Reading the autobiography Ken Howard – Light and Dark I am struck by the similarities of his life and works with Ted Seago. Both were/are figurative painters, immensely popular with sell-out exhibitions at the Colnaghi gallery, both had more popular than critical acclaim, and both careers were shaped by the army.
Ted Seago painted alongside Harold Alexander as the distinguished World War Two general led his army through Italy. Before a key engagement they would sit in the hills, easels out, painting away and were firm friends. Previously Seago had painted with General Claude Auchinlech. Ken Howard was a official war artist in Northern Ireland and with the Gurkhas. In his case being a war artist offered excellent travel opportunities and visual diversity. He is often, and in my view wrongly, classified as a contre jour painter of light, some of his best work – for example his Ulster triptych – is far more forebidding though still reflects his brilliant use of colour.
I never knew Seago personally, but by the sound of it he was an engaging man and excellent company. Ken I do know and everyone takes to him, even the people of Northern Ireland in the height of the Troubles. He would set up his easel in some of the most dangerous streets in the Province and never encountered any hostility. He never asked for protection but painted away. On one occasion a Republican thoughtfully blew up a car as he thought it would make an interesting subject. On another in Bielefeld, then West Germany, Ken was offered the chance to drive the Chieftain tank he was painting. He set off with a team of five round the turret. Coming to a crater, Ken decided to accelerate through it. On reaching the other side, he was startled to see the redfaced Scottish tank Sergeant hanging upside down who said:
“Christ,Mr Howard, did you pass your effing driving test?” Apparently the other four hung onto the gun for dear life.
The only real difference is that Seago was never really accepted by the Royal Academy. Ken became an Academician and then Professor of Perspective. Still highly active,well into his eighties, he has just come back from Paris and New York for his exhibition at the Richard Green gallery in January. Although dismissed by Rodrigo Moyninah as no more than an illustrator, I consider him to be one of our best contemporary artists whose work like Seago will stand the test of posterity.