A NEW exhibition exploring the influence of the theatre on the painter Leonard Rosoman will feature 16 works from his extraordinary series based on John Osborne’s controversial play A Patriot for Me.

The works have not been exhibited together since the 1970s. Conveying the ‘claustrophobic, sometimes savage, atmosphere’ of the play, the series also captured a moment in time when attitudes towards sexuality and censorship were on the cusp of change.

The exhibition, at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, is the first major museum show of Rosoman’s work in 30 years and is part of a nationwide programme celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts.

A Patriot for Me, an exploration of gay life told through the true story of the disgraced Austro- Hungarian army officer Colonel Redl, was first performed at the Royal Court in 1965. Initially banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s office for its homosexual content, a legal loophole was exploited which turned the theatre into a private club for the play’s duration.

Leonard Rosoman (1913 – 2012) attended the first performance and found his friend Osborne’s play such a transformative experience that he returned every night for a week to create drawings by torchlight.

It was three years before he revisited these first impressions, producing a remarkable series of works dominated by two major paintings on the play’s famous Drag Ball scene. These large canvases show a bustling stage filled with elegantly cross-dressed men, a development of Rosoman’s interest in multi-figure composition.

As well as renderings of other scenes including the gruesome The Beating Up, for which he referred to media images of male conflict and attack, Rosoman produced smaller portrait studies including of George Devine as Baron von Epp, of Jill Bennett as Countess Sophie, and of Maximillian Schell as Colonel Redl.

Crucially, the paintings do not amount to a depiction of the play itself, but instead act as Rosoman’s own painterly response to the same material that Osborne had addressed as a writer. The use of a box-like stage setting reinvents the 18th century theatrical conversation piece, perfected by the artist Johan Zoffany (1733 – 1810), who incidentally had painted Rosoman’s ancestor Thomas Rosoman, the man responsible for Sadler’s Wells’ new stone theatre in 1765.

At the time, the critical response to these paintings, exhibited both in New York and in London, was muted and inadequate and since the late 60s, aside from the showing of a small selection at the Fine Art Society in 1974, they have not been seen.

During his career, Rosoman was a painter and illustrator whose unique narrative style did not sit neatly within the story of British modernism. He was chosen by Kenneth Clark to become an official war artist in 1945. As a muralist, he painted murals for the Festival of Britain in 1951 and for the restored chapel of Lambeth Palace – his permanent mural ‘Upstairs and Downstairs’ (1986) can be seen today in the Royal Academy of Art’s Grand Café.

He taught widely – counting David Hockney and Peter Blake amongst his students – first at Camberwell College of Art with John Minton, at Edinburgh College of Art where he initiated the Diaghilev exhibition in 1954, then at Chelsea College of Art and at the Royal College of Art. He became a Royal Academician in 1969 and was appointed an OBE in 1981.

The exhibition is curated by Dr Tanya Harrod, who is also author of an illustrated book on Leonard Rosoman published by the Royal Academy in 2017 and available in the Pallant Bookshop. 

Leonard Rosoman: Painting Theatre is at the Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, until Sunday April 29. Phone 01243 774557 or visit pallant.org.uk.

Words courtesy of the Pallant House Gallery.

Above: Leonard Rosoman, The Drag Ball, No. 1, 1967-8, Acrylic on canvas, 182.8 x 228.6 cm, Courtesy of Roxanne Rosoman, Photography Dawkins Colour / John Bodkin © The Artist’s Estate

Main picture: top: Leonard Rosoman, Portrait with Candelabra: George Devine as Baron von Epp, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, 101.2 x 76.2 cm, Courtesy of Roxanne Rosoman, Photography Dawkins Colour / John Bodkin © The Artist’s Estate

Below: Leonard Rosoman, The Drag Ball, No. 2, 1967-8, Acrylic on canvas, 182.8 x 228.6 cm, Courtesy of Roxanne Rosoman, Photography Dawkins Colour / John Bodkin © The Artist’s Estate

Above: Leonard Rosoman, Maximilian Schell as Redl, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, 180 x 180 cm, With kind permission of Arvon © The Artist’s Estate

Below: Leonard Rosoman, Study. Officer in drag, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, 91.5 x 91.5 cm, Dakin Collection © The Artist’s Estate

Above: Leonard Rosoman, Redl in bed with a whore, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm, Dakin Collection © The Artist’s Estate

Below: Leonard Rosoman, The Beating Up No. 1, 1968, Acrylic on canvas, 76.2 x 101.6 cm, With kind permission of Arvon © The Artist’s Estate

Above: Leonard Rosoman, Jill Bennett as Countess Sophia, 1968, Watercolour on paper on board, 76.2 x 101.6 cm, Private Collection, Photography Dawkins Colour / John Bodkin © The Artist’s Estate