First published in 1991, and reissued now in paperback by popular demand, this enchanting book chronicles the life and work of one of our finest realist painters. John Ward (born 1917) looks back on his life in a short but poignant memoir, describing his early years in Hereford where his father kept an antiques shop, and specialised in cleaning and restoring pictures. The family of seven lived above the shop, never particularly well off, but taking great delight in life, especially in such treats as boating on the River Wye. The young Ward was encouraged in his predilection for drawing and studied first at Hereford School of Arts and Crafts, and then in 1936 at the Royal College in London, where his teachers included Barnett Freedman and his contemporaries Robert Buhler and his lifelong friend Jehan Daly. When war came, Ward joined the Royal Engineers.
The writing is very visual and full of memorable images and idyllic moments, such as Ward’s postwar wandering through Herefordshire and the North Riding of Yorkshire drawing for travel guides. One of his better-known jobs was doing fashion drawings for Vogue for four years, a period when he met and befriended the photographer Norman Parkinson who he says taught him how to entertain the model. Keenly aware of his good fortune (‘a life that has been full of lucky breaks’) Ward has managed to live by his brush and pencil — eked out with a little teaching — by dint of hard work and much skill. (This is a man who lists his recreation in Who’s Who as ‘book illustration’, and who is celebrated for his drawings in Cider with Rosie.) He was never shy of commercial work, drawing for advertising and magazines, but would undertake other commissions, such as a mural for Challock church in Kent. This was painted in the summer of 1956 with a friend, the pair of them camping out in the sexton’s hut in an episode which sounds straight out of J. L. Carr’s novel A Month in the Country.
Drawing has always been the mainstay and underpinning of all Ward’s work, but on that solid foundation he has built a highly successful career as a portrait painter. Essentially modest, he recognises the difficulty of portraiture, yet his Joyce Grenfell is a quiet masterpiece, and Kenneth Clark thought the Society of Dilettanti painting included the best portrait ever painted of him. Ward loves depicting beautiful women, capturing the essence of a landscape or café interior, and is a dab hand at architecture. ‘I have always believed that artists are better for being used’, he writes. ‘Few of us are of the stuff that can just work in the isolation of our studios. We need to be needed, to work to specifications. Most imaginations come to life over problems, problems set by other people.’
The text and illustrations remain unchanged from the 1991 edition, so none of Ward’s more recent work is here, which is a pity since he continues to beguile us with masterly souvenirs of travel and further evidence of hard work in the studio. ‘I cling to my pleasure in being an unimportant painter so that I may indulge to the full the exercise of my old-fashioned skills,’ he says. A remarkable artist, and something of a national treasure.