REVIEW by Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 104

Keith Vaughan, Figure and Ground

by Simon Pierse, Harry Heuser, Robert Meyrick

While Keith Vaughan’s paintings are highly regarded and widely exhibited, his work as a photographer, printmaker and draughtsman has been overlooked and as a result, undervalued. This splendid book from Sansom & Co sets out to consider Vaughan’s work outside of painting. In truth, the authors have made a virtue of necessity: the collection of Vaughan’s work held by Aberystwyth University consists of drawings, lithographs, linocuts, photographs and mixed-media works. But necessity has provided its authors with a fascinating alternative account of the artist’s life and work.

All the essayists here draw out the visual, literary and thematic obsessions found in Vaughan’s paintings; but each essayist looks at these themes through the lens of his ‘marginal’ works. By examining his early experiments with photography, commercial illustrations for books of poetry and prose, and a wide variety of prints, the authors successfully investigate what they call ‘figure and ground’ in a number of different ways.

Simon Pierse opens with a powerful essay on Vaughan’s early photographs. The young Vaughan – having bought his first camera at the age of sixteen – took photographs throughout the nineteen-thirties, culminating in a hand-made album of prints called Dick’s Book of Photos (1940). The album was ‘a kind of photographic “requiem” or memento mori’ to Vaughan’s brother, who was killed in action in 1940. It contains portraits, still-life tableaux and photographs of ballet performances.

Pierse’s theory that Vaughan used photography as ‘a surrogate means of touching what he most desired’ is compellingly argued. As a gay man in Britain in the nineteen-thirties, Vaughan often found himself yearning for that which he could not touch. Homosexuality was a crime punishable by imprisonment, and the idea that Vaughan’s Leica camera became ‘an extension of [his] hand’ is persuasive, particularly when one studies the images. Photography as desire – but also as a means of sealing off desire – is another interesting idea proposed by Pierse.

The second section, ‘Poised on the Edge’, discusses Vaughan’s experiments with printing. In this, the reproductions of his lithographs from the forties and fifties are especially striking, showing how Vaughan ‘negotiates the boundaries between observational drawing and abstraction’. His preoccupation with male figures and landscapes is clear, but the joy evident in his drawings and photographs is absent. Vaughan’s eventual rejection of print, however, was due to personal rather than artistic concerns. In the forties, he talked of being ‘burnt out’ and feeling ‘cut off from contemporary life’. Vaughan removed himself from the companionship of men, thereby cutting himself off from lithography, a medium tied to collaborative working methods.

Editor Colin Cruise documents Vaughan’s literary imagination, showing how he entered the worlds of fiction and poetry and emerged with a series of vivid, energetic prints. He also demonstrates how Vaughan’s ‘erotic assemblies’ in charcoal and pencil reveal the flip-side to his ‘classical’ aesthetic. ‘No one struggles with pencil,’ said Vaughan, suggesting that drawing gave him a pleasure beyond the ‘serious’ business of painting.

Taken as a whole, what is most striking in Keith Vaughan, Figure and Ground is the persistence with which Vaughan pursued the same subject matter – the male form and its bearing in the wider world – in whatever visual medium he turned his hand to. Vaughan writes, ‘I am one of those painters who deliberately chooses to concentrate on a limited range of subject matter, believing thereby that a greater profundity may eventually be achieved this way.’

This ‘limited range of subject matter’ allowed Vaughan to explore his practical and methodological concerns regarding material, technique, practice and process. Like Modernist writers such as Joyce or HD, whose work remained attached to one set of themes, Vaughan’s obsessive fidelity to his subject meant he achieved ‘a greater control over the plastic means of expression.’ Repetition, in his case, yielded a wider experimental field in which the possibilities of form and technique might be played with. As such, we have a collection of work that explores the male body in exciting and invigorating ways.

Amy McCauley writes for New Welsh Review online and in print.

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