Five years ago I had never heard of Percy Kelly (1918–93). I knew the work of some Cumbria artists, and much admired the dark and moody landscapes of Sheila Fell (1931–79), for instance, but Percy Kelly had not then registered on my radar. He was already highly regarded in the Lake District, but it was not until after his death that his work was really exhibited and promoted. He was one of those artists who believe in their own value, and want others to share their high opinion, but are not prepared to sell their work to achieve this. Time and again Kelly was offered exhibitions and sabotaged them, while potential buyers were frustrated in their attempts to purchase the paintings and drawings they admired. Only posthumously was this to change, and in the past two decades the work of Percy Kelly has become increasingly valued and widely known.

Looking through my bookshelves, I now have seven paperback and four hardback publications devoted to Kelly. The majority of these were put together, and in some cases written, by Chris Wadsworth, who used to run the Castlegate House Gallery in Cockermouth, Cumbria, the commercial gallery that has done the most to introduce Kelly to a wider audience. But Wadsworth is by no means Kelly’s only advocate, nor even the longest serving. This accolade goes to Mary Burkett, former director of the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal and doyenne of Lakeland art. In 1997 she wrote the first book on Kelly, and in fact it was Burkett who first encouraged Chris Wadsworth to exhibit Kelly’s pictures, so it may be said that the two of them are together responsible for the revival in Percy Kelly’s artistic reputation.

Kelly was born in Workington, on the coast of Cumberland, the first of twin boys, to a Scottish mother and a Manx father. One of seven children, he grew up in the backstreets but received special attention because of his ability to draw, evident from the age of two. As a young man he enjoyed outdoor pursuits, especially cycling, football and hiking. Both before and after the war (in which he served in the army, at GHQ Whitehall and in France) he worked for the Post Office, not relinquishing full-time employment until 1958, though art was of central importance to him. So much so that when he ran a sub-Post Office he set up an easel behind the counter. Initially he taught himself to paint, but by 1961 he had saved enough money to study printmaking as a mature student at Carlisle College of Art. He loved his belated student years and threw himself into printmaking with real zest and energy. He made screenprints, lino-cuts, etchings and lithographs, but the etchings have the greatest brooding density, and are thus closest to the charcoal drawings that are at the heart of Kelly’s endeavour.

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He said that a piece of charcoal or chalk was like an extension of his forefinger, and that ‘drawing is as natural as walking’. His paintings and drawings are distinguished by a powerful linear tracery in charcoal or ink, like the leading in stained glass, intricately varied with gouache or watercolour washes. He made a number of oil paintings, but a mixed media approach is more typical. A master of pen and ink, with a strong feeling for pattern and placement, he had a highly developed decorative sense. His style encompassed both detailed description and more abstract arrangements of shapes — an aerial view of a Cornish harbour, for instance. Chiefly he loved to draw the industrial towns of west Cumbria and the fells and cottages of the Lake District. The heavy outlines have something of the sombre expressiveness of Rouault, the mood occasionally lightened by colour accents or colour used three-dimensionally to flesh out the linear armature.

Kelly painted timeless subjects, like the gable ends of whitewashed houses behind the arched span of a bridge, a road leading away over the moors towards higher ground, a boat with a red sail in harbour. There are very few people in his pictures. He much preferred to depict landscape or still-life, machinery or vernacular architecture — the trace of man rather than man himself. He is also celebrated for his illustrated letters to friends, which emphasise how important lettering was to him, rather as it was to the Welsh painter and writer David Jones. During his last years, the world became increasingly circumscribed for Kelly and intensely lonely, with only a few friends and no social life. His most important friendships in this final period were confined to paper. He re-lived his life through his letters and poured out his joys and woes to his faithful correspondents, principally Joan David and Mary Burkett.

Two books came out last year: Dear Mary, Love Percy: A Creative Thread, the letters of Kelly to Mary Burkett, edited by David A. Cross (Skiddaw Press, £30), and The Man who couldn’t stop drawing by Chris Wadsworth (Studio Publications, £35). Both are lavishly illustrated hardback accounts of the life and art of this unusual artist, but they couldn’t be more different. Dear Mary, Love Percy is an annotated presentation of Kelly’s remarkable letters, with a scholarly introduction. The Man who couldn’t stop drawing is a helter-skelter tour through the dramatic ups and downs of a confused life, told in a buttonholing novelistic style. From the first description of the artist wearing several sweaters, thick brown stockings and a dark-red woollen skirt, the reader of Wadsworth’s life of Kelly is hooked, for the story of this twice-married, cross-dressing depressive is gripping, if relentlessly sad.

Christened Robert Percy Kelly, in 1985 he changed his name by deed poll to Roberta Penelope Kelly. (Interestingly, he changed it back again in 1992. He was nothing if not inconsistent.) He never wanted or sought a sex-change operation but was convinced that he was gradually mutating into a woman, as a caterpillar will emerge from its cocoon as a butterfly. His first wife, Audrey James, threw him out for dressing up in her clothes; his second, Christine Griffiths, finally left him when she could stand his self-obsessions and personality disorders no longer. When he was with Christine, the couple moved rather disastrously from Cumbria to St Davids in Wales, where Percy wanted to come out as a cross-dresser. This was not well received, and he is still remembered there (with no particular affection) as the artist who wore frocks — predating that contemporary metropolitan sophisticate Grayson Perry by several decades.

Sadly he never returned to his beloved Cumbria. In Wales his work began to change: the dark lines became lighter as he painted more flowers, the style increasingly delicate and colourful, in keeping perhaps with his emerging feminine identity. Latterly he lived in Norfolk in self-imposed poverty and muddle (he couldn’t throw anything away), surrounded by engulfing heaps of stuff — drawings interspersed with junk he’d scavenged from the local tip — so much of it that by the end no one could get into his cottage even if they had wanted to visit him. So he wrote letters, and poured all his creativity into them, the chaos of his life belied by the incisive clarity of his work. These are not just illustrated, but painted letters, remarkable specimens of the modern illuminated manuscript. Modest as ever, Kelly wrote: ‘One day my letters will be seen as the most unique ever written.’ Certainly they now deserve our close attention, as does the rest of his extraordinary work.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated