Artists in Residence - Percy Horton (1897-1970)
Resident of Pond Cottages from the 1920s to the late 1930s
by Judy Fitton

In 1947, Percy Horton was invited to record in drawings the 150 mile Youth Railway being built by voluntary labour in war-ravaged Bosnia. His illustrious colleagues were Paul Nash, Laurence Scarfe and Ronald Searle, the latter having famously depicted the horrors of life in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp and the building of the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway in 1942/43, where labour  was hardly voluntary. Horton’s assignment, in which he was commissioned to draw the leading figures, was a professional highlight in a distinguished life which began modestly on 8th March 1897.

Percy Frederick Horton, the eldest of three brothers, was born in Brighton into a working-class family. His father Percy was a bus conductor and his mother a nurse who had worked in service. Both parents, especially his mother, encouraged the boys’ education in every way they could. This included providing music lessons for their eldest child who learned the violin – though they were financially unable to extend such lessons to Ronald and Harry who made do with being choir boys. The nurturing of the boys’ education by the parents paid dividends as they all won scholarships to Brighton Municipal Secondary School. On leaving school, Percy and Ronald also won scholarships to the Brighton School of Art .

By the time Horton left art school in 1916 it was the year of First World War Conscription and he had become a socialist and member of the Labour Party. He had also joined, with fellow student Royle Richmond, Brighton’s No-Conscription Fellowship. Horton had formed the opinion that war was a massive manipulation of the working man, agreeing with Fenner Brockway who wrote in the Labour Leader in 1914 ... ‘Workers of Great Britain, you have no quarrel with the workers of Europe. They have no quarrel with you. The quarrel is with the ruling classes of Europe ...’

 During the First World War, conscientious objectors (COs) were dealt with in three ways according to the reasons for their objection. They were given work to help the war effort which did not compromise their fundamental beliefs. Those who accepted non-combatant service under the military usually joined the Non-Combatant corps and were put through military training in squad drill without arms and trained in the use of tools for field engineering. The second and most popular choice was to accept alternative service under civilian authority such as working in munitions factories or on the land. However the third category comprised COs who were unwilling to conform to any form of discipline or service which could help the war effort and who claimed absolute exemption. Of this group, about 350 were granted exemption on religious grounds. There were, however, at least 1000 who were not granted exemption and who consistently resisted all attempts to make them accept alternative conditions. Horton belonged to this group. 

As an absolutist objector and for his refusal to report for duty Horton was sentenced to two years’ hard labour at Calton Prison in Edinburgh. For his subsequent refusal to carry out non-combatant war work of any sort, he was court-martialled twice more and not released from prison until the end of the war.

According to an article by an unknown prisoner (generally considered to be by Horton) entitled Life in a Scottish Prison which appeared in The Tribunal in 1917, conditions in the prison were harsh. It was extremely cold and all clothes except shirts and undershirts were confiscated at night, even during winter. The diet comprised porridge, sour milk, soup, with the ‘treat’ of potatoes once a week. The COs were treated more harshly than the other prisoners and suffered greatly from lack of exercise, fresh air and insanitary conditions. It was so bad that after the death of Royle Richmond from heart trouble exacerbated by his treatment in prison and the subsequent adverse press coverage, the Home Office demanded a list of prisoners ‘at risk’. Horton appeared on the list and thus obtained some temporary respite in hospital before being released at the end of the war.

 When Horton was finally released from prison he and Lydia Sargent Smith, the former fiancée of his friend Royle Richmond, decided to get married. Lydia, a remarkable woman, was eleven years older than Horton. She had been a suffragette in her youth and was so incensed by the treatment of suffragettes at the hands of the police that she joined the newly formed women’s police force. She was also a Quaker and her religious and political convictions had led to her strong opposition to conscription. Lydia and Horton were married in 1921 and later had a daughter, Katherine.

After the war Horton resumed his art studies at the Central School of Arts and Crafts where, under the respected tutor Archibald Hartrick, he learned to draw direct from life, expressing the form by line and striving to acquire a technique which would reflect the ‘seen’ reality. Later Horton was influenced by the new art emerging from France and for him it was the work of Cezanne that had the most profound influence. This can be seen in his landscape paintings of the early 1920s through to those painted in Provence in the 1960s. 

In 1920 after just a year at the Central School, Horton took a job as art teacher at Rugby School but resigned after two years to study again, this time at the Royal College of Art (RCA) under the new Principal William Rothenstein. While there, he was awarded the ARCA Diploma with distinction in painting and the RCA drawing prize for 1924. Fellow students included Henry Moore, Edward Bawden and Eric Ravillious. After leaving the RCA, Horton was appointed part- time Drawing Master at Bishop’s Stortford College. This was fortunate for him because, for five years after the end of the war, COs were disenfranchised and consequently had severe re-employment problems. Bishop’s Stortford College, however, followed a non-conformist tradition. The headmaster employed three former COs on the staff and refused to continue military training for the boys in peacetime, despite pressure from the Home Office. Horton enjoyed his time there and played an active role in the art department and general activities. This was greatly appreciated with an article in the school magazine saying how the ‘art had gone up in leaps and bounds since Horton’s arrival’. 

In 1930, Horton was invited to return to the RCA as a member of staff by William Rothenstein. He stayed for nineteen years, teaching in the painting school. While there, he volunteered to also teach at the Working Men’s College at St Pancras where, under James Laver (the famous art historian who made the study of fashion respectable, not to mention his work for the 1951 Festival of Britain) he helped to re-organise and update the tired teaching methods of the institution. In 1933, Horton began teaching at the Ruskin School in Oxford but when the RCA was evacuated to Ambleside in WW2, he found travelling between the two venues impossible and resigned from the Ruskin School. At this time, Horton was living in Dulwich. I know this for a fact because my parents were living next door to him in 10 Pond Cottages .

A welcome re-appointment to the Ruskin School, this time as Master of Drawing, came in 1949, where Horton’s pupils included the painter RB Kitaj  who studied there in 1957 and wrote of Horton...’a gentle man...he created the conditions in those great old Ashmolean rooms that I needed most, where one was not just able to but required to work from the figure every day without interruption. He was a gentle English Cezannist who could bear down if needed on rough-hewn American ex-soldiers from whom he could not tolerate too much neurotic art-jargon and half-formed modernity in practice’.  John Updike was another pupil who intriguingly wrote a story based on his experiences as a student at the Ruskin. The story, Still Life was published in the New Yorker and reprinted in his collection Pigeon Feathers and Other Stories.

Before and during WW2, Horton characteristically supported many causes. He exhibited with the anti-fascist AIA  (Artist International Association) and was on its advisory committee with, amongst others, Henry Moore, Oskar Kokoschka, Lucien Pissarro (another Dulwich resident) Augustus John and my father James Fitton. He also supported artist refugees who had fled from Germany, in particular Edmund Mehimann who married his daughter Katherine.

After retiring, Horton moved to Lewes near Brighton. He continued working two days a week at the Sir John Cass School and for one day at Hastings School of Art of Art with Vincent Lines with whom he made frequent visits to Provence. Horton’s work is held by Sheffield Art Gallery, The Ruskin School, The Tate Gallery, the Imperial War Museum and the British Museum amongst others.

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