Focus on Leonard Rosoman at Chichester's Pallant House Gallery

A new exhibition at Chichester's Pallant House Gallery explores the influence of the theatre on British painter Leonard Rosoman (1913-2012).

Rosoman, Officer in Drag, 1968 (c) The Artists Estate
Rosoman, Officer in Drag, 1968 (c) The Artists Estate

Gallery director Simon Martin said: “The exhibition (until April 29) celebrates Rosoman’s post-war narrative paintings, in particular 16 works from his extraordinary series based on John Osborne’s controversial play A Patriot for Me, not exhibited together since the 1970s.

“Conveying the claustrophobic, sometimes savage, atmosphere of the play, this series also captured a moment in time when attitudes towards sexuality and censorship were on the cusp of change. This exhibition is the first major museum show of Rosoman’s work in 30 years and is part of a nationwide programme celebrating the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy of Arts (RA).

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“John Osborne’s A Patriot for Me was first performed at the Royal Court in 1965. Initially banned by the Lord Chamberlain’s office for its homosexual content, a legal loophole was exploited which turned the theatre into a private club for the play’s duration.

“Leonard Rosoman attended the first performance and found his friend Osborne’s exploration of gay life – told through the true story of the disgraced Austro-Hungarian army officer, Colonel Redl – such a transformative experience that he returned every night for a week to create drawings by torchlight.

“It was three years before he revisited these first impressions, producing a remarkable series of works dominated by two major paintings on the play’s famous Drag Ball scene. These large canvases show a bustling stage filled with elegantly cross-dressed men, a development of Rosoman’s interest in multi-figure composition.

“As well as renderings of other scenes including the gruesome The Beating Up, for which he referred to media images of male conflict and attack, Rosoman produced smaller portrait studies including of George Devine as Baron von Epp, of Jill Bennett as Countess Sophie, and of Maximillian Schell as Colonel Redl.

“Crucially the paintings do not amount to a depiction of the play itself, but instead act as Rosoman’s own painterly response to the same material that Osborne had addressed as a writer.

“The use of a box-like stage setting reinvents the 18th-century theatrical conversation piece, perfected by the artist Johan Zoffany (1733 – 1810), who incidentally had painted Rosoman’s ancestor Thomas Rosoman, the man responsible for Sadler’s Wells’ new stone theatre in 1765.”

“During his career Rosoman was a painter and illustrator whose unique narrative style did not sit neatly within the story of British modernism.”