His paintings, John Berger wrote, “deserve to hang among the best English paintings of our time”. Yet Theodore Major is barely known. (I only stumbled across his work recently, via Berger). Why? Partly because he was working class, and from unfashionable Wigan. Partly, too, because he detested the art world and refused to sell his paintings “to the people who want them, the rich people”. My paintings, he said “are not created to decorate a room.” He had “no ambition to see my work hanging on stately walls, or in private or public collections.” What he wanted rather was “To disturb and extend consciousness in the mind of the viewer”.
Born in Wigan in 1908, the son of millworkers (he himself worked in a tailor’s shop until forced to stop because of ill health), Major painted working class life, particularly in his home town, and dark brooding landscapes, in which humanity seemed forever cast against the elements. But he had a wide repertoire of themes, including portraiture and still life. What all his work possessed was an extraordinary intensity, making them almost expressionist in form, and a wonderful sense of texture. Being a working class painter, Major was often bracketed with fellow northerner LS Lowry, but, even though the two were friends, he dismissed the comparison: “I feel and express the opposite to Lowry. He expressed his own sadness and loneliness. I try to express nothing of myself – but the thing I am painting…” Major saw Lowry’s work as unable to give a sense of either the suffering or the humanity of working class communities. For Major, what interested him were “the morning mists, the light of yellow sun, the dark clouds, the pattern of smoke against grey sky. I saw the white sailing moon. I saw the dignity of workmen and the beauty and warmth of women. I saw God in every child.” And if that sounds a bit like William Blake, that’s because Major was greatly drawn to Blake’s work. “Painting”, he said “is my life and art my religion”.
Major’s paintings have a wonderful sense of light and darkness. He was paradoxically, as the art historian Michael Howard has observed, “both a brilliant colourist and, at the other extreme, a painter who could manage the most subtle shifts of monochrome, from the darkest of darks to the purest of whites and all the silvery tones between. both a brilliant colourist and someone who worked magnificently with a monochrome palette.” More than 20 years after his death, his work is too little known. Some of Major’s paintings can be seen in the Museum of Wigan Life, Gallery Oldham, Salford Museum & Art Gallery, Southport’s Atkinson Art Gallery, Buxton Museum & Art Gallery, the Whitworth in Manchester, and a handful of other galleries. Once the Pandemic allows, they will be well worth tracking down. And I might make this the first in an occasional series on forgotten working class painters. In the meantime, here is a selection of Theodore Major’s work.