Showcase for a secret legacy

Ousey%20presentation_Page_046When Sue Astles picked up her late uncle’s diaries and leafed through the age-worn pages dating back to the 1960s she felt she was discovering him for the first time.

Hidden among the painstakingly recorded details of the day to day was an intriguing life of which Harry Ousey’s family had been unaware.

They knew he was a painter but they had no idea he was a serious artist who had been part of the renowned St Ives School before heading off to France in the 1970s.

Unbeknown to them he had been a prolific painter of what is now regarded as some of the most significant art from the era.

Sadly during his lifetime he never gained the recognition he deserved but now, thanks to the tireless efforts of his niece, his profile is finally being raised in the public arena.

Sue, who lives in Glossop, is a straight-talking sort of woman who as a trained secretary is extremely organised and is definitely someone who won’t give in easily if she is set a challenge.

Fortuitous then that it was she who was bequeathed the remnants of her uncle’s artistic life when his widow Susie died in 1997.

“When I started reading his diaries I felt so very sad because I realised that he had never quite achieved what he had wanted,” she said.

“As I opened the portfolios of his work they almost spoke to me and I knew that I had to try to get him the recognition he had never had.”

Her doggedness has paid dividends because Harry’s work is now in at least ten permanent collections, including Chatsworth House and Buxton Museum; she has staged well over 20 posthumous exhibitions and much has been written about him in art reviews.

This summer his work is going to be exhibited as part of the Buxton Fringe Festival and in 2015 there is going to be a special exhibition in Salford to commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday.

“It is particularly fitting for the centenary because Salford was the place where he first exhibited his work in 1947,” said Sue with a deserved sense of satisfaction.

Harry was born in Manchester in 1915, the eldest of two children. His younger sister Betty was Sue’s mother.

Their father died when Harry was a teenager and their mother brought them up in a formal ‘Victorian’ manner.

Headstrong Harry often rebelled against the strictness as his artistic temperament just didn’t fit in and his mother didn’t understand his interest in painting.

Sue says that his mother’s lack of interest never changed even years later when he was exhibiting his work.

“When I was young Harry and Susie would come and stay and he would usually bring a painting for us. They would be put on the wall but no-one appreciated them – in fact my grandmother didn’t really like them.

“They were just Harry’s paintings and neither my mother or grandmother were interested. We never talked about them at all.”

Now the walls in Sue’s home are festooned with his work and she proudly shows off those that have been in her home for decades as well as those she inherited much later.

She has always had an interest in art herself but nowadays the subject takes up pretty much all of her spare time.

Following his father’s death Harry went to London for three years to study architecture and it was there his resolve to become a painter grew.

After the war Harry, now a married man, moved to a hillside cottage in Hayfield on the slopes of Kinder Scout where, inspired by the landscape, he began to paint seriously and exhibited at Salford and Manchester.

In the 1950s he became enchanted with St Ives in Cornwall and eventually he and his wife moved to live among the avant garde working there at the time – Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Peter Lanyon among others.

In the 60s the couple lived in London, Cornwall and the Cotswolds before eventually setting off for France in a VW caravanette.

They travelled extensively for years, selling paintings from time to time to pay the bills until his death in Marseilles in 1985 at the age of 70.

On her return to England his widow stored his portfolios out of sight because it seems it was too painful for her to look at them.

They remained hidden away until she died. Sue was bequeathed them and took on the responsibility of putting them back in the public arena.

“I have had much help putting the jigsaw of their lives together from their friends and collectors of his work for which I am very grateful,” said Sue.

She has also had advice and help from distinguished art experts and writers.

“What I would really love now is for someone to want to write a thesis on Harry and study his work in the context of the 20th century. I have everything here if an interested student was to contact me,” she said.

The Harry Ousey Pops In At the Fringe exhibition will be at the Spring Bank Arts Centre, New Mills, from July 18-20.