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Saturday, 25 October 2014

Charles Ernest Oakley

He was an excellent designer and a superb teacher but all Charles Ernest Oakley ever really wanted to be was an artist. So successful was he at this that, in his later years, the Brampton-based painter received many commissions from Britain and abroad, travelling to the USA, Holland, France and Ireland. Some of his work was bought by art lovers on the other side of the world, in Australia and New Zealand.

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Eminent artist: Charles Oakley’s career took after a controversial exhibition in a Manchester gallery. After the publicity, it was a sell-out

This late flowering in a distinguished career came about after he won the prestigious Singer and Friedlander Sunday Times water colour contest in 1999 and he never looked back.

Mind you, he was not in the habit of looking back. He was something of an intellectual painter whose work often told stories that were not immediately obvious. His style changed over the years as he developed his work and pushed the boundaries.

Born in Urmston, he won a scholarship to Manchester Grammar School and there he stayed until 1943 when he arrived in the Lake District on holiday, before joining the army.

It was on this trip that he had an experience that was to affect his life. He was climbing Coniston Old Man when two planes collided and smashed into the fell, leaving one pilot dead and the other trapped in the wreckage.

For a long time this horrific picture stayed in his mind and eventually he produced a painting from memory – and realised that he wanted to be an artist.

He took his painting to the Slade School of Art in London and the principal offered him a place on the spot.

However, any career had to be put on hold when he joined the wartime army as an officer cadet in the Royal Artillery in 1943.

Part of his training took him to Queen’s University, Belfast, and then he was posted to India, where he was still serving at the time of partition and the vicious and bloody fighting between India and the new state of Pakistan.

Back in civilian life he took up his place at the Slade and won several prizes there.

He was on a youth hostelling trip when he met Ann Waddell, who was working at the Royal Oak, in Keswick. Her father had owned a woollen mill in Otterburn but she had been born at Heads Nook, near Carlisle, and it was love at first sight for Charles Oakley, who proposed straight away.

In 1952, he was appointed art master at the Eden School in Carlisle and it was there that he came to the notice of Ferguson Fabrics, the textile printing firm in the city, and was appointed their assistant head designer. He did this job for the next seven years, sometimes attending Paris fashion shows but he became bored and frustrated by routine work which he called ‘putting rose buds on knickers’ and he concentrated on his painting at every opportunity.

In 1957 he staged an exhibition of water colours at the Crane Kalman Gallery in Manchester and one of his paintings caused a considerable stir. It showed a Bayswater bedsit with a nude woman and two teacups at the bedside. One had lipstick marks on it and the other did not and the obvious inference made the headlines, with calls for the city’s chief constable to close the ‘immoral’ exhibition.

The exhibition was a sell-out. It had been opened by none other than L S Lowry, who bought one of the paintings which he then gave to the Salford Art Gallery.

It was some time after this exhibition success that Mr Oakley took a post as lecturer in fine art at the Belfast College of Art and, during the Ulster ‘troubles’, he sometimes painted graveyards, as well as landscapes and wrecks.

His paintings sold well and he exhibited both in the province and in the Republic of Ireland. Even so, lecturing was not sufficiently stimulating and he began making little models to stand in the boxes in front of his paintings, sometimes with doors, to create fascinating triptychs, some of which are in his home today. One features the World War One German fighter ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen.

After his time in Belfast he returned across the water to become principal lecturer in fine art at Newcastle Polytechnic, now the University of Northumbria, and while there he often took students to Amsterdam, where he came to revere the works of the Dutch masters.

He began to picture in his mind the interior of Vermeer’s house and he then painted what he imagined, often putting tiny copies of Vermeer’s own work on the walls. He went on to do something similar with the other favourite artists such as Stubbs, Winslow and Homer.

He included some of this work in an exhibition he staged at Pym’s Gallery in Belgravia and this was where things really took off. He sold virtually everything on show and, after 10 years there, resigned from his job at the polytechnic in 1984 to become a full-time artist, painting and model making at his home near Brampton.

His model-making took in beautifully crafted fighter aeroplanes as well as superbly detailed ships – but it all took second place as a hobby to his painting, which was always in water colours or acrylics. He rarely painted in oils as the smell made him feel sick.

Then there was his secret – an astonishing one for an artist of international repute. He was red-green colour blind, although he felt the handicap gave him a greater awareness of tone.

Mr Oakley, who was 82 when he died, leaves his wife, son, two daughters, and five grandchildren.

His funeral took place at Carlisle Crematorium. The Co-operative Funeral Service made the arrangements.

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