Michael Upton (1938–2002) was an English painter. Originally from Birmingham, Upton studied painting at the Royal College of Art at the same time as David Hockney.
Michael divided his activities between performance work and small, quiet, beautiful gouaches in a time when everyone else seemed to be doing big messy paintings. Many of these paintings were exhibited after his death at The Henry Peacock Gallery.
He taught painting at the Royal Academy in London. He lived in Mousehole, Cornwall until his death in 2002.
Obituary from The Independent dated 15 October 2002:
Michael Upton, painter: born Birmingham 5 February 1938; married 1964 Anne McKechnie (one son deceased; marriage dissolved), 1974 Susy Young (died 1990; one son, one daughter); died Truro, Cornwall 20 September 2002.
The painter Michael Upton epitomised, for many of his contemporaries, the essence of Sixties cool. Good-looking, enigmatic, gregarious, he cut a louche, dashing figure in a monochromatic London throwing off the shackles of Fifties restraint. He and his friends and acquaintances – who included poets and writers as well as artists such as Patrick Procktor and David Hockney – hung out in the then urban wastelands of Notting Hill. He once said that he was only a painter because he couldn't do anything else; that what he had really wanted to be was a rock star.
Such apparent bravura belied the enduring commitment to his art that he maintained to the end of his life.
Upton was born in 1938 into a working-class family in Birmingham. He attended Birmingham College of Art from 1954 to 1958 and then the Royal Academy Schools in London until 1962 – where he was awarded a Leverhulme Scholarship in 1960 – and then went to Rome on an Abbey Scholarship. In 1971 he was awarded the Cassandra Foundation Award, and the same year became a tutor at the Royal Academy Schools and external assessor in painting at various art colleges.
It was during this period that he met the artist Peter Lloyd-Jones. The two men could not have been more different in temperament. Yet their artistic collaboration was to be seminal for both artists: this took the form of performances and installations in the late Seventies and early Eighties, in which a sequence of movements and images unfolded through a period of time, subtly altering the relationship between performer, object and viewer (and captured in the photograph Two Men, 1978). They remained close friends, rivals and artistic soul mates until Lloyd-Jones's suicide last year. Both men would have enjoyed the synchronicity that Michael was to die exactly a year to the day, on 20 September, of Peter's funeral.
In 1974 Upton married Susy, one of the Young twins who modelled for Biba, that acme of 1960s chic, and moved to Bridport, Dorset. They had two children, Jess and Sam. (Upton's son Byron, with his first wife, Anne, died at the age of 16 in 1982.) In Bridport, Michael and Susy quickly became a magnet for the artistic set in the South-West, for many years living in Victoria Grove, where Michael also had his studio. Clubbable, charming and feckless, he was always to be found holding court at the end of the bar in the George, never taking seriously the dangerous form of diabetes that was ultimately to end his life.
Upton's performances with Lloyd-Jones were not separate from his paintings. In these he was also concerned with time and the minute changes it evinces. In his small, meticulously executed works, mostly created in series, the subject often remained the same while the light subtly changed from morning to evening, from sun to shade, thus implying a uniting narrative. He once told me that he painted the things he found around him:
To that extent I'm a domestic painter, but I don't paint intimate things, like Vuillard's painting of his mother or Bonnard's family . . . I've never made a painting of my cat, my baby, my wife, but I've painted my studio, the environment in which I work.
He was not a colourist by nature; his tones were monochromatic. He used only four colours, greys, greens, ochres and Indian red; old colours, earth colours applied with architectural deliberation on a grid-like base. It was this tonal quality, as well as the subject matter of much of his mid-Eighties work – the unemployed sitting in Hackney Library, trench-coated figures drifting though city streets, a bicycle propped against a wall – that gave his work a nostalgic quality.
Film was a major influence, particularly the work of Werner Herzog and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1984). Alberto Giacometti also was hugely important, particularly his manner of placing objects in space. Yet, despite an earlier period spent living and working in New York, Upton was, in the very best sense of the phrase, a very English painter influenced by the atmosphere and palette of Sickert's Camden Town paintings.
In the Eighties he took part in innumerable mixed shows and had solo exhibitions at the Yale Center for British Art (1987), the Anthony Ralph Gallery, New York (1987), and at Anne Berthoud and Cassian de Vere Cole's galleries in London. After the death of his wife Susy in 1990 from breast cancer, Upton moved to London and then with his close friend Sally Fleetwood, in 1996, to Mousehole, Cornwall, where he had a studio in her converted Methodist chapel in Duck Street.
Despite the amputation of his leg due to complications from diabetes, Cornwall gave him a new lease of artistic life as he painted the rocky coastline and the little harbour of Mousehole with an enriched palette. These later paintings combined figuration, abstraction and text to embody his sense of place. During his time in Cornwall he exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Show, the Newlyn Society Show and the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol. In 1999 he exhibited at the Beatrice Royal Gallery in Eastleigh, Hampshire, and at the Great Atlantic Map Works Gallery in St Just-in-Penwith.
He finally lost his second leg to diabetes, but this didn't stop him. The walls of his small room in Redruth Hospital, where he was recovering from his final operation, were covered with paintings. Using a wheelchair, he painted the same view from the window over and over again, noting, as Monet had done in his own series of Chartres cathedral, the shifting nuances of light and weather.
Michael Upton inspired among those who knew him admiration, affection and exasperation in about equal measure. For he never took good physical care of himself, resenting the limitations diabetes placed on his life. Charming, irresponsible about his health, a committed teacher, he was also very knowledgeable about the history of art and a highly entertaining raconteur.
He did not "go gentle into that good night" but remained true to his gifts and vision as an artist, painting until the very end.