In the early 1990s I was studying fine art in Falmouth, Cornwall where every so often a book seller would turn up to the college whom specialised in selling catalogues from finished auctions at places like Christie’s and Sotheby’s. I’d often pick up a book or two from a 20th century painting sale to enjoy, as they were absolutely packed with colour photos of artists works both familiar and unfamiliar, in all sorts of styles, and a real bargain to boot.
One of these catalogues would furnish me with a surprise when I got it home and inspected it a lot closer. I came across a work by an artist I’d not heard of at the time, Jeffrey Steele, and it was titled ‘Christ Carrying The Cross’ (painted 1952-53). The photo was not great, as you can see below, but I was taken by the style and colour palette used, seeing similarities between it and the work I was doing at the time. As I looked, something kept me from flicking on to the next of the 100s of images in the book. Firstly I noticed the street name in the painting Constellation Street, then the water tower in the gap between the buildings. It all felt very familiar to me.
At that point I hadn’t yet read the listing below the image as I was busy flicking through admiring the paintings. The blurb on the picture’s page explained the paintings familiarity to me, and for years was the only information I had on the painter and his life. The picture was set in Adamsdown, Cardiff – and depicted a modern era interpretation of a biblical event, very much in the style of Sir Stanley Spencer (another artist I admired). With the blurb confirming the Cardiff connections of both the location of the picture and the artist’s background, that was it, my admiration for Christ Carrying The Cross was cemented.
I was keen to see more of Jeffrey Steele’s work, but as much as I scoured the college library I couldn’t find any more info on him or other examples of his other work. As that painting had sold by auction, my guess was it was away in a private collection somewhere so I’d be unable to see the original of it either – which sadly remains the case to this day. I can’t help but think it would be a great piece for the National Museum of Wales to try and get their hands on given its local connection and themes. Maybe they could swap one of their small Monets for it (and a 100 other paintings too!) as frankly it’s more locally relevant than a sunset in Venice.
So, here’s the painting taken from the 1990 sales catalogue, and the auction blurb that accompanied it. It sounds like it caused quite a stir at the time in Cardiff!
Jeffrey Steele – Christ Carrying The Cross – 1952/53
Christie’s Catalogue item listing for Jeffrey Steele’s Christ Carrying The Cross.
Years later, as the internet grew I’d occasionally try finding info on Jeffrey Steele, but nothing would turn up. It may be seven or eight years since I last fruitlessly searched for more work by Steele and had pretty much given up on learning more about the elusive artist from Cardiff. Today I pulled the catalogue out to scan the image of the painting, and turned to Google to have one more look. I’m happy to say the web has caught up, and now there’s a few interesting pages on the artist, including a personal site run by his son and a page on Wikipedia – it seems the artist is alive and well and now lives in Southsea, Hampshire.
I was surprised to see his later work as it is completely different to the style of Christ Carrying The Cross – had I not read the bio I could have easily dismissed this work as being by another Jeffrey Steele. According to the bio he made a radical departure from his earlier Spencer-like work, and it seems he destroyed a number of his earlier pieces of that style to work in an extremely abstract way known as Op Art. You can see examples of this starkly abstracted work here along with a single early piece. The destruction of the earlier work could explain why there’s so little of it available. I completely understand why he did this as an artist, and have done similar in my lifetime, pretty much trashing my degree show work due to it not really being about what I wanted to do as a painter.
As well as the early piece among the Op Art pieces here, I’ve only found one other image online of similarly themed work from the period of Christ Carrying The Cross. It’s called ‘Christ Healing The Blind’ from 1951. As you can see from the image below, it shares some similarities with the later piece, but it’s not as location specific and grand. This painting was sold at auction in Cardiff last year from what I can glean and was done at the fairly young age of 19.
Jeffrey Steele – Christ Healing The Blind – 1951
Maybe the National Museum of Wales stepped in to buy this one when it went up for sale? It would be good think they did and made an effort to preserve the work. It’s interesting to see from his site that Newport might have a number of his earlier pieces at the Newport Museum and Art Gallery or in their archives, which I’ll have to check out next time I visit.
Reading about Steele’s life, it’s interesting to see how he came up through and rebelled against the art education establishment, and how his work changed in later life. The abstract work disappeared out of the limelight for a long time, but in recent years the groups he was involved with have been reassessed and the work reappraised, and now can finally be seen online. Certainly for me, as a young working-class painter in a fancy art college in Cornwall, chancing upon the painting of Christ Carrying The Cross was a real eye-opener and confidence booster for me. It inspired me that someone from my background in Cardiff had been there previously, doing very similar work to what I was interested in making, using the sort of locations and people that I liked to use and to the point that his piece was valued enough to be sold by Christie’s.
Although my time in art college took me in a different direction eventually, I still have a love of things I did in those days and still occassionally tinker with paint and canvas. I’m not sure if Jeffrey Steele still paints, but it’s good to know he had a productive life as a result of art. Maybe one day this intriguing piece of his will resurface and I will finally get to see it in the flesh. We can but hope, I feel it’s an important piece of Welsh art history that till now has been forgotten by all but a few.