David Maccoby

Abstract Expressionist noted for his surreal and lyrical romanticism


My uncle, the artist David Maccoby, who has died in Leeds, aged nearly 96, was the younger brother of my father, the Jewish historian and biblical scholar Hyam Maccoby. David was the youngest of a family of three girls and two boys born to a deeply Orthodox Jewish family with rabbinic roots on both sides.

David’s father Ephraim Meyer Maccoby was the top mathematics graduate at Cambridge but refused offers of professorships so that he would have time for religious Talmudic studies. He taught mathematics at the Bede Grammar School in Sunderland, which Hyam and David attended. After Hyam’s birth, in March, 1924, doctors warned that if his mother had another child, she would become deaf. David was an unplanned baby less than a year later, and his mother did indeed become deaf. David was always affected by a sense of rejection by his father, because of his mother’s deafness.

My grandfather taught both sons Hebrew and the Talmud from the age of four. Hyam excelled at these subjects, but David hated them: every time he made a mistake in Hebrew, his authoritarian father would hit him over the head. In later life, Hyam wrote many books on the study of Jewish-Christian relations. In contrast, David became an atheist and communist rebel – and having developed an early talent for painting — dedicated his working life to his art.

In 1941, aged 16, David left school and studied painting at the Sunderland College of Arts and Crafts. Two years later he joined the Royal Navy for active service in the Second World War. He took part in the Battle of Walcheren in 1944 at the age of 19; his ship nearly sank while sailing back under orders to Portsmouth after being under heavy enemy fire. The ship’s crew was collectively awarded the George Cross for bravery. After the war his detailed 1943 painting — Ratings’ Mess (together with a drawing — Study for Ratings’ Mess) were accepted into the Imperial War Museum’s art collections.

David studied at the Chelsea School of Art between 1946 and 1948. Despite having a painting and drawing accepted by the Imperial War Museum and another by the prestigious London Group, he failed his diploma, dashing his hopes of becoming an art teacher. In the 1970s he belatedly received his diploma and an apology from the art school which admitted that, with other highly gifted students of his year, he had been failed for being too avant-garde. It was far too late, by then, for him to enter the teaching profession.

After leaving Chelsea School of Art David stayed in Chelsea, living in an archetypal artist’s garret and surviving on odd jobs, then taking months off to work with single-minded dedication at his painting. He became known for remarkable character portraits, in particular a painting of his landlady — her work-worn, lugubrious face contrasting with the luminously-painted feather in her purple hat and the glowing green jewel in her brooch on her bright orange jumper.

But from the mid-1950s onwards, he became fascinated by the new Abstract Expressionism movement, which harked back to the artistic liberation of the early 20th century. He loved the free, vibrant and optimistic atmosphere of 60s Swinging London, with the Chelsea artistic scene at its centre — and his abstract paintings celebrate liberated cosmic energies.

Between the late 1950s and the late 1960s, he produced many abstract works expressing his unique vision. One art dealer said : “He became famous for lyrical romantic expressionism with a hint of surrealism”. Yet, though his abstract paintings have a certain psychedelic quality, he never took drugs. He told me that he didn’t need to. He insisted that, spontaneous though his abstract paintings appeared, every last dot and brush-stroke was essential to the organic whole. He also warned that abstract painting was far more difficult than figurative painting and said no-one should attempt abstract painting who had not first been thoroughly grounded in traditional techniques. One critic described David’s abstract work as “order in disorder” — apparently impulsive and chaotic but at the same time conveying a sense of poise, mastery and control.

Between 1949 and 1967 he exhibited with the Artists’ International Association, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and the Royal Society of British Artists, among others, and from 1954 to 1970, he held a series of one-man shows: in Paris, in London, including the Ben Uri Gallery, and in New York.

He developed a technique that combined abstract art with portrait-painting — his masterpiece in this form is a portrait of Bertrand Russell (now in private possession in New York) that was exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in the 1960s. His Rite of Spring, which translates Stravinsky’s music into paint, was exhibited in the Art Alive exhibition of contemporary art in Northampton in 1960, alongside works by Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and Ben Nicholson. Other paintings by him appeared in the Europe ‘63 exhibition at the New Vision Centre Gallery.He held two retrospectives in London, at the Ben Uri in 1975 and at the Sternberg Centre for Judaism in 1992, entitled From Portraiture to Action Art.

From 1970 to about 1975, David travelled extensively in the USA, the Caribbean and South Africa, painting ”lightning portraits”. One of them is in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. But in the mid-1970s, tragically, his eyesight began to fail; he was registered blind by the mid-1980s. He regained some sight after laser treatment, but never enough to be able to resume painting.

In his younger days, he had been a well-known figure debating at Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner; in his later years he became addicted to LBC radio phone-ins, where he was well-known as “David from Chelsea”. He stayed in his Chelsea garret until the end of 2017, cared for by local social services, till increasing problems with his heart and his mobility caused him to move to the Donisthorpe Hall Jewish care home in Leeds, where he lived close to relatives. He tested positive for Covid in May, 2020 and recovered, but suddenly deteriorated in January 2021.

But in these anxious days of Covid and climate change, the vibrant, jewel-like, lyrical and romantic paintings David produced during his dedicated and prolific period in the 1950s and 60s, pulsating with 60s optimism, can surely be an inspiration. David is survived by his sister Lorna (who celebrated her 100th birthday in November 2020), four nephews and six nieces. DEBORAH MACCOBY

David Maccoby: born March 6, 1925. Died February 10, 2021

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