Frank Humphrey Allen: Preserving the Wonder of Childhood
By John A. Kohan
Like many artists before him, Frank Humphrey Allen started to
keep a personal journal in December 1946--and quickly
dropped the project the following February. As such attempts at self-
analysis go, Allen’s effort to lay bare his soul has a particular
poignancy, as if, at age 50, he wanted to sum up his life and
career in the very ?rst entry. “Let the date be memorable,” he
recorded on December 5th. “In the wilderness weeks, months, well-
nigh years. Whimpering, crying, sobbing. Not the voice of John the
Baptist. Irresolution. The attraction of abstraction. Maybe, an easy
road, if bounds are broken and discipline overthrown. Discipline means drawing. Drawing for me means line. Jack of all trades, master of none, or energy dissipated, nothing done.”
Allen would live another 31 years, proving by the proli?c collection of ’
paintings and drawings he would produce in those remaining three
decades that no one could ever dare accuse him of artistic idleness. But some
of these telegraphed phrases do have a prophetic ring.
Allen was “Jack of all trades” in the best sense of the word, adept in oils, acrylics, gouache, watercolor, pen and ink, in fact, any medium he
took up. He drew inspiration from a host of famous contemporaries, Picasso, Miro, Rouault, Klee, Kandinsky, even Pollock, without slavish imitation, creating art distinctly his own. And, yes, there must, surely, have been times of
weariness in the wildemess, which seemed to stretch on until the end of his life, when Allen turned his attention from securing a niche for himself in the British art scene to producing exquisitely illustrated poetry notebooks.
It is that passage about “the attraction of abstraction” and “the discipline of drawing” which intrigues. Although Allen, the would-be diary writer, ?lled his journal with whole blocks of quotations from Jolm Addington Symonds’ Studies of the Greek Poets and the Italian travel notes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, he has infuriatingly little to say about his own artistic vision. Except for this one, wonderfully elusive phrase. It suggests the inner struggle of an artist greatly
tempted to give in to an “easy” art of uncontrolled shapes and forms were not the discipline of drawing so deeply engrained in his artistic consciousness. For with disciplined line Allen’s art began and with disciplined line it ended. Thankfully for art-lovers, there were times in between when Allen “broke the bounds” to take pleasure, simply, in modeling forms in color.
Telling Allen’s life story is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle where key pieces in the design have been lost. He was bom on March 22, 1896 in London, although the family may have had roots in Plymouth. Geoffrey Hines, a close Allen associate who wrote a biographical sketch for Allen’s ?rst major posthumous exhibition, talks of little Frank “loving drawing as a child.” All we know
for certain is that Allen began his professional life working as a surveyor for the Estate Agents Knight, Frank, and Rutley. He seems to have studied at King’s College, London, though he left no paper trail behind, perhaps, because he took courses to receive certi?cation for civil service work. Certainly, no indication, in that, of any great passion for art.
Then the Great War came, and tragedy touched Allen’s life as it would
the lives of millions of young men of his doomed generation. He appears
to have been wounded twice on the Westem Front, injuries not
suf?ciently serious to rule out policing duties in rebellious Ireland.
Hines Writes of Allen’s Irish posting as a time when “he sailed little
boats and breathed in hills and clouds, unconsciously furnishing himself
with a vision for life.” Angela Barnes, Allen’s niece, remembers the
Ireland “idyll” differently, having heard stories of an accidental shooting
in the of?cers’ mess, which left her uncle crippled. Whether from war
Wounds sustained in Europe or in a tragic mishap in Ireland, Allen
would remain an invalid all his life, troubled by frequent headaches,
unable to hold steady Work. As Hines wrote in a consolatory letter to
Allen’s widow in 1978: “After that dreadful war, F rank’s life looked as if it could never begin: but you know better than any of us; at the end it was complete, thanks to him and you."
After marrying Florence Annie Findlay in 1922, Allen and his new wife,
Floris, settled in a country cottage in South Devon, where he slowly
recuperated from his War injuries, living on a invalid’s pension-- a
gentleman farmer, dabbling with chicken coops and weeding garden plots
By March 1930, the Allens had moved to Dartington. It is here where the
?rst traces of the future artist emerge. Philanthropists Dorothy and
Leonard Elmhirst had purchased nearby Dartington Hall in 1925 to found
a progressive school of the creative arts. Allen was to spend time there,
coming into contact with American Artist-in-Resident Mark Tobey,
whose attempts to combine westem art with oriental calligraphy in his famous "white writing" paintings would give impetus to the American Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950's.
It is tempting to see something of Tobey’s “orientalism” in the
Spartan simplicity of line and composition which characterize
Allen’s drawings of the early 1930s. He captures a female nude,
seated on a chair, with a single, con?dent stroke of the pen. There
is no hesitant retracing of line. Decoration is kept to a minimum
with large counter planes of bare space. Working from live
models, Allen was mastering a language of economy of form,
eliminating inessentials, reducing things to basic outlines.
Discipline of line working in tandem with a certain abstraction of
the human ?gure. And something more, ambiguous and
psychological. Hines writes that Allen used to joke about reading
his model’s minds—“there’s a draught; the question of my fee;
how long before I step down...”
By 1933, when most of these early drawings are dated, Allen had
left South Devon and Dartington Hall for London and the Chelsea School of the Arts, then, undergoing a period of creative expansion under Principal H. S. Williamson. Allen le?t no written account of the two years he studied there, but it must have been an exhilarating time with both Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore on the teaching staff. To say nothing of a host of
London galleries to explore with exhibitions of Picasso, Klee, Miro, and Max Ernst. In a tribute to Artist Gerald Wilde in 1955, Lord Strabolgi, who was also a student at Chelsea in the 1930s, looked back with nostalgia on the vital London art scene and intoxicating ferment of new ideas, remembering how “we were all greatly in?uenced by Clive Bell’s book, Q with its theory of
signi?cant form, which became a kind of bible to us.” The attraction of ultimate abstraction.
Biographer Hines sums up Allen’s Chelsea years with the story of how one instructor presented him with a small palette knife, saying “one day it will come.” Hardly the kind of encouraging words a far-from- young-and-struggling-artist wanted to hear. Allen was probably out of step with the times, still occupied with learning the fundamentals of representational art rather
than the new aesthetic of pure form, preached by Bell and Roger Fry, whose championing of post- impressionism in?uenced a whole generation of artists
between the wars. At least, so it would seem, judging from a self-portrait in oil Allen painted in 1935, during his Chelsea period, recognizably himself, faintly plump and rumpled looking—a piece which would stand out as a odd, tip-of-the-hat to artistic orthodoxy, when shown later in retrospective exhibitions of his work. Then, again, maybe, there is a touch of irony to be seen in the hint of a smile on Allen’s face at his aesthetic predicament, the kind of humour,
which would keep surfacing in his later work (as in the canvases of his mentor, Klee)
Things did begin to come for Allen, once he left Chelsea, palette
knife in hand. Living ?rst in Kew Gardens, and, then, in Bedford
Park, Chiswick, he received commissions for posters from the
London Underground Transport Board in 1938 and in the following
year from Guinness, and Plymouth Hoe. With the outbreak of
World War II, he had a serious enough reputation to be asked, with
other British artists, to support the Armed Forces by loaning them
art, in his case, a landscape in oil to the Royal Naval Station at
Charlton Horethorne, Dorset, Whose grateful officers Wrote him a
note of thanks for this glimpse of green “a little removed from the
realities of daily routine.” Allen, in turn, received support, himself,
through the sale of a picture on the theme of “peace” to Civil
Defense Artists, an agency set up to promote the visual arts during
the lean wartime years. Although his health ruled out active military service, he put on uniform, again, in the Home Guard, earning his sergeant’s stripe (with a revealing toast from his comrades “to the shyest man in the platoon.”)
For all the deprivations and dif?culties of life in London during the war,
Allen’s career was prospering, even if a representative work from the period,
House Boy, shows he was no follower of Fry and Company. In the summer
of 1943 he had two paintings in the “Artists of Fame and of Promise”
Exhibition at The Leicester Galleries, joining a list of contributors, which now reads like a Who’s Who of Contemporary British Art: Mark Getler, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, John Piper, Walter Sickert, Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland, Felix Topolski, among others. His landscape in oil, Thames Ditton, was purchased by the curator of the Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery.
Allen was also included in the London Group show at the Royal
Academy in 1944. And, in 1946, his name turns up, again,
among the contributors to an exhibition of postwar British
religious art at the Maison des Beaux Arts in Paris, favorably
reviewed in the continental press.
Which brings us to December 1946 and Allen’s enigmatic winter diary, perhaps, more aptly titled Portrait of the Artist as a Man in Mid-Life Crisis. Whether con?ned to his Bedford Park home by recurring health troubles or a certain natural dif?dence, Allen’s artistic horizons shrunk to listening to BBC radio evening concert series and reading reprints of broadcasts in The Listener. Visitors were few. When a friend, George Down, spoke with enthusiasm about the revival of realism in post-war French art, where beauty, he said, was to be found in everything, Allen dismissed him in his journal as “a nice, sincere man.” A fellow artist, identi?ed as Rita, came by to talk about “readability” in art, telling Allen “the modem artist is a prig, a dictator, a man who will paint what he wants to paint.” His laconic response: “Patronage? The Camera?”
Allen’s attention seemed to be more focused on some vague literary project on ancient Greek poetics.
Thoughts of art were still percolating, though, under the surface. Especially, the question whether there could be such a thing as pure abstraction of form without some reference to Nature, however broadly de?ned, whether it be the artist’s mechanical rendering of his surroundings or his reshaped, subjective perception of them. Allen carefully noted down Paul Nash’s thoughts on ?nding an artistic formula “to solve the equation of the Avebury stones,” as
well as Graham Sutherland’s musings about how “I could express what I saw only by paraphrasing what I saw.” Like Constable, Turner, and generations of British artists who came a?er them, Allen would struggle all his artistic life with the weighty legacy of “English Landscape Painting.” These four landscapes, dating from before Allen’s time at Chelsea into the 1960s ( presented in chronological order) show how o?en he see-sawed between realism and
abstraction in trying to ?nd his own response to the historical challenge.
For ?ve days in February 1947, Allen became completely absorbed in excerpting an essay by Art Critic Herbert Read for his journal. Read believed artists could be classi?ed into various “isms” by their basic response to Nature. There were those who tried to describe what they saw (realists); those who tried to describe what they saw and felt (expressionists); those who tried to
interpret what they saw (impressionists); those who tried to interpret what they saw and felt(idealists or symbolists); and those, who tumed within themselves to project their fantasies on canvas (super-realists or surrealists) As Read went on to explain, these boundary lines were, as
often as not, blurred. It must have been some comfort for Allen to know, he need not “belong” to any “ism,” especially with so many from which to choose.
Where did Allen place himself in the changing world of post-war British art, when the disciples of Fry and their gospel of pure aesthetic form were contending with “neo-romanticists,” “abstract expressionists” and a host of other art-ists? We have only an undated parody to go on, in the
style of what Poet Allen called “any up-to-the-minute-bard”, which sounds as if it were written about this time.
What was it Rita said at tea?
“Classicism tempered with Romanticism”
Some such high-sounding phrase!
Quod ego, ego!
So Classicism has the last word
But the Tate is ?ne,
With its lovely new sculpture hall
And all those Johns!
My God! There’s a man!
And there was someone else who
Painted a bit of cheese.
A nice bit of ripe Roquefort!
Beautiful through a magnifying glass!
Marvelous! So real!
You can see the maggots!
Sickert, that’s it.
And so there you are.
A nice little dip into the sub-conscious!
But now we’re coming to the surface.
But we’ll leave behind
Romanticism and Classicism
In the future for me’sy
And, maybe, Surrealism did come “easy” to Allen. The dreaming state was something, which, clearly, fascinated him. In his 1928 poem, “Invocation,” Allen wrote how “no wanton images offend the sight/In the hushed hours, when one sweet dream is worth/A life’s reality.”
Consciousness, he wrote, only brought “a vain parade
of ?ckle shadows” and “the dispelling day lays on my
soul the curse of banishment.” He was fascinated by
Paul Nash’s love for nocturnal settings, noting down
in his journal how, in Nash’s words, his “appetite for
monstrous moons, exuberant stars” would lead him
“beyond the con?nes of natural appearances into
unreal worlds or states of the known world that were
unknown.” Something was stirring in Allen’s artistic
consciousness. His later paintings would display a
fascination with night visions, full moons and dream-
In February 1947, Allen’s personal journal suddenly comes to an end with three laconic entries:
“Feb.7-13. Frustration, agony, hope. Feb.14. To climb steep hills/ Requires slow pace at ?rst...(Henry VIII) Feb. 15. Working as hard as light permits.” At this point, a yawning gap of the kind so frustrating to would-be-biographers opens up in Allen’s historical records. Then, quite unexpectedly, the enigmatic artist emerges, again, in 1949, this time, far from the London art scene, living in a rented cottage on the grounds of The Maltings Hotel in Weybourne,
Norfolk. Allen would spend the rest of his life in northeastem England, ultimately, settling into a two-story Georgian brick townhouse at St. Giles Terrace in the center of Norwich, where he lived until his death on
There might have been any number of reasons for Allen’s move to the periphery from the center of the British art world —none of them recorded among the quotes and poems he would continue to jot down in various notebooks. Perhaps, he was troubled by growing health problems,
hankering to return to country life and cleaner air. Maybe, Allen did not see himself as skilled enough to engage in London art “politics”. Or, perhaps, the motive might simply have been that their niece, Angela, had decided to go to college there. Whatever prompted the move to Norfolk, it would prove the watershed event in Allen’s artistic life. Once settled in the countryside, far
from the London art scene and its competing schools and “isms,” Allen gained con?dence in his own, eclectic, artistic intuition . This would result in a veritable creative explosion of work in various forms and genres—though, one, largely unheard and unseen by the artistic world at large.
Allen’s instinctive response to the change in surroundings was to concentrate on the discipline of line drawing—at least, judging from the folder marked “Weybourne Drawings: 1949-1952,”carefully preserved by his widow, Florence. There is a new element of caricature in the small-format pen and wash portraits of this period, especially compared with the stark naturalism of
Allen’s 1930 ?gure studies. Elongated forms appear with high-set
eyes, their brows and noses joined in one long continuous line, ending in
pursed-lip smiles, posed in what look like snapshots of bourgeois
contentment (as in his drawing “Girl Guides on Parade.”) “Bleak
Christmas” offers a darker view of huddled working masses against a
gray cityscape of belching smokestacks. But all has the look of art
destined for magazine illustrations or note cards.
But things were happening. Allen’s country idyll gave him time to re?ect
in tranquility on the host of artistic in?uences which had assaulted his
senses in the London years. He kept working them out, over and over
again in his sketch pads, experimenting with Cubist distortion in
portraiture, ?attening his landscapes into tonal planes as in Klee or Miro, returning, in fact, to the spare simplicity of his drawings of the 1930s.
Perhaps, the real treasure in the Weybourne portfolio are the delicate pencil sketches of phantasmagorical architectural constructs, built on what look like elephant tusk supports with hanging fringe and projecting teeth. In other drawings, Allen “breaks the bounds” of disciplined drawing even
further to let curved shapes in various arcs and patterns mingle and merge
in a frenzied ?re dance. The only straight-edged lines to be seen are the
bounding frames the artist added to keep these ?ights of fancy in check.
Even more important for Allen’s artistic development was the skill he
acquired in tuming the disciplined line work of these monochromatic drawings
into painted brush strokes in color, as in this sketch of a ?shennan, which
served as the model for one of his largest paintings.
In a wonderfully varied collection of portraits, we
can peek over the shoulder of Allen at his easel,
experimenting with a visual vocabulary, gleaned
from years of studying the work of more famous
contemporaries. In one small-sized portrait of a
woman in blue, he uses heavy black-outlining in
the manner of Rouault. Another portrait of a young
Woman distorts color planes in the Cubist style. An
abstract ?gure in angular headdress echoes Klee’s
1940 paste color painting, Woman in Peasant
Dress. Never content with just one effect, Allen
constantly plays with new styles of portraiture,
modeling forms with cross-hatched white lines,
drawing saints and angels in the simpli?ed style of
illuminated medieval manuscripts, even
constructing mosaic-like ?gures from contrasting
When Allen added color to the bizarre geometric forms he had been sketching in his albums, he took off in an artistic direction, which would propel him into the swinging ‘60s and the stratosphere beyond. With the exception of a series of Pollock-like spattered paint canvases, these geometric patterned pictures are as close as Allen would ever come to an art of pure abstraction and show marked similarities to Kandinsky’s biomoiphic creations of the 1930s and 1940s.
Even, at that, one senses a certain painterly reserve about creating works
of art free of any reference to the world of thoughts and things. As can be seen in a photograph of Allen’s contribution to the Norwich Twenty Group Exhibition at Norwich Castle in 1968, he arranged a series of his dancing ?ame paintings as eight panels, around a central altar piece with Christian symbols.
Although Allen’s geometric paintings often have coldly analytic titles like Blue Form in Space I, they are more likely to strike viewers as futuristic toy space shuttles or strangely arresting, living objects like multi- colored mutant star ?sh and intergalactic birds of paradise. Or, maybe, just furniture piled up on the grand piano in the drawing room for spring cleaning. There are no complicated symbol systems to decipher. We look on these paintings
with child-like delight, as if admiring an odd assortment of brightly
colored objects, brought out for viewing from some secret psychic treasure trove. Biographer Hines believes Allen was able to create these delightfully diverse Norfolk canvases precisely because he preserved the wonder of a child
There must, certainly, have been a special gentleness and innocence cf spirit in this man, who, having no children of his own, celebrated the birth of niece,
Angela, by writing her a short theater piece, starring a snowdrop and a primrose. A1len’s cubist studies are not sharp-angled, vivisections of the human form. He never summons up the demons of his evil century or
even the ogres of the subconscious. The most grotesque art he produced were
strange gouache drawings in the 1950s of conch shell- creatures and drift wood gnomes. Not that there is anything particularly sentimental in his nature studies. His blossoms have something lushly rich and over ripe, as if plucked by moonlight from mysterious gardens. At a time when museum-goers are subjected to “shock art” or “anti- art,” it is refreshing to view “retro-art” that allows the viewer the now unfashionable experience of pure
Allen ?nally made his peace with Constable and Turner in the last
two decades of his Norfolk years. He gave up his Chelsea palette
knife and heavily piled-on impasto effects to apply thinner
layers of paint. A freer, abstract style of landscape painting
emerged, in?uenced, once again, by his pencil sketches, Where ?at
planes of color vibrate with decorative brush Work. In the last
landscapes Allen painted, his love for line is clearly visible in
the broad black brush strokes, enclosing areas of bright, contrasting color.
Allen’s place was in the countryside and by the sea. He never seemed
comfortable with urban scenes (except for one delightful canvas of a dog-
Walker stuck in the courtyard of a housing estate in the rain!.)When cities
do appear, especially in his later Works, they are usually glimpsed from a
distance or sketched in white or brown outline, multi-terraced, domed “paper
architecture” structures, looking like visions of the New Jerusalem beckoning
just over the horizon—echoes, once more, from his sketch books.
Allen was fascinated by what might be loosely termed
“dream-narrative” pictures, in which groups of people or
solitary ?gures are placed in exotic settings, as in Garden of the Annunciation, a Klee-like painting of rich botanical profusion Where the Virgin Mary, enclosed in a gated compound, turns in surprise toward her angelic visitor.
Sometimes his humans seem lost in the wildemess--a solitary man,
alone in a ?eld with a horse and two dogs or an irresolute hunter in a jungle,
trans?xed by what appears to be a leopard.
His ?gures barely seem aware of each other, as if acting out solo parts by rote in a dream scenario. In a canvas from the late 1960s, set against a
bright geometric backdrop, a tiny actor in red doublet searches for an audience to hear his monologue, while a woman in a top hat, walking a white dog, follows a goose toward a smiling carp (images, drawn from Klee’s 1924
Watercolor, Carnival in the Mountains). In another landscape of the same period, a man in yellow-and-white jerkin, next to a black cat, stares at a
blonde woman in a bright red heart-shaped blouse some
distance away, more intent on following a path, leading
out of the canvas. And just who might the tiny ?gure be,
perhaps, in pursuit of the same woman, coming out from
the city at the top of the hill? Allen invites viewers to
provide their own plot to the story. There is humor in
plenty—but infused with a feeling of melancholy.
For the Allens, book reading was a continuing school of education, and
they both dutifully ?lled notebooks with favorite quotations all their lives.
(In long hand—mind you——for there Was no such thing as a typewriter at
Giles Terrace!) Some time in the mid 1970s, as Allen’s health began to fail,
he started a series of “anthologies” of the couple’s favorite poems, works
from Shakespeare, W.B. Yeats, Gerard Manley Hopkins, T.S. Eliot and the
Wisdom Literature of the Bible, all meticulously copied out in notebooks
with illustrations pasted in--exquisite miniatures in ink, drawn in the spare,
pure style of the 1930 ?gure studies. These late line-drawings are peopled
with creatures, sprung from Allen’s fertile, child-like imagination -
entwined lovers, blossoming from a/singlevstem; plump, dancing bacchantes, trreading grapes; a beati?c Christ with crossed arms, looking down on a
turreted city, peopled with stickmen, bordered by a ?eld of sun?owers. God is
in his heaven, and all is Well--at least, in the world Allen has so beautifully
created for Floris.
During the Norfolk years, Allen maintained contact with the bigger art
world outside his studio in a back bedroom on the ?rst ?oor at Giles
Terrace. His ?les contain a letter, dated 1951, from the Birmingham City
Museum and Art Gallery, rather primly informing him that “we are not
contemplating any contemporary art shows...except for an open exhibition, rather on Royal Academy lines.” He did manage to sell some of his “Forms in Space” series, from the Norwich Twenty Group show, through the Oxford Gallery (one American buyer, requesting a “really small work” to take home with him.) Five other canvases, one of them of his garden themes,
found customers through the William Ware Gallery on Sloane Street. But if Allen had not completely dropped off the map for London buyers, he showed most of his later works in Norfolk galleries, where a major retrospective exhibition was held in the summer of 1969 at the Richard Bradley Atelier..
After Allen’s death in I977, Florence dedicated her remaining years to winning
recognition for her beloved Frank’s idiosyncratic brand of art, but by the 1980's,
tastes had changed. The economy was in a slump, along with the art market.
One gallery owner found Allen’s work “splendid” but felt her “clientele would
not be attracted to it.” The rejection notes, the well-intended suggestions, the
half-hearted tributes and some income from the occasional sale would continue
to trickle in, until Florence died in 1988.
Although a ?erce champion of her husband, Floris had no illusions about the ?ckleness of artistic fortune. In April 1978, as the ?rst anniversary of Frank Allen’s death approached, she copied out (in her own private notebooks) a poetic tribute to William Blake by Edmund Gosse,
“He Made A World His Own.”
They win who never near the goal.
They run who halt on wounded feet.
Art has its martyrs like the soul.
Its victors in defeat.
This seer’s ambition soared too far,
He sank on pinions backward blown
But, though he touched nor sun nor star,
He made a world his own.
Typically, Florence could not resist a brief addendum: “I can think of others like this.”
Not only did Frank Humphrey Allen create a world of his own during his Norfolk
years. He left it behind, gloriously grand and mysterious, relatively untouched
and intact, waiting to be explored. Perhaps, a younger generation, rushed too
soon from childhood to maturity, might ?nd Winsome echoes of the Star Wars
mythology on which they were raised in Allen’s oddly prescient “studies in
space” or sense something akin to music video-style narrative in his dream
landscapes. But, anyone, especially post twenty-someones, who yearn for something precious, gone missing, will feel a pleasant sense of recognition, viewing Allen’s art, even if it may just be the rediscovery of more innocent times when an artist illustrated volumes of poems for an audience of one--the woman he loved--frmly believing that to make just one beautiful thing with
his own hands had value in and of itself.
John Kohan is a retired TIME Magazine correspondent, now an artist with a studio in Paphos, Cyprus