John Downton

1906–1991

Biography

John Downton (1906–1991) was an English artist, philosopher, musician, and poet.

Born at Erith. Kent, Downton drew well from an early age. At age fifteen he won the youth silver medal of the Royal Drawing Society. He was educated at Queens' College, Cambridge (1925–1928), first in English and then in Art History, and then trained as a painter at the Slade. Downton played the violin all his life, was often invited to give performances, and always participated in the fortnight-long Grittleton Summer School of Music in Malvern, Worcestershire. He also wrote books, such as The Death of Art (1937) and Craftsmanship, Art and Criticism (1993). But it is his paintings for which he is now chiefly remembered. His main subject was young girlhood, rendered in the manner of the Italian old masters and with the tempera technique that had been revived by the Birmingham Group.

Both his subject matter and his techniques were deeply unfashionable during most of his adult life, and he ceased to exhibit after the start of the Second World War, during which he was a conscientious objector, working on the land in Shropshire and Pitlochry, Scotland. He never married, and lived mostly in Cambridge. On his death, all his work passed to The Downton Trust.

A major retrospective exhibition and catalogue was produced in 1996, and the exhibition toured the UK. His three main masterpieces are: The Battle (1935, now in Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery); Portrait of a Girl (1938, now in The Tate); Nora Russell (1935, location unknown).

There is an annual John Downton Award for Young Artists, given to those attending secondary schools in the county of Kent.

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