Artist Cliff Rowe (1904-1989) sought to represent industry and working life through his art. A Communist, his work primarily depicts industrial workplace scenes, men and women calmly operating machinery, often skilled and somewhat scientific. April’s Object of the Month is one such item and shows a large scale oil painting of a woman wearing a lab coat and operating a piece of technical equipment. This painting is indicative of Rowe’s work. Blocks of colour stand out in between white lines which highlight the sitter and the work at hand. The pose in each painting is deliberate, conveying the requirement of each job; hospital laundry workers folding sheets, women on a production line, a scientist directing a microscope.
Rowe was born in Wimbledon in 1904 to working class parents. He left school at the age of 14, joining the local art school instead of carrying on in mainstream education. Convinced by Marxism at a fairly young age, amongst the backdrop of the Great Depression, Rowe became a Communist and in the 1930s spent 18 months living and working in the Soviet Union. There, he developed the style with which he is most associated, creating icons of the worker while stressing the social value of labour.
Returning back to Britain, Rowe went on to help establish the Artists’ International Association (AIA) in 1934. Initially set up as a radically left political organisation, the AIA went on to promote ‘unity for artists for peace, democracy and cultural development’, becoming involved in anti-fascist and anti-imperialist calls for peace and justice. During the Spanish Civil War, the group raised money for the Republicans by group exhibitions and were involved in settling artists displaced by the Nazi regime in Germany.
Rowe’s socially motivated approach to his art led him to continue supporting himself through commercial means, preferring this than entering the private art market. From 1945, his work included publicity commissions from the Attlee Labour government, murals commissioned by the Electrical Trades Union and designs for the 1951 Festival of Britain.
The People’s History Museum hold the majority of Rowe’s work, which can be viewed by appointment with our Collections Team.
Sent out approximately every two months.