Alexandra Cinema by David Stuttard

Paintings from around a life, David Stuttard’s intimate portraits of Newton Abbot

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A posthumous exhbition of the paintings of David Stuttard (1944-2009) is taking place in Newton Abbot. Art critic Matt Price assesses David’s work

Alexandra Cinema by David Stuttard

David Stuttard was an intriguing person with an insatiable passion for art. In addition to an almost daily practice of painting during the last 20 years of his life, he was also a poet and a life-long composer. It was music that had been his forte and chosen career, working as head of department at a secondary school in his hometown of Newton Abbot, Devon, but when he took early retirement on medical grounds in the early 1980s, it was painting that came to the fore.

An untrained artist, Stuttard was an amateur enthusiast whose obsession with the medium of paint was matched by his dedication to working with it. He produced around 400 paintings that have survived or for which there are records, though he chose rarely to exhibit them – perhaps because he was such a private kind of person. Indeed, many of his paintings depict aspects of his personal and private life, whether family, friends and lovers or domestic interiors, pets and views from his windows. From looking at such works, one would be forgiven for imagining him as some kind of recluse or possibly housebound. But despite suffering from ME and requiring a walking stick, he was anything but stuck indoors, as many of his other paintings demonstrate.

David Stuttard's Western Road

His exterior works build up into an engaging portrait of Newton Abbot and the surrounding Devonshire towns and villages in the late 20th Century and into the new millennium. From coastal scenes to paintings of the railways that had been so vital to the growth of the area in the Victorian era, from landmarks such as the 13th Century St Leonard’s Tower to the medieval markets or the iconic Alexandra Cinema, Stuttard documented sights familiar to locals and visitors alike.

While many of the locations are recognisable to those with only a passing knowledge of the area, it is Stuttard’s paintings of the more mundane, everyday locations of Newton Abbot that are perhaps some of the most characteristic and endearing of his practice – the hospital, the supermarket, his local pub, town centre street scenes, the laundrette. In a spirit reminiscent of LS Lowry, Stuttard recorded his local area and the daily life occurring within it, capturing something of the essence of the town and, while retaining something charming and timeless, in a way which was true to the period in which he painted them – 1980s shopping centres and car parks, telephone boxes and wheelie bins locate the works firmly in the post-Industrial era.

A distinctly melancholic atmosphere pervades Stuttard’s paintings, and there are often images of people with troubles, such as beggars and the frail or physically disabled. Many of the people depicted seem poor or on low incomes, with a cast of buskers and gypsies, customers at mobile burger bars, dustbin men and road maintenance workers alongside young mums with prams, boys playing in back yards and modestly-dressed figures sitting in pubs. And yet while there is a sense of sadness and hardship, there is equally a sense of humour and of the triumph of the human spirit – people having fun, chatting with friends or sitting with lovers, laughing and joking. In this way, Stuttard’s depictions of people have a vitality and sentiment familiar to admirers of the work of Beryl Cook – of larger-than-life characters, of curious personalities and humble yet interesting lives. Some of Stuttard’s portraits are among his most accomplished works – some verge on caricature while others seem to be curiously incisive representations of personality and psychological states of mind. His nudes have a similarly strange aspect, somewhere between caricature and darker mental states.

Figures on Shaldon Ness Beach

While occasionally Stuttard was drawn to imaginary subjects, personal fantasies and colourful abstraction, it is realism that lies at the heart of his work, as if an observer of everyday life. Working in a stylized and naïve manner with influences ranging from Cubism and Fauvism to Expressionism and Art Brut, in the quarter of a century he devoted to painting he developed a substantial body of work that adds up to more than the sum of its parts, representing both a personal, private world and an honest, partly affectionate, partly disengaged portrayal of his local community and environment. Working largely on his own, with just a handful of artist friends and the occasional life-drawing class, Stuttard was very much an outsider artist, a painter working in isolation from the art world. His paintings are the story of his later life, and of the world around his life.

• Read how David’s son Matt Stuttard put the exhibition, Newton Abbot: Intimate Portraits together on the People’s Republic of South Devon.

Find out more about David Stuttard’s work The World of David Stuttard website

• The exhibition Newton Abbot: Intimate Portraits, paintings by David Stuttard 1944- 2009, takes place from Tuesday, September 14 to Sunday, September 19 (with the possibility of a week’s extension) at  Unit 4, Pearl Assurance House, 1- 7 Courtenay Street, Newton Abbot, TQ12 2QH. With other pictures on display at Coffee Republic (opposite the library), 1 High Week Street, Newton Abbot, TQ12 1TGBoth exhibitions are free to enter

Matt Price

Matt Price is a writer, editor and curator based in London and Birmingham. Following a degree in art history from the University of Nottingham and an MA in curating from the Royal College of Art, he started his career as an editor for Hans Ulrich Obrist before being appointed managing editor of Flash Art International, Milan. He has since worked as deputy editor of ArtReview and publications manager at Serpentine Gallery. In addition to Flash Art and ArtReview, he has also written for publications including A-n, Art Monthly, Frieze and The Guardian. He has recently curated exhibitions for the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, Plan B, Berlin, and Master Piper, London, and is currently editing publications for a number of galleries and publishing houses.