Art world mourns avant-garde painter who sought truth rather than fame
As well as his family, close friends, and fellow artists, every art lover in Penwith will be saddened to learn that painter Paul Feiler has died at the age of 95 in his Kerris home, which he once described as "the place I love most in the world".
One of the most important and noteworthy of the many post-war avant-garde artists who moved to West Cornwall in the 1950s, he remained a very private person.
Born in Frankfurt, he came to this country in the 1930s, studied at the Slade School of Art, where he first met fellow painter Bryan Wynter, and at the outbreak of the Second World War was interned and sent to Canada. Repatriated a couple of years later, he taught art at the combined colleges of Eastbourne and Radley and at the West of England College of Art where for several years he was its head of painting. He visited Cornwall in 1949 with his first wife June Miles, who was also a painter and the mother of their daughters Helen and Christine and son Anthony.
It was four years later that a successful solo show at the Redfern Gallery earned him enough money to buy the old chapel at Kerris where he was to spend the rest of his long life, most of which was with his second wife, the painter Catharine Armitage and their twin sons Adam and Hugo.
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I once said that antiquity and anonymity were fundamental features in Paul Feiler's life and he lived surrounded by ancient history and space on the hill at Kerris where the garden of his charmingly converted chapel was once part of the Kerris Roundago, an enclosure whose standing stones, according to antiquarian Borlase, "inspired those that entered with double sanctity".
For a long while he had a studio near Paul, a converted barn which was the first studio Stanhope Forbes had in Cornwall, and one which was later occupied by Bryan Wynter. When he took it over it was all but derelict and he restored it handsomely. Among the Greek and Roman artefacts on its shelves I recall seeing a newspaper cutting about Samuel Beckett and thinking it was a pointer to the anonymous side of the painter who, like the enigmatic Irish dramatist, held that "life is a big illusion" and "solitary and self-denying".
One who became a member of Newlyn Society of Artists in the 1950s, when Michael Canney was the presiding genius at Newlyn Art Gallery, Paul Feiler was also a member of Penwith Society of Arts in St Ives, and as well as continuing to exhibit at the Redfern Gallery he enjoyed solo shows from Bristol to London and was part of the celebrated 1985 St Ives at the Tate exhibition. He also exhibited abroad from Washington to Johannnesburg, Sydney to Shanghai, and is now represented in any number of public collections from Birmingham City Art Gallery to the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. He shared early shows with Patrick Heron, William Scott, Bryan Wynter and Peter Lanyon, of whom he said: "Peter was always very encouraging. We had a close relationship that was very important to me."
An artist who regarded his studio as a continuous testing ground where he tested himself against the impossible, and where the element of surprise made it all worthwhile, the paintings he made there were light years away from anything its first occupant – "the grand old man of Cornish painting" – could ever have envisaged, let alone paint. Indeed, they were seemingly a long way from his own earlier realistic Euston Road paintings, not to say his strong abstract Cornish landscapes of what might be called his middle period. Containing much of the mystery of the mandala, his later works had the fascination of an optical illusion, never quite what they at first seemed to be, accessible yet demanding.
He said: "Confrontation, there's no in between with them. Those who come here and get the message have to have them – the others prefer to look at the garden. You've got to be like everyone else to be different. I've never looked for style, never forced anything, just struggled to get things right."
Paul Feiler was an extremely happy man who had no need to pirouette on the stage of the art world. Someone once said to him that he ought to have been on the TV show What's My Line because no one would ever guess he was an artist. His reply was: "That's what I like. I'm nobody."
In view of his successful artistic career, that was as huge an understatement as saying that he will be greatly missed.
Paul Feiler's funeral service will be held at Paul Parish Church at noon tomorrow.