Forgotten Leeds: Joash Woodrow by Paul Whittle

Forgotten Leeds – a mini-series of short introductions to three little-known figures connected to Leeds by birth and/or their work here in the city: an artist (Joash Woodrow), a novelist (John Wainwright), and a poet (Martin Bell). The three, near-contemporaries, were each living and working in and around Leeds from the late 1960s to the later 1970s, although no evidence exists for their having known, or even been aware of, one another.

To begin, Joash Woodrow:

Joash Woodrow (1927-2006) Mr Woodrow’s Shop, Chapeltown Road, Leeds c. 1945 © The Bridgeman Art Library courtesy of the Joash Woodrow family.
Joash Woodrow (1927-2006)
Mr Woodrow’s Shop, Chapeltown Road, Leeds
c. 1945
© The Bridgeman Art Library courtesy of the Joash Woodrow family.

Joash Woodrow (1927-2006) – the forgotten artist: he would be completely unknown but for a series of coincidences which rescued his work from destruction and obscurity. Initially, there was the chance discovery in a Harrogate bookshop, by the Yorkshire-based artist Christopher P. Wood, of annotated copies of the Victorian Magazine of Art. These had been purchased together with 3, 000 other art books from Joash Woodrow’s home – having originally come from the Chapeltown Road bookshop of Harry (Herzl) Woodrow, Joash’s father – the quality of the sketches prompted further investigation by Andrew Stewart of 108 Fine Art, Harrogate. On visiting the Woodrow family home in Chapel Allerton the following day, Andrew found Joash’s brother Saul in the process of clearing the house, following a recent fire, and a skip being prepared for the house clearance. With Joash’s welfare naturally their primary concern (he was not well, and soon to move to Manchester), his art having filled the house and contributed to the fire hazard, the family were evidently at a loss as to what else to do with it. They happily agreed to Andrew’s suggestion of retaining the work, cleaning some of it and seeking the opinion of others as to its artistic merit. After painstaking months of conservation and documentation (few works had titles or dates), it was apparent that this was a rare, if not unique, collection, very nearly complete and intact, of the work of a hitherto undiscovered major artist. The art critic Nicholas Underwood was among the first to view the works in person, and immediately verified the importance of this discovery. Of the 4,500 paintings, drawings and sculpture found at the Woodrow home, none had ever been seen by others or offered for sale or exhibition. Although Saul Woodrow had visited him every week in the years leading up to his illness, neither he nor anyone else was allowed to look at, or even to discuss, Joash’s art.

Joash Woodrow initially studied at Leeds College of Art, before going to London to study at the Royal College of Art from 1950-53; he visited Paris with his brother Paul in 1957, who also recalls several visits to the Tate exhibition Fifty Years of Picasso in 1960. He was thus well aware of contemporary artistic trends in the wider world when he returned to Leeds. However, with no desire to exhibit, let alone sell, his work, and increasingly isolated after the death of his parents and the departure of his siblings over the following decades, Woodrow withdrew into his art. He became an ‘outsider’ taking pleasure in his creativity, not motivated by fame, profit or acclaim, working without commercial ambitions on whatever he saw fit. From the 1950s onward, he produced hundreds of works in a variety of mediums (and making use of a wide range of materials, from hardboard and hessian sacking to advertising signs), which were found in every corner of the family home at Allerton Grange Gardens in Leeds; he even used the walls of the house. These included abstract pieces, still-life, portraits and, almost exclusively in his final decades of work (between the mid-1970s and the1990s), landscapes – mostly of Leeds and Yorkshire. It is this series that Nicholas Underwood feels “may prove to be his most original contribution to post-war British Art.” Woodrow exhaustively mapped his home city, filling notebooks with his sketches and working on increasingly large canvasses; of his many achievements, he could well come to be seen as one of the foremost documenters of Leeds, from suburb to industrial estate, from Chapel Allerton allotments and Roundhay Park’s Tropical World to the Angel pub and the back-streets of the city centre. Already, in the words of critic Philip Vann, Joash Woodrow “is now being revealed as the surely unrivalled painter of 20th century Leeds.”

Joash Woodrow (1927-2006) City Centre, Leeds c. 1980 © The Bridgeman Art Library courtesy of the Joash Woodrow family.
Joash Woodrow (1927-2006)
City Centre, Leeds
c. 1980
© The Bridgeman Art Library courtesy of the Joash Woodrow family.

The first exhibition of Woodrow’s work was held at Harrogate in 2002, followed by public art gallery retrospectives in Leeds, Manchester, The Ben Uri and the Royal College of Art, 2004 – 2005. Since his death in 2006, further solo exhibitions have been held at Leeds Metropolitan University Art Gallery, Hull University Art Gallery, Liverpool University Art Gallery, and at the Pannet Art Gallery, Whitby.

My particular interest in Joash Woodrow was generated by research for the 2013 exhibition Jewish Artists in Yorkshire at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds. I am grateful to Andrew Stewart at 108 Fine Art, Harrogate, custodian of the Woodrow archive, who arranged the loan of works to that exhibition, for providing me with a wealth of information on the background of this unique artist, and the story of how Woodrow found belated recognition. This is more fully documented in the various catalogues of his work; there has also been a play about Woodrow’s life, The Resonance of Seclusion, by Liz Postlethwaite, which was originally performed in October 2011 at the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester. An exhibition of Woodrow’s paintings and works on paper can currently be seen at 108 Fine Art, until 5th September 2014.

Forgotten Leeds 2, John Wainwright here and Forgotten Leeds 3, Martin Bell here.

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