New Acquisition: Adrian Ryan's 'Coombe Valley Factory'

New Acquisition: Adrian Ryan's 'Coombe Valley Factory'
Penlee House Gallery and Museum

By: Louise Connell
Added: 21 August 2015

With the help of The Friends of Penlee House and matched by a grant from The V&A Purchase Grant Fund, Penlee has purchased 'Coombe Valley Factory', a large oil painting, dating from 1945 by Adrian Ryan (1920 – 1998), for £7,280. The picture will be on display in Penlee’s forthcoming exhibition, ‘The Bigger Picture’ from 12 September to 21 November 2015.

Adrian Ryan was described by fellow artists Sven Berlin as ‘the painter’s painter’ and by Francis Bacon as 'the best kept secret in the art world'. Although he earned the respect of his peers, Ryan’s style of figurative painting was out of step with the Twentieth Century appetite for modernism and St Ives-based abstract art. It has been said of Adrian Ryan that, by the age of twenty three he was handsome, rich and already quite well-known and by the age of sixty-three he had three wives, three daughters, no family fortune and was almost unheard of among the art buying public. Ryan's paintings, however, are present in regional and national collections including Manchester City Galleries, The Atkinson Southport, Tate, The Government Art Collection and the National Museum of Northern Ireland and there has been a steady rise in interest in his work over the past 10 years, including the publication of Julian Machin's biography 'Adrian Ryan: A Rather Rum Life' in 2009.

Adrian Ryan was born in Hampstead London and attended Eton College. He studied at the Slade School of Art from 1938 – 1940 during its wartime residency at Ruskin College, Oxford and later taught at Goldsmiths, while still living in Cornwall. His contemporaries at the Slade included Patrick Heron, Bryan Wynter, Paul Feiler and his future wife Peggy Rose, whom he married in 1941. In 1943 he had his first selling show at Redfern Gallery and forged close friendships around this time with Lucien Freud, Augustus John, John Minton and Sven Berlin. In 1962, he was elected Chair of the Newlyn Society of Artists and was a regular exhibitor at the Royal Academy, with three works 'on the line' that same year. His friendship with Sven Berlin lasted a lifetime. In 1994 Berlin wrote,

“[Adrian]... always seemed to be smiling at a joke he never got round to completely telling - it was life. Always generous and kind, a fine painter with a touch of Soutine that betokened a macabre streak. He could paint a calf's head fresh from the butcher, day after day, until it was teeming with maggots, yet produce a landscape as gentle to the eye as a Ruysdael. A painter whose every brushstroke is the centre of the universe he is creating”. Sven Berlin from ‘The Coat of Many Colours’, 1994.

 Adrian Ryan’s work during 1940s was influenced by his friend Sir Matthew Smith (1879 – 1959); both artists shared an admiration for the bold colour and free, expressive painting style of the French Fauve artists including Henri Matisse and André Derain. Ryan was also an admirer of Amedeo Modigliani (1884 – 1920) and the Russian Expressionist artist Chaim Soutine (1893 – 1943). However, Ryan was never a slave to any particular style or movement: when given the choice to live at the farthest tip of Cornwall with his wife and two daughters in 1945, Ryan chose Mousehole over its more famous neighbour St Ives. Ryan could never bear the bickering of St Ives artists and was happy to be at that remove. He was "in the club and yet he wasn't" remarked the painter Guy Roddon. This artistic detachment was recognised by his patron Eardley Knollys, who wrote, “Adrian Ryan is an objective painter remarkably free from contemporary obsessions. His eyes are directed towards the forms and landscapes we all know, and he is more concerned with their reality than with the reality of his own responses to them. However, in looking at his work, we soon realise that he likes what he sees, he likes a contrast of pure colour, he likes the feel of paint. When he is most successful his pleasure in the visual world becomes infectious and the whole canvas seems to be bursting into flower under the spectator's eye.” Art News and Review, October 8th, 1949.

 In 'Coombe Valley Factory', Adrian Ryan shows his interest in French 'plein air' post-Impressionist artists such as Lucien Pissaro in its simple, solid structural forms and the loose painting of the leaves on the trees. It is equally interesting from a social history point of view, as this is the only painting known to be in existence of the factory on the Stable Hobba Industrial Estate in Newlyn Coombe. The factory was originally built by the Sanatogen Company in 1909. Sanatogen, which manufactured a popular health drink, chose the site because of access to the richest cow's milk they could find. It eventually closed in 1931, apparently due to a shortage of milk. That same year, Cornish Food Products took over the site under the management of Gordon Fenton where they converted fish products into fertiliser. There were several complaints in ‘The Cornishman’ newspaper about the offensive smell from the factory (even a petition from local residents in the nearby hamlet of Larrigan) which shows how pervasive it must have been! An indication of the rendering process is shown in this picture by the smoking chimney. Perhaps the smell of the site put artists off visiting it; Ryan has endowed this unpopular place with rustic charm, as if the scene was painted in sunny Provence. However the strong horizontal in the foreground of the Cornish hedge and the three chimneys anchor it firmly to Stable Hobba, although all evidence of these buildings has disappeared.