by Mark Banting

WHEN the work of Southend amateur artist Maurice Dolphin was shown the Beecroft Art Gallery earlier this year it caused something of a stir. Now in his mid-70s and living in a residential home, the exhibition was a celebration of the creative spirit and, having lived in Southend all his life, his biography was written up here in The Echo.

For me, however, it was the paintings themselves that at were the greater surprise. The exhibition consisted of a series of portraits – Victorian figures in the main, including the Queen, Houdini and several of Florence Nightingale – all painted in subdued sepia colours and presented in ornate gold frames. They seemed so old-fashioned; not even of last century, but the one before. It was as if the whole of modern art, from Impressionism to Conceptualism had never happened, and all without a hint of postmodern irony. It was bewildering. What was this Maurice Dolphin up to?

A few weeks ago I caught up with the artist for coffee, and a conversation that took all sorts of unexpected directions. We began by looking through a family photograph album, discussing the struggle of life during and after the war and Maurice’s years at Southend Art School life drawing classes in the late 1950s.

He went on to work in Fleet Street as a commercial artist and illustrator for comic publications like Roy of the Rovers. But it was a different kind of art entirely that really drew his attention: Maurice tells me of a trip to Amsterdam and the inspiration of a visit to Rembrandt’s house, picturing the artist’s life and how, whilst his work is now seen as extraordinary and innovative, he was rejected by Dutch society and painted in poverty. Two other trips took Maurice to Paris, a city that felt strangely familiar, as if he had been there in a former life, perhaps at the time of the Revolution. As he spoke Rembrandt’s intense characterful portraits of the 17th century gave way to the academic realism of 18th and 19th century French art and fine-featured portraits by Ingres and Bougereau that elevate the sitters to a realm of neoclassical beauty.

Contexts of time and place give rise to very particular ways of seeing – ways of painting – and it seemed that Maurice almost conjured up the distinctive atmospheres of Dutch studio and then Napoleonic Paris, like visions over the coffee cups here in Southend High Street.

And the Victorian age? Why Florence Nightingale? Again the picture changed: the Crimea, wounded men, the lack of medical supplies and an infuriated Nightingale returning to Parliament to demand recognition for the common soldier’s plight. Nightingale was unique: a larger than life character, a representative symbol of the era; an heroic force for good. And as I thought back to the exhibition, I saw it as a theatrical experience - the academic painting style, the sepia colours and heavy gold frames – it opened doors onto the past and, if Maurice Dolphin’s work has any meaning, brought the past very much into the present.

* You can watch a film about Maurice Dolphin now, on the site. My Town Southend is a Community Interest Companywhich works to "provide practical solutions to social exclusion caused by unemployment, youth disengagement and social isolation" and provide local information "to celebrate good things and deeds of all the people living and working in and around the borough".