Stephenson, John Cecil

(1889 – 1965)

Monody, circa 1959

Signed and titled on the reverse; labelled to the reverse, “not for sale”
Oil on board, 48 x 36 in. (122 x 91.5 cm)


Marjorie Guthrie

Provenance: Marjorie Guthrie
Exhibited: Drian Gallery, September 1960, no 3; Cecil Stephenson, A Retrospective Exhibition, 29 January-19 February 1975, Camden Arts Centre, no. 70
Literature: Simon Guthrie, John Cecil Stephenson, 1997, p. 119, ill. p. 150

The majority of Stephenson’s work, especially post War, had musical titles. 

A Monody is an ode sung by a single actor in a Greek tragedy.

‘The vicissitudes of the art world are such that it is possible for an artist of great talent to work for a lifetime in obscurity, and only towards the end of his career find the recognition that is due to him. He was one of the earliest artists in the country to develop a completely abstract style, a conscious craftsman … he has created a world of visual delight that must at last be shared with a wide and appreciative public’ (Herbert Read, introduction to Cecil Stephenson, exh. cat., Drian Gallery, London, 1960).

In April 1959 Stephenson met Halima Nalecz, the ebullient, Juno-esque owner of the recently opened Drian Gallery in London. She invited Stephenson to prepare for a one-man show (surprisingly his first), which took place in September 1960. He had about eighteen months to prepare for it. This resulted in a remarkable body of abstract work,most of which, according to their titles, are analogous to aspects of music. Some paintings were on a fairly modest scale (24- 18 in.) but at least ten were quite large (usually 48- 36 in.). Many refer back to small sketches in oil on paper that Stephenson had made during the Second World War, materials being in short supply. Some are fairly thinly painted in oil on paper; others are painted in heavy impasto on canvas and board. With the latter there is a dramatic gestural quality that shows an awareness of American Abstract Art, with which Stephenson was familiar through his activities as Chairman of the Hampstead Artists’ Council. The smaller pictures were priced at around ¬£50; the larger ones ¬£100.

At the time of the exhibition, which was a critical if not a commercial success, Stephenson gave an interview (his last, as he was shortly to suffer a stroke, after which he was tragically incapacitated):

‘Many misuse the word ‘abstract’; Kandinsky explains it very well. Abstraction is a matter of condensing everything down to certain forms, such as the vertical (dynamic), the horizontal (static), and the diagonal somewhere between the two. The movement of a straight line runs across the canvas, but it can be broken up, like the teeth of a saw,to make quite a different effect.

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Stephenson, John Cecil

1889 – 1965

Painter, born in Bishop Auckland, Co. Durham. He studied at Darlington Technical College, 1906-08, at the Leeds School of Art, 1908-14, the RCA, 1914-18, and Slade, 1918. Between 1915 and 1918 he did war work, making tools. In 1919 he took on Sickert’s studio, 6 Mall Studios, Hampstead, where he was later joined by Herbert Read, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. From 1922 until 1955 he was Head of Art Teaching in the Architectural Department, Northern Polytechnic, Holloway Road. In 1932 he began making his first abstract works, exhibiting during the next decade in many abstract and constructive shows in England, France and the USA. In 1934 he exhibited with the 7&5 Society, along with the likes of Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Ivon Hitchens, Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and John Piper. During World War II he returned partly to figurative work, making paintings of the Blitz. From the 1950s he returned to large abstract paintings, realising many of the abstract compositions he had sketched out on a small scale in the previous decade, when materials had been in short supply. In 1951 he made a 10 x 30 ft. fluorescent paint mural for the Festival of Britain, and began working with ply glass for murals. In 1958 he suffered three strokes, which left him unable to move or talk. Partly for this reason he is today less well-known than many of his contemporaries, but he was one of the key figures in the development of abstract art in Britain. He is represented in the collection of the Tate and internationally.

Selected Literature

Cecil Stephenson 1889-1965, Fischer Fine Art, London, 1976.

Simon Guthrie, The Life and Art of John Cecil Stephenson: A Victorian Painter’s Journey to Abstract Expressionism, Cartmel Press Associates, 1997.

When in the fifties, I became engaged to Simon (David) Guthrie, he took me to meet his mother, Kathleen Guthrie, and his stepfather, Cecil Stephenson. They lived in a studio; to me, a novel idea. 6, Mall Studios, in Belsize Park, had been Cecil’s habitat for some thirty years. The main studio was a large room with a big north light running from the floor up into the roof. In one corner were Cecil’s easel and paints; in another were his machine tools and lathes and in a third was his piano. The fourth corner contained a sofa and some bookcases, where Kathleen could sit and read, or listen to Cecil playing his favourite Brahms or Chopin. Kathleen was Cecil’s second wife. She was herself a professional artist; a Sladey-lady and like Cecil, a founder member of the Hampstead Artists’ Council. There wasn’t room for her to paint in the studio, so Cecil had built her a painting shed in the garden. The garden also had a small pond with a large population of newts and some very decorative Koi carp, and a monorail for Cecil’s hand-built model steam locomotive. Cecil was a warm-hearted man of many talents, but modest and self-effacing, and meticulous in all his many undertakings. His output of paintings was small, due to the pressures of earning a living by teaching, and his inability to refuse requests for his engineering skills, whether it was to make a new part for a friend’s old Lagonda, dash off a metal staircase or a new set of wrought-iron gates. Perhaps he was overshadowed by his brilliant friend and erstwhile neighbour, Ben Nicholson. Other neighbours included Barbara Hepworth and John Skeaping, the art critic and writer Sir Herbert Read, and later, Henry Moore and Bernard Meadows. When Cecil died, he left quite a body of works which the family have cherished and enjoyed for the last forty years. These include most of the pictures in this exhibition. Simon retired from academic life in 1990 and he devoted himself to trying to promote his stepfather’s reputation. First he wrote a biography, based largely on Cecil’s abbreviated but carefully kept diaries. He then devoted much time and energy to trying to persuade a gallery to mount a proper retrospective of Cecil’s work, particularly the early abstracts. Remembering Cecil’s northern roots, he tried hard to interest various galleries in the north of England in such an exhibition. Sadly his ambition was never achieved. So his family were very willing to co-operate with the suggestion of The Fine Art Society to mount this show, in the hope that many more people could derive pleasure and satisfaction from these fine paintings.

– Marjorie Guthrie


John Cecil Stephenson
Approved Design for Festival of Women’s House
John Cecil Stephenson
Carpriccioso, 1960
John Cecil Stephenson
Life Class, early 1930’s