News | From the archive: The Guardian obituary of Charles Duranty (January 18th 2006)

Poet and painter with an eye for East Anglian landscapes

Charles Duranty, who has died of pneumonia at the age of 87, was a poet, a publisher’s representative and a self-taught, self-deprecating painter who nevertheless sold more than 1,500 of his unmistakable water-colours over a span of 30 years. They were always imaginary East Anglian landscapes, with huge fields and somewhere a tiny animal, traction engine or human figure to give the picture a focus and, quite often, its title. One 1984 exhibit was called “I tell you it’s going to rain, it’s as plain as the nose on your face” - and yes, over the golden cornfield the sullen light of an impending storm can just be sensed.
Duranty was born in Romford, Essex, into a family which had prospered in the East India trade. His grandfather had shooting rights over 10,000 acres and a private box at Aintree, but had fallen on hard times. His father had joined the army during the Boer war and progressed up through the ranks to a commission and a Military Cross in the first world war. In civilian life he became manager of Tower Bridge wharf in London’s old dockland.

The young Charles was sent to St Lawrence college, Ramsgate, a newly created public school and he earned his place in the hockey first XI. Illness, however, left him medically unfit for military service when the second world war broke out, and he was drafted to work on a farm at Rayne, near Braintree. The farmer put him in charge of a herd of cattle, and Duranty acquired his lasting passion for the “vast cornfields and low horizons” of Essex and Suffolk.

After the war he was determined to become a poet and had verses printed in small magazines, anthologies and the Listener. This pursuit was crowned with the publication, in 1954, of a collection, Audition, which was reprinted.

Meanwhile, Duranty had set up as a freelance journalist, filing everything from art-house film reviews to the results at London greyhound tracks. He moved to more gentlemanly employment as a publisher’s sales rep. He worked for several houses, the last and longest spell with a firm whose idiosyncrasies matched his own.

This was Duckworth, housed in an old piano factory in Camden and run by the remarkable husband-and-wife team of Colin Haycraft and Alice Thomas Ellis. Their list ranged from the novels of Beryl Bainbridge, who had been an employee before she burst into print herself, to learned tomes on animal husbandry and ecology. By now a celebrated character in the book world, Duranty airily left the provinces to others. He would concentrate on the bookshops he knew and liked in London. Somehow he succeeded in persuading them to order the most daunting of offerings - one on Sheep and Man weighed in at 4lb - and both the Haycrafts and Bainbridge held him in high esteem.

In 1953 Duranty had married Vivian Marguerite Hadaway, a Canadian he first glimpsed waiting at a bus-stop. He maintained that a career as an artist only occurred to him when, in 1962, he and Vivian moved into their newly built house in Merrow, near Guildford, and he had no money to buy pictures for the walls. Though he had been thrown out of art classes at school, he declared he would paint some himself.

He started as he would go on, working from memory and imagination, putting on the paint with all sorts of improvised brushes, rags and pallet knives, and steadfastly buying cheap, students’ colours. In due course he was invited to participate in an exhibition of Seven Surrey Artists in Guildford; to his surprise, he sold three paintings, and turned professional overnight.

In London, he exhibited at Roland Browse & Delbanco and Heal’s Mansard Gallery. He was a regular in the annual Artists of Today and Tomorrow shows mounted by the New Grafton, where he had a one-man show in 1970. He also had one-man’s at the Leicester Galleries (1969), Heal’s Mansard Gallery (1970) and at the Thackeray, in Kensington, regularly between 1971 and 1992. He liked to mutter that his high sales were due to his prices being lower than those of other artists, but it was mainly because he turned out a higher proportion of small works, some only a few inches square. His work is represented in private collections all over the world, one or two public galleries in Britain and in the Government Art Collection.

In 1992 he ceased painting as abruptly as he had begun, devoting himself instead to his remaining passions - cultivating his garden and continuing his pretence at being a curmudgeonly old pessimist. In truth, he was a kind and amusing fellow who kept in touch with his friends through long letters in immaculate italic script. He enjoyed good pubs and food, and though he claimed to hate travel, he and Vivian never missed their annual visit to Aldeburgh.

His pictures hang in the Wentworth hotel there and Vivian, who died in 2000, is commemorated by a seat in the grounds. They had no children.

Philip Purser The Guardian January 18th 2006