Keith Cunningham: reclusive artist showcase at Newport Street Gallery

Haunting, dark paintings in blood red, shades of burnt orange and ghoulish grey. The occasional figure of an anonymous solitary man, a human skull or an animal carcass hidden beneath the thick brushstrokes. This is the work of reclusive Australian artist Keith Cunningham, little known during his lifetime, in a retrospective exhibition ‘The Cloud of Witness’ at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery in Vauxhall.

Installation view, Keith Cunningham: The Cloud of Witness (2022), Newport Street Gallery. Photographed by Prudence Cuming Associates.

Some 70 artworks by Cunningham, all part of Damien Hirst’s personal collection, are on display at the gallery – and the theme is certainly sombre. Walking through the pristine white gallery, the first painting titled ‘Portrait of Frank Bowling’ – a contemporary of Cunningham’s – shows the figure of a man who appears to be grimacing, his facial features obscured by the dark red and brown paint. A series of pieces themed around dogs are particularly striking, the ghostly form of the animals fading into various hues of red and grey. Upstairs are more figurative paintings; lonely figures. His widow, Bobby Hilson, has said that his paintings “reflect his complicated personality and have an intense aesthetic marked by an underlying darkness”. These pieces are deeply psychological yet subtle; abrasive but also alluring.

Keith Cunningham Four Dogs, Spain, 1955, Oil on canvas, Credit: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

Cunningham moved to London in 1949, initially to study graphic design, before enrolling at the Royal College of Art to study painting. A contemporary of Frank Auerbach, Francis Bacon and Jo Tilson, he became a part of the London art scene, garnering praise from art critics and collectors. But he later withdrew from the art world, refusing to exhibit his work. He continued to paint, storing his artworks in his Battersea studio, which were not revealed to the public until his death in 2014. For Cunningham, his art was a private pursuit where he could unleash his inner demons, expressing them through the violent contours of pigment. 

Keith Cunningham ,Red Portrait of Frank Bowling, 1956-1957, Oil on canvas
Credit: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd

This exhibition showcases Cunningham’s intense productivity, with a steadfastness and consistency that – despite his relative obscurity – should cement his position as a remarkable artist alongside the likes of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon.

The exhibition runs until 21August 2022 at the Newport Street Gallery and admission is free.

Newport Street Gallery, 1 Newport Street, London, SE11 6AJ.

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