An English artist who joined the French Social Realist movement in the mid 1950s, James Taylor enjoyed success as a sensitive painter of urban views, especially architectural rooftops, before relocating to Ibiza, Spain, in the early 1970s. Since then his reputation in Britain seems to have declined, public collections in the UK holding only two Taylor paintings. His work deserves reconsideration as a significant contribution to French non-figurative art in the postwar years.
James Taylor was born in England in 1925. He initially trained at London’s Anglo-French Art Centre, founded by Alfred Rozelaar-Green, which operated in St John’s Wood from 1946 to 1951. Rozelaar-Green invited prominent French and British artists to lecture here, such as Fernand Léger, André Lhote, Henry Moore and Francis Bacon. Taylor subsequently studied with Léger in Paris. Here, he became associated with the La Jeune Peinture (Young Painting) movement that was centred around French painter Paul Rebeyrolle and espoused a Social Realist opposition to non-figurative painting. In 1957 the art critic for The Times analysed the contradictions within the new movement, in relation to Taylor’s art specifically:
The realist movement in France, as distinct from its manifestations in England or in Italy, was marked from its inception by a refusal to be hustled, for the sake of some new approach to subject-matter, from a characteristically Parisian enjoyment of the sensuous qualities of paint … One of those to be affected by it, and one of M. Rebeyrolle’s close associates in Paris, is an English artist, Mr. James Taylor … Mr. Taylor’s paintings, mainly of industrial subjects which imply some association with realism’s concern for what is, morally or socially considered, unpicturesque, are succulent objects whose aim, in visual terms, is to be picturesque at all costs.1‘Mr. James Taylor’, The Times, 20 Jun. 1957, p. 3.
Taylor participated in the La Nouvelle Vague exhibition at Galerie Framond in 1955 and, in the same year, was awarded the Prix de la Jeune Peinture. In 1959 he received the Grand Prix des Peintres Étrangers du Musée d’Art Moderne. Taylor held solo exhibitions at the Galerie Monique de la Groote, Paris, in 1956 and with London’s Lefevre Gallery on seven occasions between 1957 and 1969. Taylor’s early critical success was matched by strong sales of his work. In 1959 art writer G. S. Whittet noted in The Studio how
though only thirty-four, this young English artist who has lived and worked in France for several years has had the remarkable distinction of selling every picture he has exhibited either in France or in England.2G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 158, no. 798, Oct. 1959, p. 94.
When The house of Derain at Chambourcy (La Maison de Derain, Chambourcy), 1955, was acquired for the NGV in 1956, former Director Eric Westbrook remarked that ‘James Taylor has yet to make a reputation, but this would seem to be assured’. In Westbrook’s view
It is hard to say why Taylor’s modest picture impresses one except, rather lamely, that it is well-drawn, firmly constructed and beautifully controlled in colour. Here is a sensitive painter who is not being bundled into a search for novelty, and it significant that in choosing the house of the late André Derain as his subject, he pays an indirect tribute to the modern French artist who was more concerned with tradition than any of his contemporaries.3Eric Westbrook, ‘[Recent acquisitions]’, The Quarterly Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. X, no. 3, 1956, n.p.
The house of Derain at Chambourcy was exhibited in La Jeune Peinture de Paris (No. 52), an exhibition at London’s Marlborough Gallery in early 1956 devoted to the works of France’s young Social Realist painters, which critic Denys Sutton felt
recall some of the naturalist writers and painters at the turn of the century. On the whole, they are opposed to non-figurative painting, delight in sombre colours and fasten on to scenes that would provide an appropriate setting for the novels of Simenon; last but not least, many of them are politically engaged – to the Left.4Denys Sutton, ‘New Trend in Modern Painting?’, The Financial Times, 24 Jan. 1956, p. 2.
The Times (1956), observing how in this exhibition ‘the conventions of the present “realism” prevail, the rusty browns, the chalky whites and greys, the elaborated pigment, the mood of gloom or anxiety in which people, landscapes, or any common objects are shown in a state of devitalisation or dereliction’, noted that Taylor’s
pictures of architecture, landscape, and industrial subjects are drawn with some elegance and precision, but, as with so many of his colleagues here, the colour is little more than an added tint … This is a useful exhibition for anyone who wishes to acquaint himself with the progress of one element in the art of the moment, but those who would wish to discover among the best of these artists and the intentions of all of them a hope for the future of painting must be easily satisfied or exceptionally optimistic.5‘ “Realism” in French Painting’, The Times, 20 Jan. 1956, p. 3.
Writing for the Burlington Magazine (1956), however, Dennis Farr praised Taylor’s ‘four promising works’ in this exhibition that ‘impress by their air of detachment and cool colour’.6D. L. A. Farr, ‘Current and forthcoming exhibitions’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 98, No. 635, Feb. 1956, p. 62. The editor of The Studio (1956) G. S. Whittet, was also to support Taylor’s art at this time, admiring his ‘talent that is at once painterly and constructive’ and his feeling for the texture of pigment:
Here and there a patch of pigment is ambiguously placed – it could be a cloud or its meaning is qua patch of pigment and thus in touch with l’art autre and its attachment to the quality of paint as an attraction in itself.7G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 154, no. 774, Sep. 1957, p. 93.
Taylor’s The house of Derain depicted the home of French artist André Derain in Chambourcy, west of Paris. Derain, who had recently died in September 1954, was a prominent figure in the Retour à l’ordre (Return to order) movement that revived classicism and realism in French painting in the 1920s and 1930s. In choosing this subject, Taylor may well have sought to draw Derain back to the hearts of left-wing viewers. Derain’s reputation in the international art world had been badly damaged by his close relations with German artists and officials during the Nazi occupation of Paris and by his joining an artists’ visit to Germany in 1941 organised by Hitler’s favourite sculptor Arno Breker. Subsequently, Derain was branded a collaborator at the end of the Second World War and was ostracised from the art world.
Influenced by the nervous, spidery architectural form that predominated in Bernard Buffet’s views of Paris from this period, The house of Derain is a quietly lyrical painting that demonstrates an aspect of Taylor’s art that was beautifully described by G. S. Whittet:
Houses, roofs and chimneys have long attracted him with their fascinating silhouettes and ‘stepping’ of masses against the sky no less than the changes in textures and colours from stucco, brick, concrete and wood to tiles, slates and earthenware.8G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 158, no. 798, Oct. 1959, p.94.
Ted Gott, Senior Curator, International Art, National Gallery of Victoria
‘Mr. James Taylor’, The Times, 20 Jun. 1957, p. 3.
G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 158, no. 798, Oct. 1959, p. 94.
Eric Westbrook, ‘[Recent acquisitions]’, The Quarterly Bulletin of the National Gallery of Victoria, vol. X, no. 3, 1956, n.p.
Denys Sutton, ‘New Trend in Modern Painting?’, The Financial Times, 24 Jan. 1956, p. 2.
‘ “Realism” in French Painting’, The Times, 20 Jan. 1956, p. 3.
D. L. A. Farr, ‘Current and forthcoming exhibitions’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 98, No. 635, Feb. 1956, p. 62.
G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 154, no. 774, Sep. 1957, p. 93.
G. S. Whittet, ‘London commentary’, The Studio, vol. 158, no. 798, Oct. 1959, p.94