

Ron Delavigne

Ron Delavigne - Credit: Archant

Apart from his years as a prisoner of war, Ron Delavigne spent his whole adult life in Highgate.

Ron Delavigne

Ron Delavigne - Credit: Archant

The shy artist, who would turn his own canvases to the wall rather than hang them, has a posthumous exhibition at Highgate Gallery that explores how he was deeply affected by his experiences in the Far East.

Paintings by Ron Delavigne 1919-2013 has been curated by his personal friend and fellow artist Jason Sumray, who was introduced to Delavigne through his father.

“We spent a lot of time in each other’s studios and would go for long walks. It was a great friendship. To begin with he didn’t talk about his war years, but as he got older it increasingly seemed to bring back these memories.”

Born in Camden Town, Delavigne moved to Highgate before the war and served with the Royal Artillery in Malaya. He was captured at the fall of Singapore in 1942 and interned at Changi and later Aomi in Japan.

Ron Delavigne

Ron Delavigne - Credit: Archant

His 1998 painting in the Imperial War Museum titled A Time Of Silence was inspired by a memory of Changi and depicts a head on a stick.

“For years he had painted owls on posts and when you compare them to the prison memory the similarity is amazing. You can’t help thinking that was all repressed underneath and it came out eventually.”

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Delavigne had attended St Martin’s College before the war but unlike his fellow Changi inmate, the cartoonist Ronald Searle he didn’t draw during internment

He continued his art studies after the war, meeting wife Rita in a Soho café.

“I was working as a secretary at Foyles bookshop for Mr Foyle and some of the girls went into Soho cafes,” she said.

“All the art students must have come in. I looked across the room we saw each other and both looked away. Ron was quite shy so it was his friend who said ‘my friend would like to take you to lunch tomorrow’. It blossomed from there and we were married for 60-odd years. I was lucky to have all that time with him, he was a real character, a one-off with such charm. Everyone seemed to love him.”

Delavigne worked in different jobs, assisting a portrait artist, at a Highgate framers and working in a Soho record shop where he got to know film director Ken Russell.

“He was content with odd jobs like that,” says Sumray. “He painted intermittently and although he did once have an exhibition I don’t think he enjoyed the experience.”

But the man whose gravestone in Highgate Cemetery bears an artist’s palette, harboured traumatic memories of the war.

“He wasn’t always easy to live with, he could be very moody but it was understandable because of what he went through,” says Rita.

“It was absolute hell – not that he talked about it - but I knew why and I knew how to handle him. The studio upstairs was where he could express what he was feeling.”

Sumray adds: “Everyone was surprised that he agreed to record his experiences for the Imperial War Musem.

“He talks about the way decapitation was given out as punishment, the torture, how certain images like bodies floating down rivers never went away. He kept cuttings of emaciated figures. I am convinced it was all underneath and bubbled to the surface in his art. Delavigne was initially a landscape artist in the romantic tradition.

“He was a quiet poet who painted these rather romantic landscapes but there was always a dark side to them,” says Sumray.

Later, inspired by Goya’s black painting in the Prado in Madrid, he began painting figures, often in a landscape.

“It was as if Goya gave him the licence to express what he wanted. It was a very English sensitive nature married with a Goyaesque vision.”

Once completed, Delavigne would drape his canvases in shrouds and stack them facing the wall.

“He had no ambition to have an exhibition. In some ways he painted for himself but the problem with that phrase is it makes it sound like a hobby, rather than a vocation. He painted out of an inner necessity to make images. The fact that he had no outside outlet for his art and put them face to the wall soon after completion perhaps also was why he had periods of his life when he didn’t paint at all.

“The paradox is that although no-one saw them, he took great care over them, as if he was concerned that one day they would be shown.”

Rita agrees if ever Delavigne’s paintings were exhibited, it should be in Highgate.

“I think it’s absolutely wonderful I am very emotional about it and I think Ron would have been very proud underneath it all. In this day and age Ron’s paintings couldn’t be more appropriate because of the horrible times we are living through. Men never learn their lesson.”

Bridget Galton

The exhibition runs at Highgate Gallery at Highgate Lit and Sci in South Grove from April 15-28. Art War and the Role of memory a discussion with Richard Cork, painter John Keane and psychotherapist Albyn Leah Hall is on Sunday April 17.