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2013: The lost prints of John Shelton (1923-1993)

January 1, 2013 2 comments


I had wondered, going into the New Year, whether I’d uncovered everything there was to find out about the Potteries artist John Shelton (1923-1993). As if by way of an answer, this gem of a folder came to light on 1st January 2013.

The folder itself was from Shelton’s London days – his 82 Northside, Wandsworth W18 address was written on the cover – having within it a business card from the Shelton Knight Studio, 237 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London, SW1. At first glance, it looked like Shelton had used the folder to store selected coursework from his class of 68/691. However, digging deeper, it turned out that there was much more inside, including photographs and details – in his own hand – of twenty-seven of his own lithographic ink works including (Two) Actors (1958) which is now in the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery2.

Top Row:
Bent Old Man (1959) – Litho Ink on Paper – 27.5″ x 20″
Humbug Seller & Child (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on Paper – 22″ x 12″
Rosette Seller (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on Paper – 22″ x 15″
Lame Paper Seller (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on Paper – 22″ x 15″
Bottom Row:
? (1958) – Litho Ink and dyes – 22″ x 12″
Old Man with Stick (1958) – Litho Ink on Paper – 19.5″ x 14.5″
Old Man with Rosette (1958) – Litho Ink on Paper – 20″ x 17.5″
Old Man with Stick (1958) – Ink on Grey Paper – 19.5″ x 14.5″

Two of the above pieces – Rosette Seller (1958) and Humbug Seller & Child (1958) – are alive and well, having passed through the Barewall Gallery in Burslem in 2010. These two, along with Lame Paper Seller (1958) can be seen in the Six Towns Magazine article of April 1965. (City) Rosette Seller (1958) was also part of The Burslem Boys exhibition in Autumn 2012.

Top Row:
? – in Blue Ink on Linen – 11″ x 11″
? (1949) – Ink on David Cox Paper – 14″ x 10.5″
Pigeon Flyer (?1947) – Litho Ink on paper – 18.5″ x 13.25″
Flower Seller (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on paper – 22″ x 15″
Middle Row:
Billiards Player (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes – 22″ x 15″
People in a Bar (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on Paper – 22″ x 15″
Gossips (1949) – Ink on Paper – 14″ x 10″
Football Crowd (1959) – Chalk & Paint on Paper – 14.5″ x 11″
Bottom Row:
Girl Playing Chess (1958) – Litho Ink on Grey Paper – 22″ x 15″
Man with Glasses & Stick (195?) – Litho Ink on Paper – 19.5″ x 14.5″
Fortune Teller (1947) – Ink on Paper – 10.5″ [sic] x 9″
2Two Actors (1958) – Litho ink on paper – 24″ x 20″

Top Row:
Figures in a Crowd (1958) – Litho Ink on Paper – 20″ x 14.5″
Guitar Player (1959) – Lith Ink on Paper – 30.5″ x 20.5″
Miner (1959) – Litho Ink on Paper – 20.5″ x 20.5″
Bottom Row:
Young Actor with a Bodkin (1958) – Litho Ink on Paper – 19.5″ x 14.5″
Metamorphic Figure (1959) – Litho Ink on Paper – 29″ x 18″
Girls Seated (1959) – Litho Ink on Paper – 30.5″ x 20.5″
Blue Figure (1958) – Litho Ink on Blue Paper – 22″ x 12″

1 Newcastle-under-Lyme School of Art coursework: David Owen, Liverpool – 1968; P.J. Crowther, Leeds – 1969; Pauline Faulks – 1970; Anthony Moseley, Canterbury – 1969; L.J. Hope-Stone.

2 The museum have the following catalogue listing which now needs updating to reflect the actual title of Two Actors

STKMG: FA.1987.FA.38 print F2.34R : 8.2011 Shelton, John. – Actors / by John Shelton. – Lithographic print. – Dated 1958. – Signed by the artist. donated by Mrs Lovatt 1987

(Two) Actors (1958) - Potteries Museum and Art Gallery archives

(Two) Actors (1958) – Potteries Museum and Art Gallery archives



Six Towns Magazine, April 1965 – John Shelton feature

November 2, 2012 3 comments

“Unlike the other local artist, Sir George Wade, who paints in his dressing room using a screw driver, I am far more orthodox as I use a brush in my studio.” – John Shelton, 1965.

I called in at The Burslem Boys exhibition again a few days after its opening as I wanted to take it all in again, albeit minus the crowd. I met Stephanie Hill who had brought an April 1965 copy of Six Towns Magazine in that day to complement the exhibition. In it was a feature on John Shelton – the article was particularly relevant as it featured many of the works which had been brought together once more nearly fifty years on. Some pieces, such as Pigeon Fancier (1962), had been to London and back in the meantime courtesy of Laurie Stewart. He was introduced to Berry and Shelton by Geoff Hassell (who is now running the artbiogs site) and subsequently travelled to Stoke to buy what he has by the two of them. I know from Shelton’s diaries that Laurie met John in 1987.


The article opens with a brief summary of Shelton’s education followed by his association with the wartime romantic painters Minton, Colquhoun and McBride [sic]. I was aware of his exhibitions in Edinburgh before now, although the article provides the detail I was missing: they were annual one-man exhibitions at the 57 Gallery, Edinburgh. One to follow up…


There is a shot of a hitherto unknown picture entitled JM Reject 63 (1963) which is cited as being made up of rag, old cigarette packets, pieces of wood and plaster (all via a local coal heap) and completed in oils. The image itself is a continuation of the composition and theme used in Pigeon Fancier (1962). I’m always keen to flesh out things with more of a human element: I have subsequently found out that John and his wife salvaged the material from a scrap (not coal) tip at McGuinness’ at the back of the railway station. This was just down the hill from where Shelton and his wife were living at Vale View. Shelton was downstairs while Arthur Berry lived upstairs.

The bottom left of the page talks about other local artists (Jim Rushton and Derek Emms). The background of the image is fascinating as Shelton’s work lines the walls. From right-to-left, I recognise the following:
Pigeon Fancier (1962) – oil on board
Unknown – this looks like a derivative of the Pigeon Fancier theme; I strongly suspect this piece is owned by Laurie Stewart.
Lame Paper Seller (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on Paper; 22″ x 15″; identified via the ‘Twenty Lost Prints‘ breakthrough.
City Rosette Seller (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on Paper; 22″ x 15″
Humbug Seller & Child (1958) – Litho Ink & Dyes on Paper; 22″ x 12″
Unknown – the leftmost picture only has part of it shown on the image.


May 2016: Still life with red tape (1958) which is now in the updated list of oils here was given to his friend, Eddie Dawe, who was the advertising manager of the Six Towns Magazine.

John Shelton in The Sentinel – July 2012

July 17, 2012 2 comments

As a result of the appearance of John Shelton’s Figure with Cat at the Christie’s C20th British Art auction of 12 July 2012, the Stoke-on-Trent newspaper The Sentinel contained several long-overdue articles and references to him. My earlier article on how a stray cat turned up at Christie’s is here. The Sentinel references are included below.



Recognition for talented artist
I have been lucky to have seen some of Shelton’s paintings and I find them intriguing and interesting. He was at art college with my uncle, Norman Cope, and we have in our family research come across correspondence between John Shelton, Norman Cope and Arthur Berry who was also at college with both of them. It appears all three were dedicated to their chosen paths in the art world and were admirers of each others works. It seems that this period was something of a “golden age” for art in the Potteries which has been largely ignored and it is pleasing to see John Shelton’s work for sale in the prestigious Christie’s salerooms, an appropriate accolade for a talented artist.
Helen Jones



Painting needs to be brought home
Great to see a “lost” painting by Potteries artist John Shelton turning up at Christie’s (Friday’s Sentinel). Shelton was a fascinating painter, and his work has been unjustly neglected. It’s true that he was influenced by “The Two Roberts”, Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde, but his work has its own distinctive direction. In the late ‘forties, Shelton, along with the Roberts and others, was part of the hard living, hard drinking Bohemian set that frequented the pubs and clubs of London’s Soho and Fitzrovia. It’s an interesting story, and his relative Mark Finney must be congratulated for bringing it back to our attention. Not everyone in the Potteries is aware of its artistic heritage; I lived in the area for 15 years, and only ever saw a single exhibition by Arthur Berry, the most famous modern painter from the Potteries. It would be good to see Shelton’s “Figure with cat” brought back safe and sound to a new home in their native city!
Richard Warren
Albrighton, Shropshire



The Sentinel; 17 July 2012 p.13
Shelton’s work is snapped up 

Reginald’s riposte – Sentinel review of John Shelton exhibition

March 19, 2012 3 comments

Burslem School of Art went through something of a purple patch in the early 1940s, with Arthur Berry, Norman Cope and John Shelton all being tutored there under the direction of principal Reginald Haggar.

“After asking many questions about you he [Reginald Haggar] retired to the staff room regarding me with an air of doubt and suspicion from which moment onwards he looked on me very much like the touchable looks on the untouchable.”
– John Shelton correspondence with Norman Cope (1943)

Reginald Haggar and pupil Arthur Berry (photo: courtesy of Michael Cope)

Several decades later (?1968), Reginald Haggar wrote a review in the Evening Sentinel of an exhibition staged by his former pupil, John Shelton.

“Newcastle art master shows his work

At the Newcastle Museum and Art Gallery in the Brampton, Mr. John Shelton is holding an exhibition of his paintings which make a very homogeneous display. The pictures fit the intimate setting of the gallery, hang together well, and reveal to the full the talent of the artist.

John Shelton was a student at the Burslem School of Art some 25 years or more ago and subsequently went to the Slade. He was one of a richly endowed bunch of students who have gone on to enrich the tradition of oil and watercolour painting in this country and the field of art teaching. John Shelton is art master at the Newcastle School of Art.

Shelton has advanced enormously over the years, and, if he has been content to plough a lonely furrow in North Staffordshire, and, apart from a few local shows, kept his work largely to himself, he has done a considerable body of work, strong in design and rich in colouring, which owes an obvious debt to the early 20th century School of Paris, to Picasso and Braque particularly, although one may detect a variety of other influences over the years – Graham Sutherland, Robert MacBryde and Robert Colquhoun, and even his own contemporary as a student at Burslem, Arthur Berry, who, for a time also has taught at Newcastle School of Art.

All these pictures are in some way concerned with man and his environment. Some recall old myths, others utilise the ancient fixed types of the popular underground theatre (another feature which they share with the greater masters of the 20th Century) and yet others depict the stereotypes of modern life.

The best of them reveal humanistic qualities, for example “Pigeon Flyer“, “Clown Resting” and the “Paper Seller”. An early work provides a glimpse of Burslem with a factory bell turret on the skyline.

The ceramics are, with one or two exceptions, based upon an ancient theme, “Theseus and the Minotaur”, and they in turn remind us of Picasso’s obsession with this theme in the 1930s and his numerous interpretations of this ancient myth in terms of his own situation and the predicament of modern man.

Pottery figures
The trouble with these examples of clay imagery is that they remind us of the conventions which Picasso used in some of his drawings, but seem to lack almost entirely understanding of the plastic potentialities of fired clay and coloured glazes. They never seem to come to life and lack rhythm and sensuous ceramic quality in spite of thought and skill in execution.

The exhibition is attractively hung in a museum that is full of interesting material connected with the life of Newcastle and the surrounding district. There is a splendid case of Staffordshire pottery figures which show how even the back-street potters of Burslem and Hanley in the early days of the Industrial Revolution could capture attitude, and character in models of contemporary life (Polite’s Meneagerie by the celebrated Obadiah Sherratt of Hot Lane, Burslem is a fine example and one of the best specimens of its type in any public collection in this country).

There is a Roman and medieval room, and there are examples of the pottery made by Samuel Bell in Newcastle in the days of Astbury and Whieldon.


The oil paintings of John Shelton (1923-1993): an ongoing catalogue

December 31, 2011 7 comments

John Shelton was a prolific sculptor and also produced many monotypes in addition to his oils paintings. What follows is a catalogue of the oils which I have come across to date, along with my own musings tempered with more qualified observations by Paine Proffitt

Arthur Berry: “The environment of Stoke-on-Trent with its curious shapes and moods and overcast heavy light has deeply influenced John Shelton. Sometimes to love it and sometimes to deny it. Many of his subjects walk its streets, arrive at its pubs and billiard halls and appear on its waste ground. Sometimes this world has made him react against it and in these moods a more sophisticated kind of painting has occurred; a painting of rich luxurious textures and colours which show a controlled sensuality and feeling that is a deep rooted part of this artist’s nature.

Untitled Potteries Scene, 1950

Untitled Potteries Scene (1950)

This is the earliest of Shelton’s oil paintings which I have seen to date – I suspect that it is a scene of his hometown done from memory, as at the time John was still in London having recently completed his education at the Slade School of Art. The work is untitled; the stretcher holding the canvas merely has the single word “Green” written on it in John’s handwriting.


Unknown London Scene (1951)

John Shelton - London scene, 1951

John Shelton – London scene, 1951

This painting turned up in October 2013 on eBay, the seller having bought it from another art dealer at Shepton Mallet fair. Similar in style (if not palette) to the Potteries scene of the preceding year, this piece is assumed to be set in the capital as by 1951, Shelton was working at the Festival of Britain.


John Shelton - verso; London scene, 1951

John Shelton – verso; London scene, pre-1951


The reverse of the board is an early circus scene by Shelton. While Shelton’s style radically changed throughout his career, the circus theme is recurrent. This theme is topical given the current Circus exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery featuring Clown Resting (1962) and Night Out With Robert (1988).


Still life with red tape (1958)

Still life with red tape (1958)

This a still life that John put together from items in his studio, when going through a stressful divorce – hence the red tape spooling across the foreground. The sad clown face represents himself, and the little china dog represents his friend, Eddie Dawe, a show dog breeder. John said he couldn’t paint dogs (he did do cats!) so he used the little china dog as his model. He gave this painting to Eddie, who was the advertising manager of the Six Towns Magazine, based in Stoke on Trent. In April 1965 The Six Towns Magazine ran a feature on John Shelton and his work. Linda Dawe, 2016


Woman with a book (1959) [Oil on board; H25″ x W37.8″]

Oil on board sold via Sotheby’s, London on 12 October 1988 [Lot 00173].

My cousin recently provided a 35mm slide of a hitherto unknown painting. It is likely that this is the same ‘Woman with a book’ (1959) which I was aware had sold via Sotheby’s in 1988 (although up to now I had no image of the painting).

Woman with a book (1959)

Woman with a book (1959)

Richard Warren should take credit for the Colquhoun connection with Woman with a Birdcage (1946) and his hunch that it was the catalogue and not the original Colquhoun paintings which were the source of John’s inspiration also seems likely: “I think you’re spot on in the Colquhoun connection. The modelling of the face also reminds me a bit of some of Prunella Clough’s figures of that period…The shapes of the head, particularly the right hand eye and the triangle of shadow below it, seem very similar. But nothing else, beyond the general style and the theme of a lone woman in an interior with an object… One interesting thing, though it might be entirely coincidence – this painting is on the facing page (as a double spread) to “The Whistle Seller”, the one with the cat, in my copy of the catalogue of Colquhoun’s 1958 solo show at the Whitechapel. I wonder if John Shelton might have been inspired by these catalogue images rather than by any encounters with the actual paintings? Which would mean that this one and his cat at the table would date from 1958 or after, and not from his postwar London stay.”


(x Figure With Cat) Woman With A Cat (1959)

Drawing heavily from the work of Robert Colquhoun, this piece turned up at Christie’s, London in the summer of 2012 as covered here. I am assuming that Figure With Cat was merely a name attributed to the work by Christie’s as Shelton had not added a title to the verso. It would make sense for this work to be Woman With A Cat given John’s diary entry for March 1990: “Jean [sic?] England acquired Studio Interior and Woman With A Cat presumably via Geoff Hassell” and correspondence from the former adds weight to this.

Figure With Cat c.1959

Figure With Cat c.1959

A review in the Guardian (08/03/1965; p.9 – M.G. McNay) refers to the heavy influence of Colquhoun in John’s work of this time as follows, the article gradually warming as it progresses:
“JOHN SHELTON, teaching at Newcastle-under-Lyme School of Art, is so clearly under the influence of Robert Colquhoun that it is not surprising that he has not yet had a one-man show in London. All the same, on the evidence of the preview at Keele University of the exhibition he is to have at the Woodstock Gallery in July it is time he did make the breakthrough.
The 19 paintings and monotypes are the work of a mature mind and practised hand. Shelton was born in 1923 and trained at the Slade. He knew Minton, Colquhoun and MacBryde, and he approaches painting with the same spirit of thoroughness. His large oil and collage canvases, “Cat and Table (Homage to Robert Colquhoun)” and “Green Table” are executed with dazzling logic and firmness: he manages intricate patterning on several planes with a clarity that goes back farther than his immediate mentors, to Gris and Leger.”


Cat and Table - John Shelton (1960)

Cat on a Table – John Shelton (1960)

Cat on a table (1960)

This piece can be viewed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and is also on the BBC Your Paintings website. The museum note that the work was purchased in 1989. Sold via Sotheby’s on 12 October 1988 [Lot 00172] – I am unsure whether the sale was to the museum or to another party who subsequently sold it to the museum.

The influence of Braque and the Two Roberts is known via Shelton’s diaries. Richard Warren has expanded on this in his article about Colquhoun and MacBryde, spotting what is now the obvious extraction of imagery from Colquhoun’s Whistle Seller.

Shelton Bar Steelworker with Bike (1960)

Shelton Bar Steelworker with Bike (1960)

John and his wife were taken to Shelton Steelworks in 1960 by her uncle – the visit obviously making an impression. The painting is a large piece which is best appreciated from afar. With the right lighting, the orange glow of the steelworks can be made out, albeit more subtly nowadays due to the matt quality of the aging oils. The piece was most recently seen in The Burslem Boys exhibition in autumn 2012.

PP – This piece also reflects the working man, the working life and the working industry of the area (or the industrial north).  The painting has a loose stylistic connection of fellow-artist and friend Arther Berry, with whom John worked with and shared a house with at one time.  Both artists at times sought to capture the characters of the town and also a visual representation of the life, lifestyles, times, people and industry of where they lived.


Machine with Target (1961) - collage

Machine with Target (1961)

Machine with Target (1961) – collage

This is the piece alluded to in the comments by Steve Owen, who writes:

“The painting…an abstract piece, with elements of collage [and] painted in 1961…has a definite early Pop Art feel to it, with target and small fragments of typography if you look closely. John, who taught me on the Foundation course at Newcastle School of Art from 1970-72, seemed have an abstract side to his painting as well as a strongly Expressive style. I think he brought the painting in for the students as a board to be painted over, but it caught my eye, and looked too good to be used in this way. I asked him if I could have it and he agreed, saying it was too dark and wouldn’t sell… He was a real character in an age where teaching is filled with non-personalities. He had really strong and interesting connections to the London Art scene of the 50s and was also passionate and extremely irreverent when it came to the management at Newcastle college. The students loved him for this!”

Violin Woman (1961)

Violin Woman (1961)

Violin Woman (1961)

The work was most likely inspired by Man Ray and his “Violon d’Ingres“. Shelton subsequently saved the Observer Magazine article “How Man Ray put magic into photography” (27 April 1975) in his scrapbook.


Pigeon Fancier (1962)

Pigeon Fancier (1962)

Pigeon Fancier (1962)

The thick-set, heavy-handed subject is in stark contrast to the fragility of the dreams and the moment’s escapism which the pigeon offers the man. The piece featured in the Six Towns Magazine in 1965. More recently, the painting formed part of the Shelton group of exhibits at The Burslem Boys exhibition.

PP – The painting again highlights local characters, interests and pastimes, capturing the unique character of the town and its people, but it also shows a dreamlike, symbolic romanticism and view of our interests, dreams and personal escapes.


Clown Resting (1962)

Clown Resting (1962)

Clown Resting (1962)

Clowns were a recurrent theme in John’s paintings and monotypes. This particular piece was donated to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in 1987 by Mrs. Lovatt and is also part of the BBC Your Paintings website. The Festival of Britain of 1951 – at which John worked during his time in London – seems to have stuck in John’s psyche: the Union Jack image to the bottom left of the picture crops up in several of his pieces. Clowns and violins were recurrent themes also. The work is currently on display (July – December 2013) at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

PP – The painting strips away the idea of clown as ‘entertainer’ and shows the reality and the person behind the facade.  The piece does not just act as a “sad clown” painting, it shows the hard reality of the person under the makeup.  With the wringing of his hands, the vacant hollow eyes, shell-like face and leaning forward sitting posture, the figure leaves the viewer guessing as to the situation surrounding the character – is he nervous, troubled by something in his life, suffering from depression, just bored, waiting for his moment to perform or taking a moment to contemplate a performance just finished.  With the colours, character and body language Shelton seems to be suggesting much more than a simple scene and leaves the viewer to wonder about the story behind the performer.



JM Reject 63

JM Reject 63 (1963)

This one turned up courtesy of an old copy of Six Towns Magazine as documented here, continuing the theme of Pigeon Fancier (1962).


Sheep’s Skull With Brushes (1963)

Sheep's Head With Brushes (1963)

Sheep’s Skull With Brushes (1963)

The owner of this work kindly offered to loan it to The Burslem Boys exhibition after seeing the initial flurry of Sentinel activity in July 2012 relating to John Shelton. John’s brother, Norman, gave it to him as a gift when they both worked in Hanley Town Hall and it hung there for several decades until the owner’s retirement.

Unknown Title (1964)

Unknown, 1964

Unknown, 1964

The owner of this piece contacted me after reading an earlier version of this article. It belonged to his grandfather, Monty Grainger – a friend and colleague of Shelton’s at Newcastle. I am struck by the parallel with the Man and Machine work by David Carr, another artist under the influence of the Roberts.

Richard Loves Richard (1964)

Richard Loves Richard (1964)

Richard Loves Richard (1964)

The most reactionary of John’s paintings, this mixed media piece features Richard III on a Bakelite television. Most likely inspired by a television drama. John would have been drawn to Richard III as a subject matter out of empathy; John was crippled due to having polio as a child.

PP – There’s some interesting symbolism and imagery of the strong, powerful king that’s been left in a crippling, weak position, especially with the broken, skeletal body and haunted eyes.

Cat and Table 2 with Theseus Head (year unknown)

A follow-up to the first piece in the series, this second piece features a red bust of Theseus, one of the ceramic pieces which Shelton produced. It is not known when this was painted, although I suspect that chronologically it is in the right position relative to the paintings before and after it in this article. This, the second of Shelton’s ‘Cat’ pieces, is also discussed in Richard Warren’s article about the Two Roberts.

Goodbye Little Yellow Bird (1983)

Last whereabouts: bought in at Phillips Marylebone auction, 07 December 1990 [Lot 00089].

Night Out with Robert, my Father and Me in 1928 (1988)

1988 onwards saw a radical change in John’s style. His diaries suggest that he had a lot of ideas – many based in times past – which he wanted to get down on canvas “before the memory fades“. (I have read that a contemporary of Shelton’s, Jack Simcock, also radically changed his style in the early 1980s, adopting a vivid palette in contrast to the prior work for which he is more familiar.) This work is set in 1928 and depicts John at the fair with his father. The year is significant – it is the year before John contracted polio – serving to reinforce my belief that this is an idealised depiction of his childhood. It is set at the Hanley Wakes fairground albeit there is artistic licence in there with the inclusion of the Blackpool Tower in the background. There is a cryptic – possibly allegorical – message on the reverse of the canvas relating to the lion tamer’s treatment of those in his charge. This work was exhibited at The Burslem Boys exhibition (2012) and is currently on display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (July – December 2013).

Over the Trent and Mersey (1988)

Over the Trent and Mersey (1988)

Over the Trent and Mersey (1988)

John’s paintings continue to explore surrealism. The Punch character is a reference to the Punch & Judy relationship of his parents and the male subject has been said to be his Uncle Reuben – supposedly “danced to the grave” by his bride. Alternatively, the influence of Chagall has been used – whereby lovers float in blissful amour – and then subverted: the bride stares impassively in front of her in spite of the besotted advances of the groom while Punch serves to add a mocking commentary to a failed relationship. Paintings from this period hint at the old Shelton (district of Stoke-on-Trent) of which I had a fleeting glimpse as a child. The work was restored by Julia Dalzell in early 2012 and was exhibited later that year at The Burslem Boys exhibition.

PP – This piece, as many of John’s work from this period of his life, is mixed with strong personal emotions and memories, heavy symbolism and an autobiographical (or biographical) view.  The paintings from this period, and very strong in this piece, tell a story which John finds important (almost with a necessary need) to tell but also only hints at, leaving the viewer to pick apart the symbolic clues, fill in the gaps and put pieces of the puzzle together.  John wants the story to be told but can’t tell it in a clear, straightforward manner – there seems a need to tell a secret but a reluctance to actually say the words. He uses a surreal symbolism and imagery very similar and characteristic of Chagall to tell his story.

The Day the Circus Came To Town (late 1980s)

Reference is made to this piece in Shelton’s diaries.
Burstow and Hewett auction, 2004 [Lot 53]

Mickey’s Fall (late 1980s)

Shelton made the following entry about this work in his diary:

The falling figure, top right, with the ear ring and red cravat is Mickey in his fatal fall. Bottom left is the Cannonball Lady supporting the Ring Master in the guise of Groucho Marx raising his hat… Bottom right and left are a lion and a dwarf clown both with the same blank gaze: the show must go on.

Rosebery’s, 2001 [Lot 22]

Spectre (Homage to Felix Labisse – The Prodigal Daughter) (1988)

This is Shelton’s own version of the Felix Labisse painting The Prodigal Daughter. The work was done as a precursor to the subsequent piece which was Shelton’s own interpretation of the Labisse original.

Untitled – ?”Shelton’s Prodigal Daughter” (1993)

John was working on this piece at the time of his death, hence the work being unfinished. The black bird of Labisse’s work is replaced by the white gull and the recurrent image of the clown and violin are also present on Shelton’s version.

Thanks to Paine Proffitt for his own insight into John Shelton’s work.

Stokies in Fitzrovia: John Shelton & Arthur Berry

October 21, 2011 8 comments
Extracts from the chronicles of the artist John Shelton (1923-1993)

1945: With Arthur Berry I meet Colquhoun and MacBryde and also Minton and Jankel Adler at 77 Bedford Gardens, Nottinghill. In 1944, I watch Sacha [MacBryde; see comments] paint. Berry and I frequent Fitzrovia in their company for the next few years. In their company meet Vaughan and Dylan Thomas, David Archer and others of the loose Soho Society. On the excuse (though it was true) we gate crash artists’ studios looking for help in finding a studio of our own. Meet Felix Topolski (Bayswater) this way and Graham Sutherland at Wimbledon.

Slade Index Card (1945-46, 1948-50)

We lived for a while, Arthur and me, in a hexagonal studio with large windows high up at the back of a dingy hotel. You had to go through the hotel entrance foyer and up the back stairs to get to it. Robert came to visit us one weekend. We were always glad to see him because it meant a night out up the West End drinking without any money problem. He was always glad to see us, thinking we always lived it up having a good time.

“You pair of rogues,” he used to say. “Crackin’ a good nut here aren’t you? Sod them poor buggers up North, you say!” Before he left he was looking through one of the large studio windows, seriously studying the view. We were very high up. The windows frames went almost down to the floor and if you let your eyes take in everything outside you got a feeling of suspension. There was a sheer drop down to the train track that lead to Gloucester Road Tube Station. It was like a canyon with terraces of tall buildings either side. I heard him mutter to himself, deep in thought, “this is bloody suicide row.”

The Beggar (1949), lithographic print; Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent.

Some few days after I felt ill. I was spitting up yellow stuff and hallucinating. I remember lying on a camp bed one night. We had hardly any possessions – easles, painting tables, an old arm chair and a couple of camp beds was the lot. Arthur was out drinking late with the Soho Boys. I was too sick to go. As the night wore on I fitfully dozed in a feverish state. Looking across the railtracked canyon to the rectangular lit yellow windows, a girl was undressing in one of them. I didn’t know whether I was asleep or awake, it was a mingling of both. The door opened a few inches quietly and I felt someone was watching me. The feeling passed and then I got up to continue a monotype drawing on the second hand marble-topped table. I worked on it for a while and then felt again the awful presence of someone watching me from behind. The short hairs on the back of my neck became electric. Mustering up enough courage I turned my head to see and in the darkness of the room I saw this head as though illuminated and suspended in mid-air. The horror of it was shocking. It was either in a state of melting or wet with its own substance that seemed to be dripping away. I woke up in the early hours wringing wet and cold. Arthur had not returned. Early morning sounds were coming in from the waking city outside. I must go home I thought. Dry bread and the remainder of a jar of marmalade I forced down me followed by a long drink of aqua. I had 2/6d old money in my pocket and the half return ticket which was out of date. I packed my large suitcase with enough of the trash and spare clothes I had and made for Euston Station and points north.

Between Euston Square and the station the case got so heavy I thought I would have to drag it so I gave a luggage tout my last half crown to carry the case to the train. Handing him my last half crown I noticed the surprised delight in his eyes which he averted from me thinking no doubt I was a foreigner or a naïve nut of some sort because his was a big tip. It would be a packet of fags and a night’s drinking for him. “The kid must be daft” and I thought of my old Uncle Tom, who, when it was too late to get any more drink, when all the bars were closed; even those (known by those who make it their business to know) which stay open after hours – Tom would empty his pockets on to the pavement – the money being of no further use that night. A beautiful man Tom – no thought for tomorrow – to hell with it if it’s anything like today. He was his own man. His conscience lay easy. Mine never did. Even now I was thinking I’ve given in to the big city. I’m running back home ‘cause I’m poorly. Sense seemed like cowardice at that time. It’s beaten you lad. Reach for your Mummy’s apron strings again – it’s laughing at you. So the self-criticism goes on – a trick of self-abuse to stir up action learnt first-hand off Robert. I wished I could be like Uncle Tom.

The Dart Thrower (1949) – Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent. Later monotyped as ‘Keggy Dart Thrower’ (“keggy” = left-handed).

I found a seat and relaxed with exhaustion. I dosed off again. I saw the station names whizz by – Watford, Tring then Rugby Midland – getting nearer my destination. You could always tell when you were approaching Stoke-on-Trent by the change in the landscape and the air. The air became more acid sharp and the landscape started to sprout giant black Guinness bottles made of brick – the old pottery kilns. There seemed to be thousands of them in those days standing spasmodically on their own or in neat rows according to the opulence of the firm. Trying to hide behind tin chaples and coal tips or shooting up through the roofs of pot banks. This is the city where I was born. My mother worked at this time as a sorter at the Post Office in Stoke. The only woman sorter they used to say. The Post Office was part of the station building so it was easy not to proffer the out-of-date ticket and cause me and the rail company trouble with the ticket collector at the gate. I simply went through the Post Office loading entrance on the platform and asked if Mrs. Hancock was on duty. She wasn’t so I continued out through the sorting office into Station Road. Four hours ago I was in London – now I was in a different world. For me they were necessary to each other and I loved both.

John Hancock (1923-1993) was born in Ashford Street, Stoke-on-Trent and studied at the Burslem School of Art. He won a scholarship to the Slade School of Art, London during which he adopted the surname of Shelton. His oil paintings have sold via auctioneers such as Sotherby’s. His work will be exhibited in The Burslem Boys exhibition later this year.

Witches, Gods and Understanding Mothers – The Childhood of John Shelton (Part 1)

October 12, 2011 3 comments

“John Shelton lifted the lid off the dustbin and looked out. How’s that for an opening sentence for my autobiography? Should have left the lid on John. For self-identification.”

John Shelton (born Hancock) came from an artistic background, albeit one suppressed through circumstance. His mother Agnes Simcock won a scholarship to art school at the age of thirteen, learning to draw and paint through her teacher, Bill Henshaw. She left to teach at eighteen although this was cut short as she went into service to support the large family. Her paint box and brushes were thrown into the bin.

Agnes met John’s father, Robert, at White and Poppe munitions factory in Coventry. John noted their “Punch and Judy” relationship in a conversation which Agnes recounted years later –


For my mother the worst was always yet to come. A minglement of fear and hopeful faith was embrionic in the grown of her personality. She stored every incident of fate like a prize throughout the years, Her memory was the family log book of endless trivialities and great occasions alike. Referred to by my father as the ledger of the tyranny of tears.

My father had the gift of hindsight even before the event and the nervous sensitivity of a trapped greyhound before the race. He was always looking to win. A winner whose genius was a most astute realisation of his own condition in the multi relationships of people and ideas past, present and future. He had a most astounding sense of proportion in loving nature. Man, God and Nature were seen clearly in his perspective mind. Cultivating the creative spark and really fearing the unnatural.

Apart from school and university my finest education was earlier – through – and later, in the hellish rows, between these two wonderful real people on anything from economics, law, marriage, religion. Domestic slight ups and great downs were a special continuous event.

At the age of six, John was stricken with polio:

Mrs Stevens and her bosom companion, my mother, used to watch me go to infant school from the back bedroom attic nursery of the vicarage. They were always watching me I felt. Mrs Stevens said one day “if you walk with one leg on the pavement and one leg in the gutter you will be lame one day”. I was. Witch! At that time I felt they were witches. Both of them.

When I got so fed up of leg irons on my polio leg (I was different from other kids in the gang – I couldn’t run – I was a sitting target) – I cried and cried in the back yard – kicked my dud foot (with an ugly two inch raised boot) against the coal house door until it hurt and hurt more and more. I was breaking myself in – like taming a wild horse – I was breaking myself in to the fact, the truth. I was a cripple. I was lame. I knew it. I didn’t like it. Like hell I didn’t like it. I would never never get used to it. It would never take me over. I would not have it. Physically it was a fact. Mentally, no no no. But I had it and as I kicked and kicked at the pain of it I noticed the back bedroom curtain move and it was my mother watching me. She never said a word. She knew and she let me make some sort of agreement with it without interference or showing sympathy for the rest of my life. I hate lace curtains. Witches, Gods and understanding mothers hide and watch from behind them.

The Ghost From The Cellar – The Childhood of John Shelton (Part 2)

August 26, 2011 1 comment

The Ghost From The Cellar at No. 10 Ashford Street
I was ten years old and my brother was six. It was a dull winter morning with that kind of sepia light that makes everything look a bit eerie like an old London pea-souper fog. Mother and father were out. Mother was maid, cook and general help to the vicar’s sick wife at the vicarage and father was out in the country acting as a surveyor’s chainman for Stafford County Council at this time. He had many jobs.

My brother and I were playing with lead soldiers on the kitchen table. He sat facing the back of the kitchen by the old black-leaded grate getting what warmth was left on his back from a dying fire. I lay in a cane bathchair, full length up to my neck in plaster of Paris. I hadn’t walked for four years after contracting polio. Behind me was the pantry door that lead to the cellar. Time stood still while playing with the soldiers and except for an occasional glance at the clock or a look though the back bay window at the latch on the back gate we were engrossed in the war game on the table.

In the quietness I suddenly noticed my brother’s eyes open wide and stare past me and at the same time I felt a draught from the pantry door immediately behind me. I could not turn my head to see what he was staring at but whatever it was it was frightening. I felt it move with a rustle from behind me round the room and as it passed by the bay window I saw silhouetted a monk in a black habit. I did not see his face as quickly he went out through the back door.

We never spoke of this incident for many years until one night after the war. My brother had returned from Madras. He had been in the Navy and I was on a visit home from London and we were having a drink by way of celebration, talking and reminiscing late into the night. We asked each other if we remembered the black monk. Yes we both did. “What the devil was it I wonder?” I said. My brother replied – “It was Parson Stevens hiding in the cellar making sure Robert our father had gone out before he dare appear. He’d thrown his cassock over his head so’s us kids wouldn’t recognise him.”

John Shelton (1923-1993).

John Shelton (Hancock); Stoke-on-Trent, 1923-1993

August 6, 2011 10 comments

John Shelton; 1940s

John Hancock was raised in Shelton, Stoke-on-Trent in Ashford Street. In his own words:

Born April 1923 in Stoke, Staffordshire. Father a coal miner, mother a school teacher. No formal early education due to poliomyelitis until the age of ten at Cauldon Road Primary School, Shelton. From there, aged fourteen, gained a scholarship to the Junior Art Department of the Burslem School of Art.

In 1939, John gained entry to the Senior Art Department until 1941 when he left to work as a clerk for the Ministry of Manpower. After more subsequent war-related work for British Small Arms he rejoined Burslem School of Art. 1942: “Rejoin Arthur Berry, Norman Cope, Bill Bowyer and young Alf Hackney, Betty Knapper [and] Monica Goddard at Burslem School of Art. Full Time Student (Sept.). R.G. Haggar has taken over from G.M. Forsyth and is Acting Principal. Pass Board of Education exams [in drawing and painting]“. The following year saw Shelton awarded a scholarship for the Slade School of Fine Art, London which he attended from 1945. Shelton’s notes from that year chronicle his life in the London art scene of the time, providing his own perspective on the London years as told by Arthur Berry in A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man1:

With Arthur Berry I meet Colquhoun and MacBryde and also Minton and Jankel Adler at 77 Bedford Gardens, Nottinghill… Berry and [I] frequent Fitzrovia in their company for the next few years. In their company meet Vaughn and Dylan Thomas, David Archer and others of the loose Soho Society. On the excuse (though it was true) we gate crash artists’ studios looking for help in finding a studio of our own. Meet Felix Topolski (Bayswater) this way and Graham Sutherland at Wimbledon.

Slade Index Card (1945-46, 1948-50)

John left the Slade in March 1946. His diary for the following year states:
I spend 12 months in Ramsgate family home of the Knights. Teach part-time evenings at Broadstairs St. Stephen’s Convent School, North Gorelands [and] also attend Margate School of Art. Mural painting commissioned [at] Thannet Hotels partnered by Denis Knight. Change name from Hancock to Shelton at Ministry of Employment under [an] act brought in to accommodate refugee immigrants.

The name change had been brought about by a row with his father, Robert. John returned to the Slade – as John Shelton – to complete his scholarship in the two years from 1948-50.

Shelton Knight Studios, 237 Vauxhall Bridge Road, SW1

Shelton Knight Studios, 237 Vauxhall Bridge Road, SW1

1950: “Forget to attend Slade anymore. Work at Lambeth Town Hall, Electorial Registers. Move to 82 Northside, Wandsworth Common. Paint still lifes influenced by Braque. Make monotypes after RC. Work Lambeth Goods Station.” A 1951 oil most likely depicts the view from 82 Northside which was described by Shelton as a “five roomed flat, two floors with [a] large back studio [at] only £4 per week. Bookies premises on ground floor.

1951: “I work at Amphitheatre, Festival Gardens, Battersey Park. Start silk screen ceramic transfer printing business with D. Knight at 6 Moreton Terrace Mews, Vauxhall Bridge Road, Victoria.

Silk screen ceramic transfers - Samples

Silk screen ceramic transfers – Samples

1952: Shelton travelled back and forth between London and the Potteries to get orders for the silk screen ceramic transfers.

1953: “John Law becomes third man in Shelton/Knight Studio business. Things not going very well… Tempers frayed. Who are we, where do we come from, where are we going? I work on coloured monotypes Colquhoun style. Few paintings.” By 1954 the business had failed and Shelton left Wandsworth to return to Stoke-on-Trent where he lived in at 227 Newcastle Street, Burslem, described as “an old cottage shop“.

Meet Vera Cornes at Spode China Co… Meet Arthur Berry again in Burslem and we take on a house together with a studio apiece. Mine ground floor, Vera lives with me.

Humbug Seller & Child (1958)

Theseus Head

Shelton adopted a wide variety of styles during his career. Earlier works – monotypes such as ‘Keggy Dart Thrower’, ‘City Rosette Seller’ (1958) and ‘Humbug Seller & Child’ (1958) – show similarities in style with Berry – being produced at the time the two of them shared the studio on Porthill Bank. These are dark and emotive pieces revelling in the gritty urban characters populating the streets of Stoke-on-Trent. His use of the monotype in 1945 while staying in London with Berry (and under the artistic influence of the Two Roberts) is noted as being early on in the re-use of the technique in the mid 1940s in the London art scene gravitating around Colquhoun and MacBryde.

Shelton was also a prolific pottery-maker and the influence of Picasso can be seen through the many minotaurs he produced, as well as in drawings such as ‘Europa & Bull II’. Greek mythology was prevalent in many of Shelton’s ceramic pieces; Theseus, the Minotaur and the centaur were common subjects. This same theme is evident in a handful of Shelton’s paintings such as the Picasso-esque ‘Cat at a Table 2 with Theseus Head’.

Europa & Bull II

A Sentinel review of a Brampton exhibition (circa 1970) by Shelton’s ex-tutor Reginald Haggar noted that “he was one of a richly endowed bunch of students who have gone on to enrich the tradition of oil and watercolour painting in this country and the field of art teaching.Robert Colquhoun and Robert MacBryde were cited in this article as being two of Shelton’s influences, along with Graham Sutherland. A picture of The Two Roberts still hangs on Shelton’s studio wall. At the time of the Haggar review, Shelton was art master at the Newcastle School of Art in Sidmouth Avenue, alongside Jack Clarkson who was principal. Former students of that school include artists such as David Harris (1972-75).

Title unknown, “Shelton’s Prodigal Daughter” (unfinished)

Spectre – An Homage to Felix Labisse ‘Prodigal Daughter’

Just as one of his influences, Braque, had at times adopted a Fauvist style – whereby brilliant colours were used to represent emotional response – Shelton’s later pieces such as “Night Out With Robert – My Father And Me in 1928” (1988) and “Above the Trent & Mersey Canal” (1988) were produced in flamboyant brilliance. The latter of these works featured Shelton’s aunt – purported to have “danced her husband to the grave” – and her husband, floating above a Potteries city-scape. 1988 turned out to be a prolific year for paintings as an homage to French surrealist Felix Labisse’s Prodigal Daughter was also produced. Shelton was working on the companion piece – his own version of the Prodigal Daughter – at the time of his death in 1993; a female form stands before a waterscape, while Labisse’s black bird is replaced by a white gull. References to subject-matter of other Shelton works are also evident – namely a clown and a violin.

Night Out With Robert, My Father and Me in 1928 (1988)

When Shelton painted his “Night Out With Robert – My Father And Me in 1928” in his later years, did he have feelings of reconciliation towards his father or is the message on the back of the canvas, seemingly about the lion tamer, alluding elsewhere?





The painting is most likely an idealised memory of his childhood – it is set in 1928, the year before John contracted polio which left him crippled for the remainder of his life. The setting is most likely the Wakes Ground, Hanley, although artistic licence saw Shelton embellish the background with more prominent landmarks – namely the Blackpool Tower. His later works saw Shelton start to sign his pieces as “John”, moving away from the firmer assertion of Hancock or Shelton. I feel that these pieces are ones of reconciliation and echo the sentiment in his diary that his name change was done at haste after the row with his father in his youth.

John Shelton died shortly after his 70th birthday in 1993. His work is in the National Collection (recently published online via the BBC Your Paintings project) and is in private collections including those of the actor Freddie Jones and the late Pat Phoenix. The Brampton gave a retrospective of around sixty of Shelton’s works in 1983. This forgotten son of Stoke-on-Trent who – according to the Haggar review – was “content to plough a lonely furrow in North Staffordshire” still has a cutting on the wall of his studio referencing a Cyril Connolly quote from the last issue of Horizon (December 1949):
…an artist will be judged only by the resonance of his solitude or the quality of his despair.


1John Shelton is the same John ‘with the gammy leg’ from the Slade as referenced in Arthur Berry’s A Three and Sevenpence Halfpenny Man.


Thanks to Paine Proffitt for his own insight into John Shelton’s work.


Early Shelton turns up on eBay

October 26, 2013 2 comments

I had a fantastic message on Friday night from a Facebook friend who has similar interest in Shelton, Cope and Berry saying that she had spotted an early painting by John Shelton on eBay.

John Shelton - London scene, 1951

John Shelton – London scene, 1951

John Shelton - signature; London scene, 1951

John Shelton – signature; London scene, 1951

It is an early oil on board by John Shelton. Similar in style to a Potteries scene painted in 1950, this piece is most likely set in the capital as by 1951, Shelton was working at the Festival of Britain.

John Shelton - verso; London scene, 1951

John Shelton – verso; London scene, (?pre-)1951

The verso provides further interest – an early circus scene by Shelton. While Shelton’s style radically changed throughout his career, the circus theme recurs in work across many decades. This theme is topical given the current Circus exhibition at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery which features two of Shelton’s paintings.