Peter White had a conventional upbringing, his father was a bank clerk and lived in Middlesex, London.
Peter studied at Wimbledon School of Art from 1941 to 1951 then for the next three years at The Royal College of Art. The trend in Fine Art at the time was for ‘Kitchen Sink’ style which he found dull so he switched to the stained glass department. The colours captivated him and the black lead lines used to fuse the glass together were something that influenced his paintings which were semi-abstractions fragmented and defined in a similar way.
Peter found living in shared lodgings in Notting Hill, with a view overlooking the market, jiving to the Humphrey Littleton band at the art school hops and experimenting with Mediterranean cuisine and he was ready for an exotic opportunity, he spotted in the back of a newspaper: ‘Art teacher wanted in Montego Bay!’
This was in 1956. Peter loved the banana boat voyage and wasted no time in getting acquainted with Jamaicans and expats on board. He fell in love with Jamaica and its people, not so much with the school teaching though; he was more in his element in adult education. To get through that ordeal he would go snorkelling at every opportunity, memorising the fish and coral he saw and putting it all down on paper. He used this work to design beautiful stained glass roundels later in life. It was during this period he met Marian (Blossom Foster). They met when he would be loaned out by Cornwall College for Boys to teach the girls at Montego Bay High. Peter was proud of his physical fitness, he swam for miles in the sea and cycled round the hilly terrain in the heat. They flouted the convention of the day with this interracial courtship. Other white Englishmen working in banks and the civil service had been barred by their employers from dating the local ladies, but colour prejudice was something Peter had no patience with and he was known in Jamaica for his gentlemanly ways and intense interest in all things Jamaican. He was to revisit the country several times after his return to Britain, even once making the trip on his own, after Blossom’s death.
THE BARDFIELD COMMUNITY
Back in the UK, Peter took up a position as Head of Art at Saffron Walden’s Friends School, 1958-1959, following which he became involved in the creative community of Great Bardfield. He lived there and assisted the print maker Michael Rothenstein. He then went on to work for artist Edward Bawden, 1961-1963 assisting in print making and mural painting. Richard remembers that Edward found Peter to be an excellent printmaker, trained to Michael’s exacting standards. He joined Edward at a time when he was working on huge linocuts of Brighton Pier and Liverpool Street station that were so large they had to be printed on the floor by stamping on them. He formed great friendships with Michael and Edward. He also knew the weaver Marianne Straub, artists Bernard Cheese and Sheila Robinson, Walter Hoyle, Stanley Clifford-Smith and Joan Glass. Friendships with Edward and his son Richard (who became a colleague at Braintree college too) and his family continued long after Peter left Bardfield. He also became friends with artists John Aldridge and George Chapman. Another job that Peter had was to help Richard in the 1960s with the design and construction of the mosaic in a swimming pool for photographer John Hedgecoe at Little Dunmow.
From 1961 to 1994, Peter taught art and art history at Braintree College of Further Education, adult education classes at Chelmsford and at Colchester Institute. He became friends with many of his students, and their work features in the Friend’s section of this exhibition. As a teacher of art practice he had high standards and wouldn’t let his students off with any corner cutting or fuzzy excuses. He wanted them to do justice to their talents and was keen for them to be based on a good grounding in draughtsmanship and an awareness of what the great artists had achieved before them. The house was groaning with art books. His tastes were broad: the Renaissance, JM Turner, Eduard Manet, Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Georgia O’Keefe, Mark Rothko, Bridget Riley and David Hockney. He could wax lyrical on them all, bringing them to life – a very good quality to have as an art teacher. He was always collecting colourful bits of fabric, fruit and interesting shaped green bottles for his evening class, still life arrangements for his students to paint. Peter cared deeply about the suffering of mankind and this is very much reflected in the designs for political posters. These reveal a powerful talent for illustrating the horrors of war in the linocut ‘poster’s Hiroshima and Refugee Year which he created in the 1970s. He also marked examination papers for the Cambridge Examination Board and the Associated Exam board from 1980 to 2003, which he enjoyed and was something he could do at home whilst suffering, as he often did with physical ill health and depression. He had one man shows at The Halesworth Gallery, The Octupus Gallery (in the Saffron Walden Friends School), Braintree Town Hall and The Quay Theatre, Sudbury. He also participated in mixed shows at the South London Gallery and St Albarns (1991) and at the Royal Watercolour Society in 2002.
His illness prevented him from exhibiting as often as he had in his early years. His work has been displayed in London at the Royal Academy Summer show in 1948, ‘53 and ‘55. He had also shown with the The London Art Group 1950, the New English Art club 1950, the Artists International Institution 1951, St George Gallery 1960 and Zwemmers Gallery 1960. In his beloved cottage near Felsted he made good use of his extensive library of art books. They were never just coffee table books to him. He spoke of Vincent Van Gogh as if he were an old friend. Peter died in Broomfield, Essex, not far from his beloved cottage near Felsted. He loved Essex landscapes and people; he always said Essex people were the salt of the earth. As he got older this sort of benign way of seeing the best in people only increased. Looking at his art books was the pleasure he could still enjoy – that and reminiscing, which he considered to be his main activity!
Extracts from an introduction in a catalogue of a posthumous exhibition of Peter White, written by Anne White, Peter’s daughter, 2019.