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First it was mid-century art, furniture and fabrics, now it is the fashion of that austere era that has captured contemporary culture's wandering eye. The retro air pervading the work of self-taught portrait painter Mr Peter Samuelson (1912-1996) is full of tantalising glimpses of mid-century details - his sitters can be found lounging on bentwood chairs or striped seat covers, perhaps sporting a cotton workwear shirt or a rugged blazer, all executed in a palette of muted khaki and ochre tones. And yet despite his pitch-perfect depictions of the people, pets and interiors of the period, Mr Samuelson is almost completely unknown as an artist.

Brought up on a fruit farm in Kent, before being sent to first Eton and then the south of France to study, Mr Samuelson was not only surrounded by beautiful, languid landscapes as a child but was more or less born into a life of leisure, being of wealthy stock and heir to a small hotel fortune. After dabbling in theatre design, in bomb disposal during WWII and, of course, in painting, he eventually settled into the family business to run a hotel in Torquay with his step-mother in 1947. If all this wafting around, including stints in Paris and Holland, makes Mr Samuelson sound like something of a flâneur or a dilettante, then that is intentional and places him in good company. Indeed, he probably would have got along famously with decadent aristocrats and poet/ writer/ artists such as Messrs Stephen Tennant and Patrick Procktor, the Sitwells and Sir Cecil Beaton, although the London social scene was largely unknown to Mr Samuelson until he moved back to the capital in 1952.

"The Blue Sweater", 1960. Photo courtesy Adonis Art International
© Peter Samuelson Estate/ The Bridgeman Art Library

In many ways his work is indebted to his experiences as a hotelier, because it was the visitors, guests and later the lodgers he took on in London that became the prime subjects for his paintings. Usually titled by their names, "Adrian", "Big John in the Art Class", "Irish Mike" or "Ray the Butcher, Standing", these fresh and inviting paintings reveal a fascination with the working life (arguably one he didn't lead himself) and his penchant for painting portraits of strong, good-looking men. Whatever his sexuality (he was married at one time), certainly Mr Samuelson's laid-back style is now comparable with that of better-known gay artists of the time such as Messrs Keith Vaughan, Christopher Wood, John Minton and John Craxton.

These artists were known as the neoromantics, for having introduced surrealist and mystical tendencies into their rural scenes of idyllic country life, harking back to simpler, perhaps more spiritual times. Certainly Mr Samuelson's figures are unburdened by the trappings of modern life that were increasingly encroaching on mid-century homes, in the form of vacuum cleaners, toasters and other household appliances making their way to England from Europe and America. His sitters are instead content with a book or a violin, a brush or perhaps the tools of their humble trades.

Again, if all of this quiet, unchallenging-sounding fare makes Mr Samuelson out to be an anti-modernist, then that is to ignore all the other artists of his time that were also ignoring the brash abstraction or pop images coming from New York or Paris, and instead favouring a very British, angsty response to painting the human form. This unconventional wave of figurative art found its figureheads in Messrs Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, whose variously tortured or meaty bodies were exploring new ways of considering the depiction of people after the trauma and loss of two long, bloody world wars.

And yet Mr Samuelson was neither a modernist, an existentialist, a neoromantic nor a neorealist. We know very little about him and are unlikely to learn much more, unless he becomes an art world rediscovery, which is often a pretty brutal process. It would certainly have been a long time coming, given that Mr Samuelson's experiences with an unreceptive audience led him to quit painting entirely in 1965. But then it's the quiet ones, the loners and the outsiders you have to watch out for.

Words by Mr Ossian Ward

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