Short Back and Sides by William Bowyer (1926–2015) depicts the interior of a barber’s salon, with the scene shown as reflected through a mirror. One customer is having his hair cut, while two more wait their turn. Bowyer’s friend and fellow artist from Burslem School of Art, Derek Higginson, is the man in the barber’s chair.
William Bowyer has been described as ‘the most famous unknown painter’. Born in Leek in Staffordshire, he combined working at Sneyd Colliery, Burslem, as a Bevin Boy during the Second World War with art classes at Burslem School of Art. In 1945, he was accepted by the Royal College of Art in London. He studied under Professor Carel Weight and Ruskin Spear.
The 1950s saw the emergence of a group of British painters described by art critic David Sylvester as the ‘Kitchen Sink school’. They deliberately focused their work on the often unglamorous reality of post-war Britain. Sylvester described them as painting ‘[e]verything but the kitchen sink – the kitchen sink too.’ Artists associated with this school include John Bratby, Derrick Greaves, Edward Middleditch and Jack Smith. In 1956, the four were invited to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale. However, by the 1960s they had fallen out of favour as Britain’s economic prospects improved. Short Back and Sides is a painting which fits into this background. Unfortunately, some of Bowyer’s other early works were lost in an accidental fire, so it is particularly important to have this work in The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.
Bowyer then combined teaching posts with his work as an artist, becoming head of fine art at Maidstone College of Art. In 1981, he was elected to the Royal Academy of Arts and became a full-time artist.
Bowyer was influenced by the New English Art Club, of which he was honorary secretary for 30 years. The club was founded in 1885, initially as an alternative venue to the Royal Academy, and members have included Stanley Spencer, Duncan Grant and Paul Nash. Bowyer’s work fits into this tradition of realism and vibrant observation. He painted many scenes around his homes in Chiswick and later, Walberswick in Suffolk. His depictions of water, both the Thames and the sea, are particularly vivid. He was also a portraitist, and his depictions of trade unionist Arthur Scargill and cricketer Viv Richards are in the National Portrait Gallery, London. His depiction of Scargill is particularly appropriate given Bowyer’s work as a Bevin Boy. Bowyer had a passion for cricket, so painting Viv Richards must have been a great pleasure for him.
Claire Blakey, Arts Curator, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery