British painter who escaped to Italy - and flourished

John Grome, who is known as an Anglo-Irish painter, was born in London in 1911.  However, he lived a considerable part of his life in Italy, a country whose friendly people, vital landscapes and immense culture conspired to be a catalyst in his life and work. 

His obsession with this other land was maybe instilled at an exhibition in London of contemporary Italian painting - La Scuola Romana.

One of the artists showing here was the neo-realist painter Renato Guttuso.  Grome was immediately drawn to the vibrancy of the Mediterranean colour and temperament and in 1947 he arrived in Rome where he met Guttuso, who promptly offered him a space in his studio in Villa Massimo. It was likely here, with his new mentor and friend Guttuso, that Grome became inspired by the Italian figurative movement of the post-war years. He was welcomed by a group of artists and intellectuals who had fought fascism and shared beliefs in the left wing politics of post-war Italy. They were the future luminaries of contemporary Italian culture: writers Alberto Moravia and Carlo Levi, film directors Pier Paolo Pasolini and Francesco Rosi, painters Corrado Cagli and Balthus who joined the group in the early 1960’s. This collective influence was hard to resist for Grome, who now identified completely with Italian life and culture; this period inspired some of his most beautiful work, depicting the light and landscape of the Mediterranean: the Appia Antica, a farmhouse at Zagarolo, the house on the beach near Anzio, all places he lived with his new family in the 1950’s.

With his formative years as the son of an Irish clergyman, enduring an education at a public school for clergymen’s sons perhaps helped Grome’s aversion to being steered in that same direction. Realising from an early age his passion for painting, he went on to study at Goldsmiths School of Art under the tutelage of the talented Clive Gardiner. Teaching art at a choir school in Durham in the early 1930’s possibly contributed to Grome’s restlessness. He subsequently joined the Royal Fusiliers in India, only to soon buy himself out of the army and stay on in India for nearly five years as a civilian, teaching English and exploring this fascinating country. This was when he met Gandhi, who inspired to some of his ideas about pacifism.

 War broke out soon after Grome returned to England; he became a conscientious objector. He joined the Civil Defence as an ambulance driver in London, withstanding serious injuries while rescuing victims of the Blitz. In 1945 he rented a studio in Manresa Road in Chelsea and went back to painting. He sustained himself by giving life-drawing lessons; this was a rich and inspiring time for Grome; one of his pupils was the then fledgling actor Alec Guinness.  The neighbouring studios were rented out to an eclectic collection of painters and writers, such as Dylan Thomas, Mervyn Peake and the painter Vera Cunningham, who was Matthew Smith’s muse.  Peake and his wife Maeve became lasting friends and Peake later made a series drawings of Grome’s newborn first child, Allegra.

In the year 1950, in Rome, John Grome met Mave, who was working as a midwife; their marriage became a remarkable liaison that lasted 54 years. In 1965 they moved to London in an attempt to provide an English education for their three children, where Grome taught at Hornsey School of Art. After a few years, depressed by the grey London light, Grome uprooted the family and returned to Italy, with their offspring’s education now at the whims of the disruptive student and workers strikes of the late sixties, events that dominated life in Rome at that time.

A man of integrity and courage, nowhere is this most evident than in his painting. His work continues to garner critical acclaim, complimenting private collections in many parts of the world. The luminosity of Grome’s work was already catching attention, when in 1955, Guttuso described Grome’s paintings as “keyed to the maximum, passionate, warm and luminous”. Guttuso went on to point out parallels with the work of Matthew Smith in Grome’s fearless and visceral use of colour. In 1964 John Russell, in the Sunday Times, wrote about Grome as one of the very few artists who had fulfilled the ‘sogno anglo-italiano’ and remarked that his paintings revealed that he was completely in tune with Italian life but had not given up his roots as an English painter. Grome’s work was often probing and judicious, his subjects are sometimes iconographic. These attributes were perhaps most evident at an exhibition held in Milan in 1972 which consisted only of paintings reflecting his introduction to Zen Buddhism. His last public exhibition was a major retrospective in Rome in 1986.

Grome was rigorous about what was just in life, but never let this cloud his great sense of humour. Through the poetry of his visual lyricism and extreme images and colour, he painted his passion and vitality for life. His rendering of life through art was never fey, narcissistic or ambiguous. Ultimately shunning fashionable cliques and artistic movements, he chose to take a brave and lonely road in his quest for an uncompromised expression. His contempt for the market and commercialism at once afforded him instant freedom to create his vision; the price an evanescent commercial success.

John Grome was one of the last of a dwindling generation of self effacing artists who believed their work should speak for itself, giving way to a new world subsumed by commercialism, with self-promoting plagiaristic artisans and spin doctors at the helm. Grome spent the remaining years of his life experimenting with new themes and techniques, and the last works that he created a few months before his death exhibit a vigour and essentialism that can only be the creations of a man who was sure that his dreams were his own.

He is survived by his  three children, Allegra, Renato and Simon.


John Patrick Grome, painter, born March 14th 1911; died July 12th, 2004

Simon Grome

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