Jack Chambers (1931–1978) was a masterly draftsman and painter, and the foundations of these abilities were laid during his five years of study in Madrid. His drawings at this time tended toward detail, and his paintings were tightly controlled. He became expert in depicting both the human figure and landscape. The range of artistic techniques that Chambers learned and practised is part of the paradoxical tension that ran through his life, both as an artist and as a family man. As an artist, he was a “radical classicist,” both a perfectionist and an inveterate experimenter.


Pablo Picasso at home in Cannes, in front of one of his paintings, 1955.
Pablo Picasso at home in Cannes, in front of one of his paintings, 1955.

Chambers’s artistic journey began as a high school student in London, Ontario. Hungry for more experience as an artist following his graduation, he travelled to Quebec City and Mexico. In 1952 he attended the University of Western Ontario, where he took an English literature course given by professor of English and art expert Ross Woodman. Still searching for a way to become a serious artist, however, Chambers left Western and sailed to Europe from New York in September 1953.


Antonio López García, My Parents, 1956
Antonio López García, My Parents, 1956
Oil on canvas, mounted to board, 87.6 x 104.1 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris

For a time Chambers wandered: Rome, Austria, and then the south of France. Never shy about going after what he wanted, and keen on learning to be an artist, by his own account he turned up unannounced at the home of Pablo Picasso (1881–1973). Finding the gate locked, he scaled the wall and managed to gain an audience. Picasso advised him to study in Barcelona.


Instead he ended up attending art school in Madrid. Though his route to admission was circuitous, in May 1954 Chambers was accepted to the prestigious, if highly traditional, Escuela Central de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. He began classes in October 1954, excelling in his studies and graduating five years later, in the spring of 1959.


Jack Chambers, photographic studies for 401 Towards London No. 2, 1968 (unfinished), and 401 Towards London No. 1, 1968–69
Jack Chambers, photographic studies for 401 Towards London No. 2, 1968 (unfinished), and
401 Towards London No. 1, 1968–69

Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

Chambers embraced Spain, learning the language, converting to Catholicism in 1957 (he was raised as a Baptist), and meeting his future wife, Olga Sanchez Bustos, in 1959. In 1960 he bought a flat in the village of Chinchón, near Madrid, planning to stay. He had his first solo exhibition, at the Lorca Gallery in Madrid, in 1961.


In March 1961 Chambers received a letter telling him that his mother was gravely ill, news that would change his life dramatically. He returned to London, where he was amazed by the burgeoning art scene, led by his soon-to-be close friend Greg Curnoe (1936–1992). After reconnecting with Ross Woodman and other artist friends, Chambers eventually decided to stay in Canada.


Jack Chambers, 401 Towards London No. 1, 1968–69
Jack Chambers, 401 Towards London No. 1, 1968–69
Oil on wood, 183 x 244 cm, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto

But Chambers had formed a strong bond with some of his fellow students in Madrid, particularly to Antonio López García (b.1936) who, with others from the Escuela Central with whom Chambers worked closely, went on to form a notable group called the New Spanish Realists. He kept in loose touch with these artists throughout his life. Parallels to the realism characteristic of this group can be found in Chambers’s work by 1968, including his iconic 401 Towards London No. 1, 1968–69 and are there in his description of what he called perceptual realism. Like his Spanish contemporaries, Chambers sought a profound reflection on primary sensory experience, not simply a reproduction of it.


This Essay is excerpted from Jack Chambers: Life & Work by Mark A. Cheetham.

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