Paint and Life: Fred Yates
This exhibition of paintings by Fred Yates spans a period of forty years from his first Cornish paintings to a group of canvases completed just a year before his death in 2008. As an exhibition it is not intended to chart the twists and turns of his development as a painter, on the contrary, I wanted to show how Fred’s final, highly expressive canvases painted in France seemed to return to the ideas and techniques he first developed forty years earlier in his first period of intense activity as an artist. The Tate’s major survey of Lowry this summer provides an opportunity to see Yates alongside an artist who was so important to him and with whom he is often compared; yet also to understand that it was Lowry who gave Yates the confidence to be himself, to find his own voice and to be anything other than another Lowry.
Lowry’s influence on Yates was significant and no doubt his example was the inspiration behind Yates’s decision to risk abandoning his teaching career and become a full-time artist in 1969. As another Manchester man, Lowry had proved it was possible to break through the patrician art establishment of post-war Britain and create an art that spoke to ordinary people, an objective that Yates held foremost in his work throughout his life. In 1954, Yates had come second to Lowry in a competition on the subject of ‘Art and Football’ and his celebratory dinner sitting next to Mr Lowry at the Cafe Royal was one of his proudest moments. Yet despite this early success it took another fifteen years for Yates to summon the courage to quit teaching; he knew that unless he found his own voice as an artist he would simply be bundled together with a wave of ‘Northern School’ artists. Yates looked on Lowry as a mentor, whose tireless, self-taught refinement of technique in drawing and painting was the key to unlock his own originality. Yates had grown to loathe academic art training and needed to ‘unlearn’ what he had been taught and what he had taught others for the previous two decades. From 1967 to about 1974 Yates devoted himself to defining his own style, experimenting with more expressive ways of using oil paint and finally emerging with the fearless approach to painting that was to characterise his technique for the next four decades.
As he gained in confidence as a painter his subjects began to emerge out of his new environment. Like Lowry, Yates set out to paint the world around him but his world was not the industrial north; in Cornwall it was the rural lanes, cottages and harbours that provided the backdrop to his experiments in painting. Despite his desire for a solitary life, Yates also needed an audience; he was a showman who was in his element chatting to the summer crowds that would watch him paint in the street and who might often find their way into the paintings. His deep affection for people meant that even in the largest crowds everyone was defined as an individual: shy children, prim elderly ladies, prostitutes and dog-walkers, fashionable tourists, fishermen, nannies with prams and gangs of punks; and most famously, the ubiquitous Manchester ladies in cloche hats and knitted shawls who first saw him paint in the forties and who had asked to be included – a promise Yates dutifully maintained throughout his life.
—John Martin, 2013