Ruskin Spear’s reputation has fluctuated since the 1950s, when he was regarded as one of a team of painters who characterized the best of ‘English’ or ‘British’ painting. Spear had a heightened vision when it came to the places he knew best – the pubs, streets and people of working-class Hammersmith, the chief subject of Ruskin Spear’s landscape, genre and narrative paintings – and many of his portraits too. He made much of traffic in the rain, the bright iconography of advertising hoardings and the red boldness of London buses in ways that have been identified as proto-Pop. He also chronicled social life in the dark interiors of Hammersmith’s pubs, befriending and painting the individuals he met there.
Here, award-winning biographer Tanya Harrod mines Spear’s career and background in order to explore what it meant to be a British artist in the 20th century. Using Spear’s life to unlock the coded standards of the 20th-century art world, she reflects on a range of themes, taking in popular press debates linked to the annual Royal Academy Summer Exhibition; the changing preferences of the institutionalised avant-garde from the Second World War onwards; the battles fought within colleges of art as a generation of post-war students challenged the skills and commitment of their tutors; and the changing status of figurative art in the post-war period.
Humankind’s powerful narrative presents a remarkable, rumbustious character and a diverse series of art and non-art worlds.