Giles Auty, the painter and art critic who has died in Australia a month short of his 86th birthday, was throughout his career conspicuous for the frequently tactless polemical vehemence with which he expressed his views.
Deeply conservative, outspoken in defence of the fundamental disciplines of observation and technique, he was too easily dismissed as an irrelevant reactionary. His combative approach made him few friends within the art establishment and perhaps lessened the influence he might otherwise have had. In fact he had important things to say.
He had properly emerged as a writer with the publication in 1977 of The Art of Self-Deception, in effect his manifesto, which would set the pattern of his critical engagement for the rest of his life.
Remarkable in its prescience, it set him against the grain of modernist orthodoxy and the pieties of its institutional arbiters and useful idiots, which he rightly saw as being more concerned with political and social manipulation than critical judgment.
The corruptive power of state and institutional patronage, and the conformity it insidiously imposes, would remain a constant theme.
The trouble is that go on banging the same old drum and ears are blocked. With such a temperament as Auty’s – disputatious, a stranger to self-doubt, and forever preoccupied in taking the same old battle (single-handedly as he imagined) to the foe – even his friends and sympathisers could become disaffected. For he was never quite so alone as he imagined himself to be.
Fine cricketer though he was, it seldom occurred to him that there might be others batting for the same side.
If no enemy was there, one could always be imagined. He became art critic of The Spectator in 1984 and in due course, as is the Royal Academy’s custom with the major critics, turn and turn about, he was invited to its annual Banquet.
The following year however, when, to his consternation, the invitation he by now expected by right failed to arrive, Auty, ignoring reassurance, was convinced that a disobliging review had consigned him to the blacklist of the President Sir Roger de Grey.
Auty’s 1977 ‘manifesto’
The self-centred are not necessarily self-aware, and there was to Giles Auty an air of innocence, even naivety, that was a saving grace and charm. While never reticent in talking about himself, his talents and achievements, such talk was hardly ever without interest or amusement.
Tall, athletic, good-looking in his dark way, as attractive to women as they were to him, cultivated, wide in his enthusiasms, secure in his prejudices and superstitions, there was much to like and admire in him.
Bird-watching, in which he was deeply knowledgeable, had been a particular interest since childhood, and his schooldays confirmed his enduring commitment to games, and especially to tennis and cricket.
Well into middle age he played tennis with his regular doubles partner at Queen’s, the distinguished art dealer, the late Andras Kalman, who as a young man had represented Hungary.
And as an amateur cricketer he was of minor county class, taking the new ball first for Dorset and later for Cornwall, for which he last turned out at the age of 40. One of his enduring superstitions was that if his guilty secret, his love of sport, were ever to get out, any reputation he had as a serious artist would be ruined.
Giles Auty, of putative Huguenot ancestry, was born on November 1 1934 at Faversham in Kent, where his father was a master at the grammar school. A scholarship took him to Bancroft’s School at Woodford Green, Essex, where, though he was undistinguished academically, sport and art took hold. National Service in Russia with the RAF followed, after which he chose to travel and take odd jobs for a while before determining to become a painter.
Rather than choosing an art school, he took himself off to the far west of Cornwall, for which he came to feel a deep and natural affinity. And there, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, in and around Penzance and St Ives, he fell in with all the principal artists of the Modern Cornish School.
He regularly returned in later years, and would often join three old friends, the painters Roger Hilton and Bryan Wynter, and the poet W S Graham, in a favoured haunt of theirs, the Gurnard’s Head, a remote and often deserted pub in the wilds beyond Zennor.
The pub was run by Jimmy Goodman, a misanthropic ex-officer, one of whose cherished bêtes noires was anyone to do with films or filming. On one such evening, so Auty like to relate, at the time when the strange Cornish cowboy film, Straw Dogs, was being shot on location at St Buryan nearby, “the strikingly pretty actress, Susan George, burst in saying, ‘I’m Susan George and I’m looking for my co-star Dustin Hoffman’. Jimmy pondered her request slowly before finally replying thus: ‘I’ve been the landlord here for many years m’dear, and can assure you that there are no coastguards of that name working in this area.’ ”
As a painter himself, Giles worked mainly from landscape or architectural subjects, closely observed and meticulously drawn, quiet in mood, undemonstrative in the handling and generally small in scale. Living by his work, he exhibited frequently if irregularly until, on taking up the post on The Spectator, he more or less stopped painting, though he did still show occasionally as opportunity arose.
He would return properly to painting only many years later in his semi-retirement in Australia; he upped sticks in 1995 in frustration at what he saw as the constraint of writing for a periodical, his failure to achieve promotion to a national newspaper, and the general lack of being appreciated, so he felt, at his worth.
A collection of essays: Auty was a keen cricketer, and settled in Australia
In one important respect this proved a happy move, for soon after his arrival he met and married Annouschka, a talented musician, dancer and designer, to whom he devoted the rest of his life.
Once there, and soon appointed to The Australian newspaper with a wide roving brief, he found to his astonishment that his reputation had gone before him. His critical career continued in the same pattern, as contentious as ever.
Though he eventually took Australian citizenship, he was again as disappointed by his reception in Australia as he had been at home. His association with The Australian having ended, in 2011 he returned to England, where he remained for a year or two, hoping to resume where he had left off.
But the world had moved on, and he went back to Australia, to settle with his wife in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, where he would paint once more, and continue his occasional critical writings, now and again for his old friend David Lee’s spiritedly independent Jackdaw magazine back in England, and regularly for the Spectator Australia, with which he had at least achieved a lasting association: his final piece appeared just a fortnight before his death.
On the wrong side of history, perhaps – who can yet say – but Giles Auty was always on the right side of Art. His wife survives him.
Giles Auty, born November 1 1934, died September 24 2020