Walter Goodin

The following Artists Profile of Walter Goodin (1907-1992) is by Philip Wincolmlee Barnes (1974-2011), a well loved local Performance Artist, Writer, and Film Maker who visited the Walter Goodin Exhibition in 2009. (PWB died of Pneumonia in 2011). By kind permission of


I have been visiting a retrospective of Walter Goodin’s work (Above all, the Sky), which is indebted to the English love of pastoral scenes and demonstrates, in places, a deference towards a kind of Victorian classical revivalism. (So no video installations here, then – bar a very engaging documentary introducing us to the painter).

For anyone with a passion for the topography of East Yorkshire it will prove to be a very evocative – and perhaps a nostalgic – experience.

His output was prodigious and yet, as a local artist myself, I had not previously been aware of this almost overwhelmingly industrious figure. It is worth summarising his life, as this show will undoubtedly renew interest in his accomplishments.

He died in 1992 at 85 years old, and had been born in Hull in 1907 (a little before my time, then…). Having lived through all of the significant artistic styles and developments of the 20th Century – not to mention, of course, both world wars – his biography reads like a plot from a Bloomsbury novel.

He started his working life as a railway porter, after becoming an orphan, and he got his first break when the renowned Beverley artist Fred Elwell, and the wealthy philanthropist Cecil Bainton, secured him a place at the Royal Academy Schools in London.

A precocious talent, Goodin won a number of awards and promotions, but he loathed accepting these in public – this reluctance to ‘shine’ and to accept honours was to determine much of his career (detrimentally, as some have argued). After his studies, rather than staying in London, he took a studio in Beverley, bringing some of the flair of the art world back with him (‘flamboyant black capes, wide-brimmed hats, bow ties and Oxford dual-coloured shoes…’)

A work which hinted at an international breakthrough (an opportunity he characteristically did not take advantage of) was the still life painting, Junk. This was upheld as an exemplary example of modernist art by the Royal Academy in 1939, and was subsequently exhibited at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, USA.

As with many artistic landmarks, it was more a product of daydreaming than of any measured intent: idly looking around his studio one day he was aghast at the amount of ‘rubbish’ that was lying around in it. He subsequently fashioned these objects – a plaster bust, bottles, jugs, a wicker basket, a mirror, etc – into a still life arrangement which, today, still has a rather surreal (and even sinister) aspect to it. Goodin, however, never had much truck with Modernism, and the painting remained something of an anomaly amongst his output (in later years he even used it as a ‘dust sheet’ whilst redecorating his bathroom…).

It was for his sprawling landscapes that he was to forge his burgeoning reputation – an early painting of a tempestuous storm above the River Humber secured a Turner Prize Gold Medal in 1931. It was geographical locations such as these to which he would return throughout his long and productive life.

During World War Two he worked as a balloon operator. One or two large panoramic paintings of airships looming out of the docks at Hull and Swansea resulted, although Goodin was never granted the position he coveted of becoming an official War Artist.

After the war he moved to Bridlington and married Violet Williams in 1951. Not unusually for painters of a certain ‘eccentric’ persuasion, he wasn’t very businesslike and his wife – as well as acting as his muse – assisted him in the more pragmatic aspects of making a living from art. He took up several teaching posts and was influential in the development of numerous art clubs in Bridlington, Beverley and Hull.

From his East Coast idyll he worked quietly and diligently, without fuss, establishing his oeuvre of majestic landscapes particular to the region. He tackled coastal scenes around Whitby and Flamborough Head, church scenes in Holderness, the generous sprawl of the Wolds, panoramas of Hull’s dock lands, harbour pictures, and private commissions illustrating the gardens, grounds and houses of country estates.

He undertook many commercial commissions – including depictions of industry and working life in tanneries and canning factories – and immortalised local market town traditions, such as the Middleton Hunt and race days in Beverley.

How to trap this transient thing?

Yet he frequently avoided wider acclaim for his work, refusing to submit work to the Royal Academy and turning down a nomination to become an Associate Academician.

(‘He constantly undervalued both himself and his art, and tended to adopt a cavalier attitude to the question of payment,’ states the accompanying exhibition catalogue).

Late 1950’s modernism made him unfashionable and, arguably, his reluctance to engage with the wider world of contemporary art consigned him to a kind of self-imposed ‘rut’ (or a ‘cheerfully square peg in a round hole,’ as he has been more optimistically described).

A number of private commissions from his surgeon friend Peter Walton did lead to a looser, more impressionistic style – but only on Walton’s firm insistence of desiring an ‘unfinished’ look (The Operating Theatre being the most striking example of Goodin’s freer approach).

Something of a self-styled ‘English eccentric’, he could frequently be spotted along the coasts and across the countryside of Yorkshire, by dent of the bright tea cosy he wore instead of a hat.

In his final decade, housebound due to illness, he continued to paint from memory, all the time pursuing the illusive phantasm of what he called ‘that one real painting’.

Dubious as I am about ‘artistic patronage’ (admittedly because I so seldom receive any), it was the representations of working life – generally commissioned by local businesses – that I found to be the most arresting in the exhibition. Behind the scenes views of tanneries, bakeries, laundries and canister works, are all depicted with a kind of frenetic zeal, detail and vividness.

One could almost imagine these paeans to physical labour being employed as Communist propaganda, with their clean lines of organised employment and their regimented divisions of labour. We are all familiar, no doubt, with painters earnestly striving to capture the majesty of a cornfield or a babbling brook, but examples of more down to earth – not to mention downright ‘dirty’ toil – are not quite so common as a genre in art.

Yet undoubtedly it is the landscape works for which Goodin will remain most popular. These embody a picturesque, ‘bygone era’ charm, seeming to conjure a world of ruddy-cheeked and pleasantly inebriated farmhands, local squires cantering around their sunny English estates, and teashops that have never even heard of either ‘latte’ or ‘expresso’.

There is, admittedly, a tendency towards sentimentality which, in an environment now ever more consumed by petrol stations and supermarket speculators, has little room for quiet pastoral idylls or riverside gypsy encampments (two of Goodin’s favourite themes – closely followed by country churches and harbour scenes).

Having walked (and, on occasion, slept) across much of the Wolds and the East Yorkshire coastline, his work, for me, is authoritative on the characteristics of the district – the undulating hills and valleys, their elongated shadows, the crisp light, and their vast skies. Living in the city, as I do, one can almost forget that, in nearby places, a vision something akin to William Blake’s of an ‘English Albion’ is merely a bus ride away.

But this is not the ‘natural wilderness’ so beloved of (but seldom successfully lived in by) the Romantics. It is countryside, i.e. a manmade result of agriculture and industry, of trade and commerce, which has shaped and determined the lie of these lands. Churches, harbours and village markets (no matter how picturesque), one might say, do not ‘grow on trees’.

It would be interesting to retrace some of Goodin’s chosen havens – which he captured so meticulously and lovingly over the course of his long career. Would it still be possible to readily discern his proud church spires, the Vale of York, or the mouth of the Humber amid new-build houses, the encroaching asphalt and today’s green belt shopping centres? I suppose even I’m getting nostalgic now… Philip Wincolmlee Barnes.


Signed and unsigned copies of this Book are available Exclusively from The 1 Gallery. Click here >>



The images below represent all the works that the Copyright Owner has provided exclusively to The 1 Gallery for the Open Edition production of Giclée prints. You can click on any image to view a slide show of all the images (click the little magnifying glass icon) or go to the detailed information (click the little square with arrow icon) where you will have the opportunity to purchase online with the Add to Cart button.