Exhibition launches displaying the secret paintings of designer Keith Cunningham, with a curious story behind it
Cunningham’s work, exhibited once at a “semi-derelict Hoxton post office”, has been hidden in a warehouse for six decades. Now it debuts at Newport Street Gallery.
- Liz Gorny
- 18 February 2022
This week, an exhibition displaying over 70 paintings from graphic designer and little-known Australian artist Keith Cunningham has launched at Damien Hirst’s Newport Street Gallery, titled The Cloud of Witness. The figurative works have been displayed once before, in 2016, at a “semi-derelict Hoxton post office” – an event organised by designer and writer Mike Dempsey, who wrote a feature on Cunningham for It’s Nice That the same year. Dempsey had been the first to discover his paintings, which Cunningham had guarded secretively and hadn’t seen “the light of day for over four decades”.
The new exhibition “ends a story that started 21 years ago with an interview and my probing and curiosity in discovering what Cunningham had done beyond his graphic work,” Mike now tells It’s Nice That. Cunningham was a designer who worked at the London College of Printing from the 1960s to 1980s; he also “produced a stream of recognisable graphic covers,” as Mike explains in his 2016 feature, “work[ing] for Design magazine, The Economist and The National Book League.” In 2001 Mike interviewed Cunningham for DesignWeek. “During the time I spent with Cunningham, I discovered that he had a closely guarded secret,” Mike writes. “Tucked away in a warehouse not far from his flat in Battersea was a locked room filled with over 100 carefully covered canvases.”
When Cunningham died in 2014, Mike remembers: “Out of the blue, I had a call from a man who said he had all of Cunningham’s work stored in the basement of another warehouse.” Working with that caller, who turned out to be designer Stephen Rothholz, Mike helped organise the first exhibition of Cunningham’s paintings. Reaching out to London College of Printing alumni via Facebook, the pair raised enough money to exhibit 18 paintings at “a disused and slightly crumbling post office”. Half of the work sold, the other half went back to the warehouse, stacked away with dozens of other paintings that went un-shown.
“So, that was it, I thought – job done,” recalls Mike. “But a few months later, Stephen phoned to say that there was a sudden interest in the remaining paintings.” At the time, Mike was unable to reveal which institution. But this week, Mike says, the rest of Keith Cunningham’s paintings will finally go on display at Newport Street Gallery.
The solo show, The Cloud of Witness, will run until 21 August, finally displaying work that had remained tucked away for decades. A release from Newport Street Gallery states: “His canvases, like those of Bacon, Kossoff and Auerbach, are covered in powerful strokes of dark pigments conveying strikingly expressive forms. The Cloud of Witness seeks to redefine Cunningham’s role in the London art scene of the 1950s, highlighting not only his ability but also the variety of his inspirations.”
Keith Cunningham: Red Portrait of Frank Bowling (Copyright © Keith Cunningham Estate, 1956-1957)
About the Author
Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating in Film from The University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, INDIE magazine and design studio Evermade.