Roderic Barrett’s tender Candle Hat – produced when the artist was at the very peak of his powers – epitomises the warmth and humanity that remained at the heart of his work.
Born in Colchester in 1920, Barrett was a precocious young artist, gaining a place at the Central School of Art and Design in London at the tender age of 15, despite being too young officially to apply. With an incisive draughtsmanship and a natural aptitude for graphic media, he began his career as a wood engraver – the best engraver his tutor, John Farleigh, confessed he had ever seen – before turning to oil painting before the Second World War.
A conscientious objector, Barrett spent the pre and post-war period developing a distinct and evocative style of painting. Employing a muted palette, his carefully layered subjects reflected the human condition in its most testing times: weathered by poverty, enduring illness and oppression, or mourning the loved and lost.
In Candle Hat, an intimate canvas dating to the late 1960s, autumnal colours and serene composition are combined to enigmatic effect. The candle, an object pregnant with metaphorical meaning, became a recurring symbol in Barrett’s personal iconography: flickering light in darkness made for an apt allegory for the power of hope, as well as facilitating his favoured use of dreamy low light and melancholic shadows.
detail from ‘Candle Hat’ by Roderic Barrett
Underlying the mystical vision of Barrett’s images was a meticulous eye for composition and a laboriously methodical approach to the canvas. Layer over layer of rich oil paint was built up, each work painstakingly developed over months and years. In a long career, he produced a comparatively small number of canvases, many of which had almost identical partners as Barrett trialled and re-trialled compositions with minute changes.
Owners and galleries in possession of his paintings would frequently have them ‘borrowed back’ so that near-imperceptible changes could be made. In 1967, around the time of Candle Hat‘s creation, Barrett gave an interview that provided some small insight into his perfectionism: I see my paintings in different surroundings and they seem quite different…I am continually trying to alter and improve things. I can’t stand still.
David Buckman, the preeminent expert on Barrett’s work, wrote that emotional honesty and hard work characterise his art. In this mid-career canvas, subdued yet sublime, that evocative power is clear to see.