One day in 1980, a talented curator at the Tate gallery set out for the village of Monkton Deverill on the River Wylye in Wiltshire, south-west England. His destination was Hill Barn, an isolated and distinctive house with two tall chimneys on a hill overlooking the village.
Inspired by historical French architecture, the house had been designed and built in the 1940s by its occupant, an obscure octogenarian artist who had not painted a single picture for three-and-a-half decades. The curator hoped to secure the blessing of this recluse – a decorous throwback to the Edwardian era who once told a reporter, “On August 4, 1914, civilisation came to an end” – for a retrospective of his work.
Two years later, the artist’s first one-man exhibition opened at the Tate, which held the national collection of British art, shortly before his 88th birthday. “Amazing, isn’t it?” the curator, Richard Morphet, who is now 78, told me recently.
The artist’s name was Meredith Frampton. Today, thanks in large part to Morphet’s efforts, Frampton’s icily sublime and eerily intense neo-classical portraits of the 1920s and 30s enjoy a degree of prominence. His Portrait of a Young Woman (1935), for instance, which depicts a beautiful auburn-haired woman wearing a floor-length ivory silk dress, can be seen on the walls of Tate Modern in London. Read more