Norman Charles Balmey OBE
Norman Charles Blamey OBE RA was an English painter, noted latterly for his portraits and depictions of Church ritual.
Norman, who died aged 85, was a consummate draughtsman specialising in contemplative domestic subjects and episodes from the liturgy of the Anglo-Catholic church. His paintings have only recently been given due recognition, for both his subject and his style were unusual, but he brought to his work an intensity that expresses not only the spirituality of high Anglicans but of all who value ritual.
The setting of his religious pieces was usually Old St Pancras Church, London, where he worshipped all his life, and his pictures sometimes show him as an assistant in the ritual. In his work, the sense of the spiritual was translated into a crystalline geometry, worked out with a fascination for mathematics worthy of the early renaissance masters. Space is telescoped, manipulated to form tightly-knit compositions in which the human figure creates powerful patterns. The depictions of ritual make telling use of this device, with lines of repeated cassocks and copes building up magnificent counterpoint, while dull tertiary colours, with greys and whites, supply a rich, subdued harmony.
Norman was born in St Pancras on December 16th 1914, the only son of a manufacturing chemist and his wife. He was educated at Holloway School and then at the Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art (1931–1937). He went on to teach at the Polytechnic – interrupted by military service during World War II – moving to the Chelsea School of Art (now the Chelsea College of Art & Design) in 1963. He first showed at the Royal Academy in 1938, and continued to do so for 50 years. His war was spent with the army in Egypt, Palestine and the Lebanon, where, in hospital, he made a series of fine drawings of his fellow patients.
After the war, Norman returned to the Regent Street Polytechnic, and, in the 1950s, began to produce the sequence of paintings of ritual that forms the backbone of his output. In 1956, he was commissioned to decorate the apse of St Luke's church, Leagrave, Luton; the result, the imposing Christ In His Glory, reflects Byzantine stylisation.
In it, Norman adopted pronounced distortions of the figure in this decade, devices which he was later to regard as unsatisfactory, mere lip-service to modernism. They are often, nevertheless, powerfully effective, and betray the great impression made on him by Stanley Spencer's work, notably at Burghclere Chapel, and by van Eyck's Ghent Altarpiece, which he first saw as a 19-year-old in 1933.
Another mural, for the Lutheran church of St Andrew, Ruislip Manor, was executed in 1964. Norman's career saw the steady elimination of mannerisms, until, by the 1970s, he was painting with a realistic directness strengthened by his unfailing dedication to pictorial geometry. This is embodied in the paint itself, applied with a palette knife, often guided by the straight edge of masking tape. (He is said to have used the same palette knife for some 40 years.)
These technical comments apply as much to his domestic subjects as to his ecclesiastical ones. Enclosed spaces are defined and amplified by mirrors, reflections rendered ambiguous by the presence of the miscellanea of an artist's collecting - fossils, flints, small sculptures, postcards. His models are usually Margaret, his wife, whom he married in 1948, and his son, Stephen, who became a philosopher and logician.
Norman was a very private man, and his pictures reflect that. When he painted himself, it was usually to make a pictorial statement about the artist's viewpoint, rather than to record a personality in which he took interest. But he painted fine portraits, too, the work of an incisive and humane mind.
He continued to teach at Chelsea School of Art, where he was senior lecturer from 1963-79, and, after his election as a royal academician in 1975, as visiting lecturer at the RA schools. He believed passionately in the traditional disciplines of the draughtsman, but was too retiring to pronounce on them, and taught by example, making drawings himself to show how he thought things should be done.
His gentle reserve and modesty were commensurate with the concentrated power of his painting. He did not expect success; indeed when he was invited to a celebratory lunch on his 80th birthday at the Tate Gallery, which had acquired several of his works, he remarked: "I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming." A one-man show was organised by Lynda Checketts for the Norwich Gallery in 1992; it travelled to the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath, and the Fine Art Society, London. He was awarded the OBE in 1998.
Norman's wife Margaret died in 1989 and he died on 17 January 2000. RH