Arthur Pinion: A Portrait of the Artist as an Invisible Man

Re Pinion deceased [1965] Ch 85

In 1963, as Philip Larkin wrote, “between the end of the “Chatterley” ban and the Beatles’ first LP”, a now largely forgotten trial took place in the High Court in London. It was a civil not a criminal trial, decided by a judge not a jury, with a reasoned narrative judgment, not a verdict of guilty or not guilty. But like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, it was a trial in which the evidence of experts on art and its public value played a decisive role. The memorable four-letter word that echoes from the Chatterley trial is “fuck”. In Re Pinion, it is “junk” — the epitaph for a dead artist’s intended gift to the nation.

The artist, Arthur Pinion, had died at the age of 80 in the summer of 1961. In 1956, he had drafted his own “rambling and half coherent” will, “a farrago” containing a gift of

“…. my freehold studio 22A Pembridge Villas, London, W.11 to the National Trust with the pictures painted by myself and others, and my collection of antique furniture to be kept intact in the said studio and shown at an appointed time by the National Trust in a similar way to their other properties[1]

He revised this gift a month before his death to provide that if the National Trust were not willing to accept and carry out these conditions, his executors were to

“appoint a trust who will do so in a small way similar to that of the Soane Museum[2] in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.”

Any contents of the studio “not of an antique nature” were to be used to furnish a flat for a custodian of the intended museum, the proposed custodian being his sister or another member of his family.

22A Pembridge Villas was a single-storey structure originally built as an addition to No 22. Although Pembridge Villas, first laid out in the mid-19th century, was and is a street of spacious stucco-fronted houses, the studio at 22A was “undistinguished and shabby”. It was valued for probate in 1961 at £10,000 (about £200,000 now) for the development value of the site. The paintings and other contents of the studio were valued at £742 (about £15,000 now). Unsurprisingly, the National Trust was not interested.

The court had to decide whether the gift had sufficient public benefit to be valid as a charitable trust. The experts who gave evidence were distinguished public servants: Phillip Brutton James CBE, secretary of the Museums Association and Herbert Cecil Ralph Edwards CBE, adviser on works of art to the Ministry of Works. The judge treated them with deference, and having heard their evidence and the advocacy for the Attorney-General arguing for a valid charitable trust, and for Arthur Pinion’s sister, Edith, who would otherwise inherit his estate, arguing against one, he hesitantly decided that the trust should be upheld, even though it did not measure up to the experts’ idea of what a museum should be. Edith Pinion appealed. The Court of Appeal agreed with the experts that there was “no useful object to be served in foisting upon the public this mass of junk” . The studio and its contents were sold and the proceeds distributed to Edith, herself by then an elderly woman. She died only two years after the Court of Appeal’s judgment, with little chance to enjoy whatever comforts her inheritance brought her.

The will and the judgments give some idea of what was in the Pembridge Villas studio, and of Arthur Pinion as a man who appeared to have overvalued both his own talents, and the significance of association with a more distinguished family name. As one of the Court of Appeal judges suggested, his intention was not to create an educational museum so much as to “perpetuate his own name and the repute of his family”.

Arthur proposed the preservation of his own paintings, including

“ …my copies of portraits of the Hyde family to be kept together with the original portrait of Edward Hyde First Earl of Clarendon by Lely and the early 17th century portrait of Hamnet Hyde, both of which formerly hung in Hyde Hall, Hyde, Cheshire, and mentioned in Eurwakers East Cheshire. Also . . . the portrait I painted of George Herbert Hyde Villiers, Earl of Clarendon, K.G., G.C.M.G., G.C.V.O., when he was Lord Hyde in 1911. Also the portrait of his grandmother, Caroline Dowager Countess of Normanton …”

And

“Among the furniture I particularly wish to be retained along with my pictures in the studio are the three needlework chairs 1730–40 done by Penelope Hyde and the card table en suite formerly in Hyde Hall, Hyde, Cheshire, and the carved oak chair with initials I.H.R.H. 1676 formerly in Hyde Hall, Denton, and handed down through each generation to myself. Also … the silver tea and coffee service with Hyde Crest formerly belonging to our grandmother, Ann Watson, also the silver cream jug with her maiden name initials A.B. on it. Also the silver cup won by our father William Henry Pinion. Also the cabinet containing collection of old china, ivories, miniatures etc.”

Mr Brutton James told the court that the collection was worthless and had no educational value whatsoever. He was particularly scathing about Arthur Pinion’s acquisitions. “I would have expected that a person with the testator’s voracious appetite for bric-à-brac would occasionally have acquired some pieces of mediocre quality, but that has not proved to be the case.” The furniture “could not have been of a lower quality”. And the silver tea and coffee service with the Hyde Crest “is a perfect example of the tastelessness and ugliness of Victorian silver of this date [1895]”.

Mr Edwards said: “The pictures consist of [Arthur’s] own works, nudes and portraits, which by any recognised standard can only be described as atrociously bad.” He was sure that the so-called Lely portrait of the first Earl of Clarendon was not genuine. As for the furniture “ . . . there are a dozen or so genuine English and Continental pieces of the 17th and 18th centuries which, perhaps, might be acceptable as a gift to a minor provincial museum — notably, three 18th century English single chairs covered with contemporary embroidery.” It was he who introduced the word “junk” to describe the contents of the studio. Both agreed that Arthur Pinion was “an inconceivably bad academic artist” and not a revolutionary ahead of his time as Van Gogh had been. Unlike the experts who gave evidence in the “Chatterley” trial, Mr Brutton James and Mr Edwards appeared to readily share with the judge a patrician language of discernment of aesthetic and educational value. Yet there is also something reminiscent of Edward Lear’s Victorian nonsense poem The Courtship of the Yonghy-Bonghy-Bo — Two old chairs, and half a candle/One old jug without a handle/These were all his worldly goods in the solemn forensic discussion of how many old chairs might justify the creation of a permanent exhibition of them.

Arthur Pinion was not in fact the dilettante gentleman artist connected with a distinguished family that the judge believed him to be. He had been born in December 1880 and christened Arthur Watson (his mother’s maiden name) Pinion early the following year at St Thomas’s, Heaton Norris, the church where his parents had married in December 1879. Heaton Norris was a rapidly industrialising suburb of Stockport, where the farms and green fields running down to the banks of the Mersey that Arthur’s grandparents would have known in their youth were by 1880 replaced by railway lines and cotton mills. Arthur’s mother, Elizabeth, had been born in Heaton Norris in 1845, and her mother’s family, the Benisons, had been there for generations. By the mid-19th century there were several Benisons engaged in the cotton trade. Arthur’s maternal grandfather, James Lowe Watson, was a cotton spinner at the date of his marriage in 1835, and a cotton waste dealer at the date of his daughter’s marriage in 1879. Arthur’s father, William Henry Pinion, was neither a native of north-west England, nor involved in the cotton trade, but came from Richmond in Surrey. Like his father, he had been a joiner as a very young man, but had become a clerk in the Bank of England, which then had an office in King Street, Manchester. Arthur’s sister was born in April 1882 and christened Edith May Pinion at St Thomas’s later that year. The censuses of 1881 and 1891 show the family living at different addresses in Heaton Norris, in houses which appear to have been mid-late Victorian semi-detached houses of no great ostentation. William Pinion died at the age of 40 in 1893, leaving an estate valued at only £105 to his widow, although she may also have had a Bank of England widow’s pension, and by 1901 she and her two children had moved to a smaller Victorian terraced house at St Alban’s Avenue, Heaton Norris. In that year’s census she was described as a widow living on her own means, and Arthur, then 20, as a warehouseman in cotton goods.

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Map of Heaton Norris, Stockport 1893 — the Pinion family were then living at 34 Tatton Road South, west of the railway line and just to the north of the area shown on the map
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Spindle mill, Heaton Norris built in 1892

How did this young working man living with his widowed mother and younger sister on the outskirts of a provincial city become an independent artist in Edwardian London? In 1902, when he was 22, Arthur had obtained a scholarship for four years’ study at the Patrick Allan Fraser College of Arts at Hospitalfield, Arbroath, on the east coast of Scotland. The College, an independent residential art school, was then a new foundation, the memorial creation of Patrick Allan and his wife, the heiress Elizabeth Fraser, who in the 1850s had remodelled her ancestral home and built a picture gallery in it. It is now considered one of Scotland’s most important Victorian rooms, and was no doubt influential on Arthur Pinion’s future idea of a memorial gallery. In 1907 one of his paintings was included in an exhibition of students’ work in Arbroath, and singled out for praise by a local journalist as a contribution to a “very fine collection”.

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Hospitalfield, Arbroath — gallery interior © Patrick McKee (CC)

Whilst Arthur was at Hospitalfield, his mother died at home in Heaton Norris, in September 1904, leaving an estate of about £1,400 (about £150,000 now), presumably to her two children. By 1909 Arthur had moved to London and acquired the studio at 22A Pembridge Villas which he was to own for the rest of his life. By 1911 Edith was also living in Bayswater and they remained in proximity to each other until Arthur’s death. Both had by the time they moved to London re-styled their names. Arthur had been admitted to Hospitalfield as Arthur Hyde Pinion, and this was the name he used for the rest of his life. Edith called herself Edith Marie Hyde Pinion although she seems to have adhered less firmly to this fiction than her brother. Despite the apparent connection with the Hyde family on which Arthur put so much weight,there is no genealogical evidence of any kinship at all. It seems more likely that the chairs and silverware regarded with such disdain by the experts at the trial had come into the Benison family either as a gift from one of the Hydes to a domestic servant or tradesman ancestor, or had been purchased on a sale of outmoded contents from Hyde Hall and handed down as Benison heirlooms burnished with a spurious connection with the Hydes ever since.

Arthur had some success as an artist both in the north of England and in London between leaving Hospitalfield and the outbreak of the First World War. In 1906 he painted a portrait of James Watts, a grandson of a mayor of Manchester and brother-in-law of Agatha Christie, and in 1908 he exhibited in the inaugural London Salon of the Allied Artists’ Association Ltd, a group set up by the then art critic of the Sunday Times as an intended breakaway from the conservatism of the New English Art Club, following a model of European secessionist art movements of the time. The Salon was held in the Royal Albert Hall, a vast display of about 3,000 paintings, some of which (those by contemporary Russian artists) were vigorously scorned by the critics. In 1909 and in 1913 Arthur exhibited in the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition, and in 1912 in an exhibition in Southport in which his “beautiful” portrait of one of the Scots aristocrats he had encountered at Hospitalfield was specifically mentioned by a local critic.

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Portrait of James Watts 1906 by Arthur Pinion © Stockport Heritage Services . It is impossible to properly judge painting quality from a reproduction. The mottled paint on James Watts’ face and hands may have been a skin condition, or more likely attributable to chemical instability in the pigment itself. The technical quality of the picture certainly does not seem to deserve the condemnation of Pinion’s work as “atrociously bad”.
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Portrait of a Lady by Arthur Hyde Pinion, date unknown — sold at Bonhams, Chester in April 2008

It isn’t difficult to imagine Arthur Pinion at that date as a character drawn from the pages of John Galsworthy’s sequence of novels, The Forsyte Saga, which chronicles the lives of a London upper middle-class family between 1886 and 1926, and in which contemporary painting, changing taste and connoisseurship play a significant role. Arthur even inhabited the same streets as Galsworthy’s characters, for his studio in Pembridge Villas was not far from the fictional home in the Bayswater Road of Timothy, one of the longest-lived of the mid-Victorian Forsytes, and his three unmarried sisters. Galsworthy’s description of the “lame duck” artists, “the underdogs and budding ‘geniuses’ of the artistic world”, financially supported and promoted in the gallery owned by June Forsyte, could perfectly apply to the under-appreciated Russians of the 1908 London Salon. The unlovable protagonist, Soames Forsyte, is a collector of pictures from the beginning to the end of the narrative, at first conventional in his late 19th century tastes, but by 1920 more adventurous in his purchase of modern European art than any real-life contemporary in Britain, buying Gauguin and early Matisse even before the First World War[3], and fully cognisant of the way in which ownership of important paintings contributed to an owner’s reputation whilst alive and provided for a gift to the nation on his death. But even Soames at the end of his life in 1926 knows that “with all this modern taste, the nation may not want them”.

In November 1914, following the outbreak of the First World War, Arthur enlisted as a private with 6th Battalion of Queen’s Royal Regiment (West Surrey), an infantry brigade, and by June 1915 was in the trenches of the Western Front in France. In the second week of July 1916, fortunate to have survived the terrible attrition of the Battle of the Somme, he was wounded at the Battle of Albert, which formed part of the larger Somme offensive, and discharged as no longer physically fit for war service.

What happened in the years between then and his death in 1961 is largely conjecture. There is no further record of any activity as an artist, and on a 1939 civilians’ register he is described as a “retired artist” at the age of 59. Neither he nor Edith ever married or had children, nor moved away from the area around Bayswater and Notting Hill. It is possible that Arthur’s wartime experiences caused such physical or psychological damage as to make any return to art impossible. He may also have been unable, whether because of his war wound, or through inflexibility of outlook and resistance to new ideas, to keep up with changes in taste and developments in art after the either the First or Second World War. His formation as a young man as a society portraitist, which might have brought him both a living and posthumous renown in the nineteenth century was entirely superseded by the middle of the twentieth century. What was he as a middle-aged man and survivor of the Somme to make of a painting like Picasso’s Guernica? The fate of Arthur Pinion’s paintings and the contents of his studio again finds a fictional echo in the Forsyte Saga. After his uncle Timothy’s death in 1920, Soames oversees the dispersal of the contents of his home in the Bayswater Road and reflects

“Not one piece of furniture, no picture or porcelain figure appealed to modern taste. The humming birds had fallen like autumn leaves when taken from where they had not hummed for sixty years.”

Knowing more of Arthur Pinion’s life than can be read in the pages of the law reports which are his only memorial, it’s impossible not to feel greater sympathy for him than on first encounter with the memorably lacerating prose of the judgments. To be rendered both physically (and perhaps mentally) damaged and aesthetically obsolete by the First World War was a fate which many would have found it impossible to avoid. And the absurd vanity and sycophancy which characterised his intended museum and its contents is easier to forgive both in the light of that life history, and the knowledge of the provincial lower middle class background which he strenuously attempted to conceal in pursuit of his art.

Perhaps the last word should come from his sister Edith, quoted in the Daily Mirror at the time of the Court of Appeal judgment in 1964 as saying

“A museum would have been a waste of money — but I think my brother’s paintings are marvellous.”

[1] The National Trust had only started to acquire houses and art collections in the 1930s. Arthur Pinion would probably have been aware of the status value adhering to country houses which had been given to it in the period following the Second World War.

[2] The former home of 18th century architect John Soane, now a museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London https://www.soane.org/

[3] The Soames Forsyte Collection: A Study in Fictional Taste — Leonee Ormond, The Burlington Magazine (Nov 1977) vol 119 p 752

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English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity

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