On a rainy Sunday in early January I took a trip from London to Chichester. There were two reasons for this – I was curious to visit for the first time the historic Pallant House Gallery, which also happened to be exhibiting six works by Keith Vaughan. Most of these new acquisitions had been bequeathed by Sir Peter Shaffer CBE upon his recently passing away.
Sir Peter was a famous playwright and screenwriter, best known for the hugely popular philosophical dramas ‘The Hunt of the Sun’ (1964), ‘Equus’ (1973) and, in particular, ‘Amadeus’ (1979). The last of these, which charted the destructive jealously of the 18th Century court composer Salieri towards his rival Mozart, was a highly sought after ticket at both London’s National Theatre and on Broadway. It was later turned into one of the most successful films of the 1980s – winning eight academy awards including Best Picture.
Pallant House is a beautiful Grade I listed townhouse, built in 1712 for a wine merchant, Henry “Lisbon” Peckham, and his wife Elizabeth. It is tucked away on a narrow road off the high street and is a true architectural gem.
The original building has been much extended, however it still retains the charm of a classic Queen Anne townhouse. It also just happens to hold one of the best collections of Modern British art in the world!
Naturally, I was there principally to see the six ‘Vaughans’, the most outstanding of which was, in my opinion, ‘Fifth Assembly of Figures’. The first thing that strikes you about the work is that it incorporates, contrary to expectation, only two figures! This helps explain why Vaughan’s subtitle for the work was ‘Two Figures in Sequence’. Sir Peter explained that Vaughan wished to imply the presence of other, unrepresented, figures that remained outside the picture plane, perhaps in a chain or in sequence with the represented two.
Sir Peter was one of Vaughan’s friends and he liked to tell the story of how he acquired ‘Fifth Assembly of Figures’. After spending a morning at Vaughan’s Belsize Park Studio considering what to buy, he asked if he could see this quite dark canvas in daylight rather than in the studio. Together they carried the work outside, leaned it up against a wall and began to examine it in full sunlight. To Shaffer’s horror, a sudden gust of wind lifted the canvas into the air and tumbled it down the street. They chased the painting, which eventually came to rest upright and unharmed – much to the relief of both painter and playwright. Shaffer thought he better buy it before it got away again!
Upon Sir Peter’s death the ‘Fifth Assembly’ was bequeathed to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.
The Keith Vaughan exhibition has just been extended, with the six paintings now on display until Sunday 10 March. Beyond then, the Collections Manager can on occasion accommodate supervised viewings of selected works in storage by prior appointment. But to avoid any disappointment I highly recommend taking a trip to Chichester soon!