Michael Finn

A LIFE IN ART Michael Finn

by John Halkes

Ambition and Interruption

When he was a young man Michael Finn confessed to three ambitions. He wanted to fly, get married and have a family, and he wanted to be an artist. He achieved all three. But it took time. At Westminster School he made frequent visits to the Tate Gallery and was so impressed by Henry Lamb’s portrait of Lytton Strachey that he felt moved to study at an art school. His father was an architect so readily gave his support. After leaving school at seventeen, Michael enrolled at Kingston School of Art fairly near his Surrey home. He was eighteen when the Second World War broke out. Although part of a larger technical school, Kingston had a small but cohesive art student population under the direction of the principal Reginald Brill. In 1940, the School with its sixty students moved to its own dedicated premises at Knight’s Park. The syllabus covered the usual academic range of still life and objective drawing, life drawing and print-making. Gordon Miller, who went on to be an architect, remembers the hard work and also the camaraderie of the students with their amateur dramatics and parties. He recalled that Michael who was in the year ahead of him was very friendly with a beautiful student called Cecelia (Cely) Bailey. In 1942 Michael was called up for pilot training in the RAF and sailed off to Canada where he qualified on multi-engine aircraft. In December 1943 he returned to the UK and aged 22 married Cely. Early in 1944 he converted onto the Dakota (DC3) and then flew for the remainder of the war in Europe on close support of the land battle and transport operations, including the famous Arnhem operation.

After VE day, Michael was still flying troops to and from Europe and the Middle East and on one of these flights his old friend from Kingston days, Gordon Miller, by then serving with the Royal Engineers was a passenger on a hair-raising flight to the Sudan in a Dakota captained by Michael.

In 1945 Michael and Cely had their first child, Christine. Fortunately the war in Japan, for which Michael was on stand-by, ended.

In 1946, Michael was released from the RAF and went as a mature student to the Royal College of Art in London. Judging by the portfolios of student drawings left in the studio collection the RCA in those immediate post-war years had a traditional academic base. However it was already changing and beginning to attract high flying and adventurous artists. On the staff Michael remembered particularly the influence of Carel Weight RA who joined as a lecturer in 1947 and went on to be a distinguished Professor of Painting at the College. In 1949 Michael graduated and he and Cely, with Christine, left London for Taunton where Michael had been appointed as a lecturer at the Somerset College of Art.

The Teaching Years

At Taunton, Michael led the painting department. There were some half dozen students in each year working towards their National Diplomas in Fine Art and the emphasis again was on the formal curriculum with lots of drawing and painting from life models. Rosemary Wickremsinghe (nee Hocken) joined Michael’s class as a young student fresh from school. Today she remembers him with affection. “He had such sincerity and gentleness in the way he taught, and he imparted to us self respect and a modesty about our own work. Of course he was of an older generation and had been through the war and the Royal College and so there was a certain distance and formality in our relationships. And he could be robust in his views: ‘Don’t exhibit at the RA – it’s in the hands of the Munning’s faction, but the Royal West of England Academy (RWA) is alright.’ Nonetheless, there was laughter in the art department and I remember that he was always up for taking part in our student rags.” Rosemary recalls that her tutor’s own work at the time was figurative. One particular painting of an unplanted garden seemed to symbolise his own life, which, she thought, he was working out through his painting. Interestingly, very few works of this time survive. But by now Michael and Cely had another daughter, Michaela, and with the teaching requirements there were constraints on his personal time.

It became apparent that at Taunton Michael was developing his own progressive ideas about the future of art education. He had a keen collaborator in Aneurin Thomas, a fellow lecturer in painting, and later vice-principal, who was the same age, wartime experience and outlook. Thomas himself went on to have a distinguished career as principal of Hornsey College of Art and then, in 1966, the first director of the newly formed Welsh Arts Council. The key to their ethos was the personal integrity of the students. As they grew as artists, individuality was paramount over the formal constraints of the curriculum. This meant that tutors had to know and take an interest in each individual student. The relationship between tutor and student had to be part of the creative process of the art school.

The seeds were sown for the next phase of Finn’s career. After nine years at Somerset College of Art he was appointed in 1958 as Principal of Falmouth School of Art in Cornwall.

Falmouth – the Visionary Years

Falmouth was at one of several critical phases in its long history when Finn arrived. Under Jack Chalker, the small college had moved from Arwenack Avenue to Kerris Vean and courses for the National Diploma in Design were offered for the first time. Purpose-built studios were built in the sub-tropical gardens and Finn’s task was to make the school viable in the light of the expectations of the new National Advisory Council for Art Education.

In the sixties, Finn appointed Terry Frost and Peter Lanyon as visiting lecturers and he developed the textile, printmaking and sculpture workshops. Controversially, photography was added to the syllabus. The question for Falmouth was whether an art school with only 120 students, situated in a remote part of the country could compete against the larger burgeoning art institutions which were growing in the big cities. Cornwall Education Committee supported Finn’s vision for Falmouth as did leading Cornwall-based artists such as Dame Barbara Hepworth, Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron.

Robin Thomas was on the staff at Falmouth during the late fifties until he went to the West of England College of Art at Bristol. He remembers Michael Finn’s early years very well. “I remember his gentle kindness and understanding – this was alike to staff and students. There seemed to be a special quietness about Michael, although, of course he was a very efficient organiser in the daily timetable and also in looking forward to the ongoing development of the School of Art.” Robin wondered whether he should take up a post at Bristol because Falmouth was growing in status and premises. “We were still in Kerris Vean but about to spread into Rosehill. Michael, in his usual generous way advised me to go where there was going to be improvement to my own situation and a chance to develop a department with previous problems.” Recently Robin recalled, “The great thing for all of us who knew Michael is that we will not forget him. I followed news of his career in art education and his profound creativity with pride and affection.”

Throughout the sixties, Falmouth continued to grow. Finn had gathered around him a creative and dedicated staff and now they had to decide whether to seek authorisation to offer students the new Diploma in Art and Design – which was equivalent to a degree. But that meant expansion. Rosehill House in Wood Lane was in the offing and it was thought that recognition would be granted. Initially it was turned down because the National Council thought that Falmouth’s resources and infrastructure were too slender. Undaunted, Finn lobbied furiously to sustain his vision of a small creative art school in beautiful surroundings dedicated to the personal development of its students. Barbara Hepworth, Bernard Leach, Bryan Wynter and Patrick Heron encouraged him to re-apply, and in 1965 the National Council for Art Education overturned its original verdict. The school was now recognised as a centre for the Diploma in Art and Design, with painting as a main course. Recognition for sculpture followed shortly after.

The artist Francis Hewlett was head of painting at Falmouth during those formative years. He remembers Michael Finn’s remarkable ability to build a cohesive staff from a remarkably wide spectrum of artistic activity; painters, printmakers and sculptors worked alongside ceramicists, poets and musicians. The effect was vibrant. Finn also attracted leading artists from Cornwall as guest lecturers. Karl Weschke and Denis Mitchell joined the band of supportive artists and made a significant input. Hewlett enjoyed working with Finn. “He was a wonderful person, passionate about art and serious about the role of artists. He was an incredibly good principal. We had amazing rows – which were always civil.” He also commented that Michael, whilst remaining constantly polite, was no pushover. Only someone with a steely commitment to his vision could have taken the school through the tumult in art education during the sixties.

Bath Academy of Art

In 1972, Michael Finn took up post as Principal at Bath Academy of Art based at Corsham in Wiltshire. Barbara Hepworth advised him to fulfil his ambition to paint, but another child, Richard, had been born to him and Cely whilst at Falmouth, and there were many other domestic matters pressing upon him. At Corsham, he continued to develop his beliefs that the practitioner was at the centre of the creative process. Many key figures in British art were teachers including Terry Frost, Kenneth Armitage, William Scott, Terry Pope, Howard Hodgkin and Adrian Heath. After many years of self-denial Michael held his first solo exhibition in 1978 at the Festival Gallery in Bath, and in the next few years there is evidence of more exploratory paintings and collages coming out of his studio. By 1980, art school administration was becoming more and more bureaucratic and the constant and pressing need to find funding was a heavy burden on the principals. Michael and Cely resolved to retire to the very west of Cornwall. Here, in 1982 at Tregeseal House near St Just on the Land’s End Peninsula, they made a comfortable home. Michael converted a small barn next to the house as a studio. The final part of his life-long ambition was about to be realised and with utter courage he faced the blank canvasses of the future.

The Art of Michael Finn: the years of the artist – St Just 1982–2002

The final element of Michael Finn’s ambition – was to be an artist. He could well have retired at the age of 62 and rested on his laurels as a visionary art educator but he chose to confront his demons. Elizabeth Knowles who, in the late nineties became one of John Halkes’s successors as curator of Newlyn Art Gallery, knew Finn well and admired his art of his last twenty years. She wrote the following piece for his major solo show at Newlyn in 2000 and has kindly allowed it to be edited and reprinted for this retrospective exhibition at Lemon Street Gallery.

Michaels Finn’s painting belongs to that great twentieth century tradition of colour field painting developed by artists who sought to create on flat canvas, using flat areas of colour as a spiritual vehicle. A saturated colour space was to stand for inner space, a tranquil reflection of deep emotion, a chance for contemplation. All-over, expansive fields of colour with simple linear division arose in American painting from about 1947 to the early 1950s.

‘Still, Rothko and Newman evolved styles … focused on expression through colour. To maximise the visual – and emotional – impact of colour, they eliminated figuration and symbolism, simplified drawing and gesture, suppressed the contrast of light and dark values, painted chromatic expanses that saturate the eye and enlarged the canvas. Aiming for the visionary, they strove literally to engulf the viewer by creating a total chromatic environment.’1

From a British perspective, this kind of painting lay behind the development of Abstract Expressionism and became fused and confused with the instantly acclaimed works of artists like Frank Stella. In the 1960s, fashionable British art was overwhelmed by Pop Art. And as part of post-Pop Art abstraction, field painting took on new significance, as much for its spiritual aspirations as for its former grandeur. Still, Newman and Rothko could conveniently be succeeded by Frankenthaler, Louis, Nolan and even later artists like Bruce Marden and Robert Ryman, if one turned a blind eye to some key differences in approach and intention. From the earliest years of the twentieth century there were a number of European artists who worked with flat and saturated colour, from Malevich to Yves Klein, and European developments of Minimal Art produced many more between the 1970s and the end of the century.

Among all these there are no direct sources for Finn’s painting however. His way of working is closer to the ethos of Newman and Rothko if anything, while his work remains entirely and avowedly intuitive. His context, apart from these Olympian figures, is the tough, talented circle of artists who in West Cornwall, where he lived and worked for his last twenty years. In Finn’s age group one finds W Barns Graham, Paul Feiler, Terry Frost and Alex Mackenzie. If any common ground could usefully be deduced between these artists it might be found in their respect for abstraction grounded upon Constructivist principles. Beside the work of these and later generations of artists in Cornwall, Finn’s quiet paintings express the importance of simplicity. They look back to the founding principles of twentieth century abstract art. As Hans Hoffmann wrote: ‘The medium which is used in creating becomes the work of art if the principles and meaning, the essential nature of the medium are mastered and if the artist is intuitive in spirit’, and, ‘Art is always spiritual, a result of introspection, finding expression through the natural entity of the medium.’2

For Finn, spirituality was quite specifically from Roman Catholic Christianity. Although he speaks of a ‘light up there’ for humanity to aspire to as being the transcendental truth to which his work was dedicated, his own faith provided a form, expressed indirectly in his paintings and much more overtly in the constructed crosses and crucifixes. While talking of the absence of imagery and the primary importance of the painting itself, both as being contemplative and conveying the idea of what contemplation is for, for Finn would write, ‘I hope to say something about the density of existence and the wonder of light.’3

In his sculpture, Finn was concerned with the powerful universal imagery of the cross and the crucified Christ. He has used a variety of woods, mostly painted or stained or whitened; constructing crucifixes of telling simplicity. Against the extended stem and arms of the cross small blocks and spars were grouped into a faceted form, an abstracted figure, often with a blank rectangular face. He also made altar crosses, simplifying the components into monumental formal statements that echo their constructed predecessors but stand for a more abstract idea. Some of the constructions and crosses have been rendered in bronze by Michael Werbecki, a highly skilled bronze craftsman with a workshop in Bristol. Werbecki enabled Finn to realise his sculpture in its final and most hermetic form.

Finn was a painter of sensibility – to use a word employed by Roger Fry – to denote a certain quality of choice, proportion, hand-drawn line and brushed-in colour. This sensibility is employed so that the paintings are a means to present an idea with the utmost clarity. The idea may be simple and the means discreet, but it is indissoluble from the material of the painting – pigment on canvas – even though it also contains an expressed thought or proposition. Finn asserted that he intended to create space and alter the flat surface of the painting and that he did this unconsciously, intuitively.


To what degree is Finn’s painting unconscious? He constantly referred to a process of trail and error, and said that his painting ‘comes from inside: it’s magical.’ His methods evolved from roots in the aesthetics of modernism, a working life in art schools inculcated a respect for design on the one hand and for the chances offered by collage on the other. This paradoxical combination lies behind the visual language Finn developed and which served him so well. Flat areas of colour were barred across or framed with bands of other colours. In some cases, flat areas of colour were butted together either literally on two (or more) canvases or dividing one canvas surface. He often worked in series, deploying the particular and powerful set of formal qualities seriality imposes. Thinking back to American painting again, there is an echo of Brice Marden and Robert Mangold about his sets of close-hued square or narrow vertical canvasses.

The first wash, usually of acrylic paint, across the canvas provided the colour Finn had in mind. The next step, a line or a band of another colour, began to take the painting into another dimension. Space may be made, the visible illusion providing for mystical or spiritual space. The canvas may be made to look more vertical than it is, relating to the uplifting aspiration of the soul. The simple alteration Finn makes as he developed a painting reassured him that a transformation has taken place. The transformation is a code for humanly understandable spirituality, or what is often named as the sublime.

Finn’s earliest paintings are relatively conventional nudes, landscapes and still lives. Only a few isolated examples survive from the late 1940s and early ’50s. Painting was always Finn’s ‘hoped for profession’. A few works from the 1970s reveal a preoccupation with substance, tight design and muted, silvery colours. The bars of colour that are so like bars of wood lie on the surface in paintings and in works on paper, and there are flat interlocking shapes that look like constructed reliefs. In 1982, Finn moved to Tregeseal, near St Just in the far west of Cornwall, and set about his long postponed devotion to serious painting on a full time basis. He found ‘the ambition to become a full time painter a difficult one to fulfil.;

In some trepidation, one could speculate, Finn began with small scale still lives, reminiscent of his earliest paintings but informed by the controlled design of his 1970s work. He felt his way, through the curls and shadows of dead leaves on a cloth or the subtle variety in a handful of stones on a shelf, to the surface and space of painting. At the same time, he began to work with wood – partly found pieces and partly odds and ends of new timber, making constructed sculpture and painted reliefs. Almost straight away he found the confidence to make simple flat colour paintings, some with bars of contrasting colour in lively diagonals across their surface. Fitting louvred shutters to some of the windows of his house lead him to the device, most famously used by Matisse, of placing narrow verticals at either side of the canvas, sometimes with short horizontal strokes upon them. From the early 1980s, therefore, Finn developed a repertoire of the simplest compositional means of which to carry rich colour fields. From around 1987 to ‘89 he began to use short dabs and strokes to animate flat expanses of colour and the range of his colours grew to include a rich cinnabar red with the blacks, greys and muted blues, greens and browns that were characteristic of his work. In the late 1980s he used swathes of flat colour over-painted on another colour, the under-painting appearing in glimpses or along the lines of the compositional structure. For the first time, Finn was able to make large paintings, intended for an exhibition organised by John Halkes at Newlyn Art Gallery in 1989. This show was an important punctuation mark for Finn, and his work began to be more widely known.

Experiencing that dip in morale that the aftermath of a one-person show is liable to bring, in 1990 Finn returned to mainly flat colour fields with narrow verticals at either side. His colours were deep blue, deep red, purple, grey and black. The following year, however, his palette brightened and open rectangular forms that he named ‘Gateways’ began to appear floating in the centre of the canvas. Also in the early 1990s the first series of white paintings were made and by the middle of the decade he had begun occasionally to use bright colours alongside his characteristically muted earthy hues. A new series of paintings with a starker, more pre-determined looking structure of hard-edged colour bands against dark colour fields began to appear. Another change of direction followed in 1996, when Finn began to make tall vertical paintings with horizontal bands of colour dividing them, sometimes with larger expanses above and below, sometimes in a progression of colours stacked one above the other in more equal bands. From 1997, there was a new series again, in which deep treacly browns and greens were set against black or grey in two vertical halves.

The apparently dark mood of these paintings was countered by a further group of tall verticals with soft, light colours and a small series of bright yellow paintings. Such brightness is the more telling in Finn’s work because of his assertion that he was more at home with sombre shades. He loved black and admired Manet for his use of it. Although he often used black and white, he also transmuted them into shades of grey or muddy whites expressive of the opposite of idealism. The paintings with these colours seem to be in a state of practical engagement with life’s trials and sorrows.

When he used stronger, cleaner colour, however, Finn often took it down to softish hues and modulated it with brushed surfaces or incised or painted line. His visual language, therefore, was and is still, generally expressive of a reasoned argument for optimism, seeming to recognise our plight and propose contemplation to draw upon inner strength. His relatively few high toned pure colour works stand out like more overt beacons of hope; notably a late blue series, the yellow paintings already mentioned and the large vertical canvasses of the late 1990s.

Michael Finn’s essential purpose in his art is to address our inner aspirations. It is his greatest gift that he did so in open recognition of how hard life can be on the human spirit.

Elizabeth Knowles