An exhibition organised by Chappel Galleries for Cartwright Hall, Bradford

26th July 2008 - 7 December 2008
Cartwright Hall, Lister Park, Bradford BD9 4NS


As a young wood engraver or later as a painter producing large canvases, Barrett consistently produced singular and often disturbing images.

What is the meaning of these assemblages of clowns, skulls, candles, chairs, scissors…? The picture titles of jam-pot simplicity, give little away.




Two Farmworkers

Deserted House with Two Jeering Characters

Man in Trees

Man and Plant

King Herod and the Cock

The Painter

Figures (The Good Samaritan)

Family of Chairs

Family House

King and Candle

Fallen Chair


Chairs and Men



Table and Chairs

Bread and Knife

Breadknife and Teaspoons

Jug and Bread

Jug and Papers


Paper and Candle

Boots, Jug and Drawing
pencil 1979

Man and Wheelbarrow
pencil 1973

Breakfast Things
ink 1970

Portrait of Unsuccessful Prophet
pencil no date




Roderic Barrett was one of the most distinctive artists working in Britain in the twentieth century whose importance has yet to be appreciated. He is the opposite of the commercial painter of pretty pictures that fill a gap in the sitting room wall and convey their message in a glance. The Greeks had a saying that “The beautiful things are difficult”. Barrett’s pictures are difficult for anyone seeking easy interpretation, but their reward can be powerful memories.

The human condition is Barrett’s subject and his view of it is often bleak and melancholic. For a man of his gentle nature, a socialist, pacifist and conscientious objector who experienced the horrors of World War II London bombing as a volunteer helper, this is not surprising. It left him with impressions, including a scepticism about organised religion, that fed into his images. The shadow of the nuclear bomb, the Vietnam war and the ups and downs of domestic life also strongly influenced his pictures. These are peppered over the years with a huge range of personal motifs: bicycles, blankets, buckets, candles, clowns, coffee pots, jugs, ladders, mothers and children and skulls are just a few of them.

How can they be interpreted? Should we even attempt to do so? Knowing a bit about Roderic’s nature, his upbringing and life in the country plus his frequent necessary visits to London to teach, I suspect it is not difficult to divine the meaning of the painting City Road, its diminutive figures beset by aggressive and apparently conflicting directional road signs. Similarly, in Candles for Dead Friends, it seems not unreasonable to assume that the differentsized candles represent those he had known who had died young or old. Hugh Barrett, who was latterly very close to his brother, told me that he believed that Roderic’s chairs represented people, upset chairs an argument.

Although Roderic’s symbols had a profound significance for him, he was always reluctant to put into words what these objects or a particular picture meant. Those closest to him give us a few clues. His daughter Kristin recalls that “He did like order in his life”. His son Mark emphasises that Roderic was primarily concerned with the painting itself, with design, form and balance. And Roderic’s widow Lorna says that although objects could be “very meaningful to him”, they were at times “quite accidental. He just wanted a dot here or a bit of something there”. Hugh remembered that Roderic “always said he didn’t embark upon a painting until he had at least two years thinking about it”, so getting the form right was crucial.

Roderic’s friend, the art historian, the late Thomas Puttfarken, insisted that while Roderic had admired the abstraction of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, his own work was “decidly not abstract”, that “there was never such a thing as mere formalism” underlying it. Visiting the artist after several weeks, Puttfaken “noticed that the figure of a little girl had been moved several inches closer to the left hand border. His explanation for this was simple. ‘I looked at her for some time and thought that she didn’t want to be there.’ For him the “formal’ positioning of each figure and object in an overall whole was decisively dependent upon their emotional demands within their pictorial content.”

In her book The Day of Reckoning, Mary Clive recalls how about 100 years ago every summer’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition would include “a problem picture. Crowds stood in front of it, speculating on the meaning.” It is to be hoped that crowds will speculate on the meaning of Roderic’s pictures in this exhibition. Whatever their conclusions, they will be enriched by the experience.

David Buckman


Chappel Galleries, Essex are very pleased to be instrumental in organising this exhibition.

RODERIC BARRETT 1920-2000 26th July – 7 December 2008, Cartwright Hall, Lister Park, Bradford BD4 9NS
Telephone 01274 431212
Exhibition open to the public between the following hours:
Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm, Sunday 1pm to 5pm.Closed Monday except Bank Holidays

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