Tom Cross: Artist, writer and educator

Tom Cross was painter who was widely known to generations of art students as Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Reading University and as Principal of the School of Art (now the University College of Art) Falmouth. He exhibited widely in Australia, the United States and the near East as well as in this country. More than that he was a writer who wrote clearly and unpretentiously about art. Cornwall has attracted artists for a century and a half and he was particularly knowledgeable about them – from the Newlyn School in the latter part of the 19th Century, on to the important St Ives movement in the first half of the 20th Century, and through to the contemporary scene. Last year he was treated for cancer but finally it got the better of him, and in the end he was with his wife, Patricia, and their only son, David, when he died peacefully at his home in High Cross near Constantine in Cornwall, on March 27.

Tom Cross was born in Manchester in 1931 and that is where his early education took place. After leaving St Bede’s College Tom was apprenticed to a local firm of architects. Then, following a period in the RAF, in 1949 he enrolled as a student at the Manchester School of Art with the intention of following the architecture stream but, during his first year, he made an important decision which was to affect the rest of his life: he decided to concentrate instead on fine art. On leaving Manchester he went on to the Slade from 1953 to 1956. He once said the Manchester experience had been quiet and pleasant, and had taught him the the discipline of work. Equally important, as a founder member of a group known as Northern Young Artists, it enabled him to become a life-long friend of L S Lowry, who had agreed to become the president of the group. But it was at the Slade, then flourishing under William Coldstream, that fine art became really exciting and it provided Tom with the opportunity to meet many internationally renowned artists.

With help of scholarships he then spent two years traveling – first in Italy, based in the British School in Rome, then in Paris and the south of France. It was during this period that he married Patricia Carrick who has been a tremendous support to Tom in innumerable ways, and now survives him. On returning to U.K. in 1959 he was offered the post of Assistant Director of the Welsh Arts Council, where he was responsible for the Visual Arts Programme.

From 1963 to 1976 he was appointed Lecturer, then Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at Reading University. His Head of Department was Claude Rogers, who had been his tutor at the Slade. Because of Tom’s managerial and administrative skills, Claude devolved to him much of the responsibility for running the department.

In 1976 he was appointed Principal of the Falmouth School of Art. Although running the school was his major task, he nevertheless wanted to keep his painting alive, and he took to his studio daily at 4.00 p.m. This was not simply self indulgence: he thought it was important for students to know that their Head was still professionally engaged.

After he retired from Falmouth School of Art in 1987, Tom continued to lecture occasionally, but he now had the time to concentrate more on painting and writing. Although there were painting forays to other places – including Wales, Guernsey, Australia, America, Mexico, Dubai and Oman – Tom’s heart was now securely in Cornwall. When they first came to Cornwall, he and Pat had a house overlooking the Penryn River in Falmouth. Later they moved to a stunning house on Port Navas Creek which leads into the beautiful Helford River. It is not surprising, then, that rivers became a strong influence in his painting. Many of his works, especially in his latter years, were inspired by, and based on, his exploration of Helford River – by dinghy, or walking his dog along its banks. In the 1970’s much of Tom’s work had been abstract, but it was the Cornish experience, particularly of the coast and rivers, which brought him back to landscape.

It was typical of Tom to remain positive, forward-looking and optimistic. And indeed until the end he was still planning an exhibition of some of his paintings based on the Helford River at the New Yard Restaurant, Trelowarren, near Helston. This exhibition will remain open until the 18th of May.

Tom will be remembered, not only for his painting but also for his books. Three of these have already become classics and have been reprinted. Together they provide a detailed but very readable history of Cornish Art. ‘Painting the Warmth of the Sun – St Ives Artists 1939 – 1975, was published in 1984. It arose out of a script which Tom had written for a series of three TV programmes of that title produced by South-West Television. Then in 1994 he published ‘The Shining Sands – Artists in Newlyn & St Ives, 1880 – 1930. The third book in the series, published 2002, was ‘Catching the Wave – Contemporary Art & Artists in Cornwall (1975 – 2002)’. All three may be considered required reading for anyone interested in Cornish Art.

The last book Tom wrote was of a more personal nature. It was published in 2005 and entitled ‘Helford – A River and some Landscapes’. This deals not only with the river which he loved and for which it provides an historical and geographical guide, beautifully illustrated with Tom’s sketches and paintings, but it is also autobiographical and provides an insight to his own philosophical attitudes and development as a painter.

Tom was a great raconteur and he loved a party. He maintained his sense of humour until the end. A few weeks ago when he called on friends, all wrapped up because of the cold weather, he handed over his coat and hat but, when it was suggested that he might like to relinquish his colourful scarf, he thought for a moment, but then declined saying ‘Perhaps not, I think it adds a certain air of nonchalance’. Many will have other anecdotes illustrating his dry humour. But of wider importance and lasting memory will be his legacy of paintings and books, which will be enjoyed for many years to come.

Tom Cross was born on February 3, 1931. He died on March 27, 2009, aged 78.