Aedwyn Darroll – A Late 1950s Portrait Of ‘Ron’

I only buy something if I like. And if there’s nothing or little known about it, so much the better. It means I can go on a journey – of research – and I’ve had plenty of time to go on such journeys lately due to the Covid-19 lockdown. Earlier this year my eye was drawn to an oil on board portrait in an auction at the excellent Dawsons Auctions. He’s hardly ‘a stunner’, but he is handsome and I liked the colours, the pose, the sitter’s serious expression as if listening in a discerning, intelligent manner to a conversation, and the way it was painted. A piece of brown paper stuck to the back has an inked inscription reading ‘AEDWYN DARROLL 35 CORAM STREET W.C.1. “RON” No.5 £13.13.0’. So, quite a bit of information, but sadly no date. The challenge was set, and the (winning!) bid placed. ‘Who, what, where and when?‘ were my questions.

Aedwyn Darroll was born in Cape Town in South Africa on 10th December 1929 and died aged 75 in Marfa, Texas, on 14th August 2005. He appears to have lived an interesting and varied life based around the arts, and he travelled widely – I’ve tracked him online to Cape Town, London, Southampton, New York, New Jersey, La Quinta, and Texas.

After going to school in or around Cape Town, he received a BA in an unknown subject at the University of Cape Town. During the early 1950s, in his early 20s, he was a theatre actor and set designer as part of ‘The Cockpit Players’ in South Africa, starring in Home of The Brave in 1950, The Ball At The Castle in 1952, and Twelfth Night in 1953, and eventually joining their National Theatre. He married the actress Vivienne Drummond (1926-87) and they left South Africa for London during the early-mid 1950s. Darroll then studied for and received a National Diploma in Design at the St Martins School of Art in London. Given the address on the back, it must have been around this time (the mid-late 1950s) that he painted Ron’s portrait. He also attended the Southampton School of Art, but I don’t know when or in what capacity. At some point, his wife Vivienne left him and returned to South Africa.

Aedwyn Darroll holding a study in front of the mural he painted in Morristown, NJ in 1972. Photo by Albert J. Robbins and with thanks to Tuxedo Park Library.

By the 1970s, Darroll was living in America, working as a freelance designer, illustrator, and artist. He initially lived in the Hamptons with a friend called Christopher, and then met Richard Bradshaw, who would become his life partner, with the two living together in an apartment in Hudson St, Manhattan. In 1972, he painted a large mural in Morristown, New Jersey, depicting Washington astride a horse and surrounded by troops (above), presumably in advance of the bicentenary celebrations of American Independence. Murals seem to have become a favourite of his, as he’s listed in Interior Design magazine in 1974 as specialising in them. Continuing the Bicentenary theme, in 1975 he created a sculptural memorial (now presumably destroyed) for the event on land in Tuxedo, New York. An entry in American Artists of Renown, published in 1981, lists him as living in New York and working in oils and acrylic on various media including plexiglass, and as a muralist and sculptor. Around this time, he also painted a huge mural of The Resurrection which was rolled up and sent to The Vatican, where it probably still remains.

By the mid-1990s, in his late 60s, he had become a professor at the Parson School of Design and Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, recorded when he acted as an expert witness in a 1996 court case about the waiver of moral rights in visual artworks. Earlier court cases indicate that he had taught two- and three-dimensional design and art for “more than 20 years” by this point, meaning he must have arrived in the US in the 1970s and taught increasingly frequently to get to the level of professor. It also suggests that he continued painting and sculpting from the 1950s onwards. Intriguingly, his name also appears in a list of (presumably) acknowledgements on page 7 of Theo Aronson’s 1997 biography of Princess Margaret, so I wonder if he met her?

According to the New York Times, Darroll left New York City in 1997 due to “the phoniness of the art world” and moved to the artists’ community at Marfa, in the remote high desert of Texas. Focusing on Minimalist art, this artists’ hub was founded in the late 1970s by the renowned artist Donald Judd and is still thriving today centred around The Chinati Foundation. In 2001, Darroll donated a large sculptural work consisting of seven coloured metal arches (below) to Fritz Burns Park in the City of La Quinta, California, after it was on display “for many years” at the La Quinta Sculpture Park. I don’t know if he continued to work at Marfa in his late 60s and early 70s, but I can’t find any records of his work there. He did serve as the Chairman of the Board of Artistic Advisors for the International Woman’s Foundation there, and designed their Black hawk logo. Whatever, he died 8 years after moving there. His god-daughter Sarah said about him “Aedwyn was absolutely full of life and could talk to anyone. He was the life and soul of the party, and men and women loved him. We were all so sad when he died. He died too young but then he liked whiskey, and Richard liked vodka, maybe a little too much! only records three listings of works by Darroll sold at auction – one painting sold for the princely sum of £7 in 2016, and the other two went unsold against estimates in the mid-hundreds of pounds. A couple more elsewhere sold for around $150, or didn’t sell at all. That makes the £60.10 I paid at Dawsons Auctions seem okay to me. It’s also less than the work originally cost, according to the price on the back. Presuming that the portrait was painted in the mid-late 1950s, when he studied at St Martin’s, it would have cost around £350 in today’s money.

‘Ron’ by Aedwyn Darroll, late 1950s, oil on board.

As for the sitter, we’ll probably never know who Ron was. Perhaps a fellow student at St Martin’s? After all, he looks to be in his late 20s – Darroll would have been 28 in 1957. Or perhaps he was a lover? His wife left him at some point when they lived in London, and he later lived with his life partner Richard in a post-Stonewall New York, so Darroll was gay. I also wonder what the ‘No.5’ indicates – was this the fifth painting, or the fifth painting of Ron? As for 35 Coram Street, the building is now demolished, but it must have been ‘affordable’ digs at the time.

I asked my good friend Robjn Cantus of Inexpensive Progress what he thought as it’s very much his period of art and he said, “It’s a painting so fresh from the 1950s London’s art scene and the style of John Minton that I do wonder if Darroll was taught by him, as it has so much of his style and hand.” I know what he means – there is something of Minton about him and, dare I say it, even a teeny-weeny bit of Lucian Freud. There’s so much more to find out but, for the meantime, I’ll just hang Ron on my wall and enjoy him – and the story behind the artist.

American Artists of Renown, Wilson Publishing Company, 1981. – All, Images & Books
The Encyclopaedia of South African Theatre, Film, Media and Performance (ESAT)
The New York Times
Sarah Purdy, Aedwyn Darroll’s god-daughter, by personal email.

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