An Introduction to Theodore Major
As regular visitors the gallery will know, we are located only a few miles from Wigan town centre and even closer to the village of Appley Bridge. Not the obvious choice of location for a contemporary art gallery perhaps but fortuitously for us it brings us closer to the heart of the artist described by Michael Howard as ‘Britain’s last forgotten twentieth century master’.*
Theodore Major was born in Wigan in humble circumstances in 1908 and although his life would be devoted to art, his start in life would not make the path an easy one. The son of cotton mill worker parents, Theo (as he liked to be known), left school at 13 and took up employment in a tailors shop. Due to ill health however, suffering bouts of rheumatic fever, Theo would be forced to leave the job, devoting himself to drawing and painting.
Eventually enrolling at Wigan art college where he met his future wife Kathleen, Major could have been described as the star pupil, eventually taking up a teaching post at the college.
During these early years of his career as an artist, Theodore Major exhibited alongside the other aspiring Northern artists of the day including L S Lowry and James Lawrence Isherwood although as time went on his motivations and drive would take him in a different direction.
Exhibitions included Arts Council Sponsored shows along with group exhibitions at Salford and the Midday Studios in Manchester, but Major became increasingly disillusioned with the commercial art world. Describing fame and money as the enemy of the artist, his burning desire was to paint, never motivated by the financial gain of selling his works. Although Salford Art Gallery put on a serious exhibition of his work in 1984, he remained largely reclusive and suspicious of the art world in the second half of his life yet often opening his home for people to visit and view his paintings.
Greatly inspired by artists such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh and the poet William Blake, Major’s subject matters were varied. Perhaps best known for his dark and atmospheric industrial landscapes, his body of work also included still lives, vibrant figurative works and a series of skeletons and monsters which emerged after the death of his wife Kathleen in 1978. It could be said that some of his most personal, powerful and eventually important paintings were conceived in this period of his life.
Inhabiting two semi detached houses in Appley Bridge near Wigan, hundreds of canvases and boards filled the houses upon his death in 1999. Although some have been exhibited since in museum exhibitions including a joint exhibition alongside his friend L S Lowry at the Atkinson in Southport entitled Two Lancashire Painters in 2015, most have remained unseen until now.
Despite critic John Berger saying in a 1958 New Statesman edition that Major’s ‘best canvases… deserve to hang among the best English paintings of our time’, the lack of access to the paintings has made it almost impossible. It is therefore wonderful that after extensive research from Michael Howard, author of ‘Lowry, A Visionary Artist’, a 2020 book will shed light on the artist’s amazing talent and in conjunction the family have begun to share his masterpieces.
It is a great honour therefore for Hepplestone Fine Art, so close geographically to Major’s home, to be able to showcase a selection of his paintings subject to their availability. We are constantly amazed and enthralled by the stories we hear from local people who met and had affection for Theo, so we would love to hear from anybody who had contact with him and would like to share your experiences and enjoy his work once more.