Over the years a few exceptional Cardiffians have had the awareness and the integrity to rise above the city’s all-pervading dim, unquestioning, passive conformity and become true originals – none more so than brilliant modernist painter Jeffrey Steele, who died in June. A man of high intelligence, unshakeable principles and acute critical faculties, he carved his own creative path through life regardless of prevailing orthodoxy and received opinion to leave an inspiring legacy of pioneering radicalism and matchless artistry.
Everything he achieved was thanks to his own efforts. Growing up in Mackintosh Place, Roath, he had no help or encouragement from parents who were narrow-minded, church-going, working-class Tories fixated on ‘respectability’, upward mobility and crippling conformity – though their authoritarianism and philistinism did provide him with a benchmark of how not to be and an ideology to rebel against. At Howard Gardens High School some teachers recognised his artistic talent and that gave him the confidence to forge his own values and pursue his love of art. In 1948 he won a scholarship to Cardiff School of Art (then located at The Friary, now part of Cardiff Met Uni in Llandaf), but he found the institution hidebound and prescriptive, was continually in conflict with the School authorities and he dropped out without attaining a diploma. A voracious reader and auto-didact, his developing pacifism and socialism brought him into further conflict with the powers-that-be when he registered as a conscientious objector rather than undertake compulsory national service. A tribunal forced him to do two years as a porter at St David’s Hospital, Canton, and he was kicked out of the family home because of this brave opposition to militarism, not to mention his avowed atheism. He discovered, as many do, that familial ‘love’ comes with strings attached.
With a friend he rented studio space and lodgings above a scrap yard in Metal Street, Adamsdown, and there he began to really hone his skills and explore the possibilities of contemporary art. His early inspiration was eccentric English figurative painter Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), who specialised in elaborate, hyper-real biblical scenes transposed to a modern setting. In an homage to Spencer, Steele painted Christ Carrying the Cross on an old bedsheet in 1952. It depicted Jesus lugging a giant crucifix along rough and ready Constellation Street in Adamsdown, followed by crowds of distorted but identifiable local characters. After it was included in the Royal Academy’s 1953 summer exhibition, there was a predictable outcry in the gutter press and Steele was bombarded with abusive hate-mail (anonymous rightwing trolls are nothing new – it’s just there weren’t so many back in the 1950s). The experience made him recoil from the limelight and hastened his conversion to the abstract. This process was confirmed after he was awarded a French government scholarship to study in Paris in 1959. There he discovered the work of uncompromising modernists like Victor Vasarely (1906-1997), Max Bill (1908-1994) and Josef Albers (1888-1976) and resolved to become a dedicated modernist himself.
Through the 1960s he was a pioneer of ‘Op Art’, his solo exhibitions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London cementing a reputation for meticulously constructed, eye-ball popping, black and white geometric patterns that shimmered and shifted on the canvas. Largely ignored in hopelessly conservative Cardiff, he took up a post as a senior lecturer at Portsmouth College of Art in 1968 and left the city, never to return. He settled in Southsea on the Hampshire coast, looking out across la Manche to France.
In 1969 Steele was a founder member of the vanguard ‘Systems Group’ of ‘constructivist’ artists and he exhibited widely across Europe in the 1970s, becoming lauded as an avant-garde maestro as he stretched and refined his work further to include exuberant colour and endless variation while never departing from a commitment to logic, rationalism and precision – in preference to the bogus emotions, aggrandising individualism and bourgeois complacencies of art-as-genius, art-as-transcendence, art-as-escapism and art-as-commodity.
Effortlessly multilingual and seriously intellectual, he was an out-and-out Marxist. By this, I don’t mean ‘Marxist’ in the way it is routinely utilised these days as a slovenly, dog-whistle mantra to provoke knee-jerk hostility in lumpen rightwing thugs who have never read a word of the magnificent, profound works of Karl Marx (1818-1883). I mean it literally, as the demonstrably true realisation that capitalism destroys everything and everybody it touches and, unless stopped, will destroy the world. Jeffrey Steele was always ahead of his time – and still is.
His prominence faded in the 1980s and 1990s as turbo-charged consumer capitalism took hold and modern art itself was side-lined by the crass gimmicks, reactionary regurgitations and lowbrow self-indulgences of postmodernism. But Steele, sublimely uninterested in the exigencies of fashion and popularity, never wavered from his artistic mission. He took early retirement from his lecturing job in 1989 and continued to exhibit new work into the new century as his huge back catalogue entered the collections of galleries and museums – including the National Museum of Wales, where he had been so beguiled by the Impressionists as a boy. In his later years he wrote as much as he painted, considering words to be analytical tools intrinsic to his art. His hunger for knowledge never ceased and it is to be hoped his many unpublished essays on art, literature, music and politics will be published in the future. Jeffrey Steele was a great man with a great mind; we need such rare people more than ever.