Picture of an Artist in a Red Jumper

Maureen Ellis

Norman Adams retired as Keeper of the Royal Academy in 1995 but continues to have a considerable teaching programme to the students. He and his wife Anna divide their time between London and Horton-in- Ribblesdale. Retired as Keeper he might be, but retired artist he is not.

Dressed in a cadmium red jumper, he suggested I interview him in his studio. I have to confess to being rather overawed in his place of work where there were huge finished canvases propped against the wall or on easels. It was their size that awed me, I was in the presence of a considerable artist surrounded by his creations. Perhaps it is his ability as a teacher that gives him such fluidity in communicating the connections and influences in his life that have made him the artist he is to-day. He also talked of some of the art world he has experienced in his long life.

The Kosovo tragedy was at its height when I interviewed him and on his easel was a memorable painting. Norman Adams explained to me that his thought processes were prompted by the columns of names of the dead on war memorials; he had transformed the letters of dead soldiers’ names into stick like figures, the black clusters being very dense at the bottom of the picture and some were half disappeared under the frame. Although the background was multicoloured the patches of blood red stood out. It might be thought from my description it was a sad picture but man's resurrection is somehow conveyed amongst the holocaust. The theme of spiritual revelation pervades his work and the colour red, I suspect, has many meanings for him.


Norman Adams met his future wife Anna at Junior Art School in Harrow. He was a conscientious objector, and refusing to attend the army medical resulted in a six-month prison sentence in Wormwood Scrubs just after the second world war when he was nineteen. On release (after six weeks because he won his appeal) he worked as a farm labourer for two years; then began three years at the Royal College of Art, painting. As more peaceful times descended on the country, he and Anna used to hitch hike all over the Britain, to Cornwall, Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire, Yorkshire and Ireland. They visited islands: Bardsey, Skye, Lindisfarne, Achill and the Aran Islands off Galway. On Inishmore they were offered a small stone and thatch house for £100. But an artist needs a base in town, and logistics would have been too much of a problem.

Fun had re-emerged after the war years and there wasn’t the pervasive cynicism of the 1990s; the building of the Festival Hall drew assent from the majority of the population, unlike the current attitude to the Millennium Dome. As well as serious exhibitions, Emmet had designed a labyrinthine railway and fountains. Joseph Herman, a Jewish refugee who had left Poland before the war and settled in Wales, had paintings in the Mining Pavilion of men going down the pits. During the war the national art heritage was stored in Welsh mountain caves and the only access artists had to original paintings was one picture at a time displayed in the entrance to The National Gallery. Italy had been out of bounds as one of the axis powers and France had been occupied, so the Renaissance works and those of Picasso and Matisse were inaccessible. As war ended the Tate re-opened. In 1948 and 1949 Anna and Norman travelled abroad to hitch-hike across France. They had never been outside Britain before, and they got to Vezelay. The second time they went on bicycles and got as far as Port Vendre, beyond Perpignan. They filled sketch books with drawings. They knew the work of Giotto from a black and white film shown at Harrow Junior Art School, and what Norman really wanted to paint was religious subject matter. He explained he can't really conceive of painting separately from the religious, but not necessarily the orthodoxy religious. He is a very articulate man and it seems no coincidence that one of his early inspirational heroes was William Blake. He spoke of recently re-reading van Gogh's letters which he describes as being as powerful as his paintings.


His first teaching post at St. Albans Art School came to an end when, like many small establishments, it closed, and he became Head of the Department of Painting at Manchester Art School. By then their two children Ben and Jacob had been born and in 1969 while camping in Scotland they bought a small place on Scarp, an island off the coast of Harris. The receipt for £200 for the house was signed across a stamp. On Scarp there was a shop a Post Office and a red telephone box, but the population of the island was dwindling fast.


The Adams while living in Clapham south London, had noticed a place by the same name in Yorkshire and they hitched up and walked over the tops past the active quarry, to face the great heap of Pen-y-Ghent: a landscape Norman Adams describes as rich and exciting. They bought their present house in 1955 and the landscape started to make the young artist think of its drama. He was able to work two terms at St. Albans Art School and then, from Easter to October, paint in Horton. When he got the Manchester post Norman lived from Friday to Tuesday in Horton, and Anna stayed all the time. Norman had learnt to drive, passing his test rather to his surprise, first time.

“This was the era of the most important works I ever did” he said, “The country engendered thoughts of flight and the remoteness of the moors”. Later he realised what he really wanted to concentrate on was religious subject matter. Perhaps his Stations of the Cross in a Manchester city church will remain some of his most accessible works. The tragedy at the heart of the Christian religion unfolds through these fourteen oil paintings on the walls of St. Mary's Mulberry Street Catholic Church. The paintings culminate through the chaos of Christ's torture and death (painted in red) on the day of the Crucifixion to the whirling wind of saints coming out of their graves at the Resurrection.


Norman Adams had been Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle from 1981, and in 1986 the phone rang. It was the President of the R.A inviting him to be Professor of Painting in the R.A. Schools. Subsequently his fellow academicians elected him Keeper. This is a position to which one has to be reelected every three years, and which he held until 1995. I asked him the meaning of Keeper in this context and he explained that he was the immediate deputy to the President but that the post holds a great deal of responsibility for students and the R.A. Schools in general. Artists don’t go into retirement, and at the time of my interview in April 1999 he was planning designs for a mosaic at Westminster Cathedral. His sketch book was as vibrant and experimental as a much younger artist.

I was moved by his thoughts about recent major exhibitions especially his remarks about that of Braque’s Later Works some three years ago. A whole lifetime's work is contained amongst the paraphernalia of the studio and he re-called the series of Braque’s paintings of his own studio, especially the one where all the objects are piled together in a heap on a table. Norman Adams in his red jumper didn’t seem anywhere near the stage of packing away his studio.

Linton Court Gallery, Settle will have an exhibition of his works starting on 8th July 2000. This year is also the Gallery’s twentieth anniversary, Norman Adams was the first exhibitor in 1980 and he will be showing large water colours.