An extraordinary painter

The only child of Fredrick John and Violet Ellen Reeves, Michael Reeves was born in Chippenham, Wiltshire, England on May 18th, 1938.

His father, Fred, was a groundsman for the local high school and had a small garden allotment where he kept pigs and geese and grew vegetables. He regularly bought and sold antiques, tools and other goods in the local market. Michael’s mother, Vi, ran a popular cafe in the town’s High Street at the back of which was a stall from which she sold antiques. This stall soon grew into an antique shop on the Chippenham causeway which Vi ran for many years. From a very early age Michael bought things to sell in his mother’s shop.

From the age of 13 Michael attended the Bath Art School which dated from 1852 and was one of 17 founded in Britain as a consequence of the Great Exhibition of 1851. There were only 78 pupils in the Bath Art School at the time he was there. In 1956 at eighteen years old Michael graduated to the senior school housed at Corsham Court, a grand stately home mid-way between Chippenham and Bath, the first residential Academy of Art in England. During the Second World War it had served as a military hospital. “The Bath Academy, (as the senior school was called) also had 2 large Georgian houses near Corsham — Beechfield about 1 mile north-west of Corsham and Monks Park about 2 miles to the south-east.” (1)

Lord Paul Methuen, owner of Corsham Court, was a pupil of the late painter Walter Sickert. Sickerts widow, Therese Lessore, had offered Sickert’s studio to the Bath Art School when their own building was destroyed by a bomb in 1942.

Clifford Ellis was the Director of The Bath Art School and, after the war, Lord Methuen told Clifford that he was ” looking for a tenant who could benefit from the visual ambiance” of Corsham Court.(2) Lord Methuen favoured Michael, a local boy, whom he considered to be very talented. Michael and Lord Methuen became good friends during the time Michael spent at Corsham.

“Unlike other art schools at the time, Corsham Court was extraordinarily well-funded with the help of The Gulbenkien Foundation in Lisbon. As a result, the school could afford to bring in many of the most famous artists of the time as tutors and so the calibre of the tuition was unrivalled. My principal teachers were Howard Hodgkin, William Scott and Adrien Heath, and one of my favorites was the Polish painter Peter Potworowki. But there were others too — Lyn Chadwick and Jack Smith. Some of the senior staff had taught at the Bauhaus until forced to leave Germany by the Nazis. I shared a studio with Edward Piper, son of John Piper who was one of the governors of Corsham. Working with Edward meant I had extra, privileged tuition.”

To pay his way through art school Michael continued his early dealings in antiques. Driving a truck he often took his local finds to the Burmondsey Market in London where he began to establish the contacts that led to his very successful career as an antique dealer. But as an art student money was short, so much so that he collected the paint brushes and used canvases that wealthier students discarded and cleaned them up for his own use. When Michael was 21, he bought a Victorian gypsy caravan and restored it over the summer and sold it to make his tuition fees and expenses for the next school year.

“While at Corsham I received the travelling scholarship and went to work in Italy for a time. After graduating from the four year course in Fine Art, I did a post-graduate degree at Brighton College of Art. My thesis was on the Victorian diarist Francis Kilvert, and with this choice I was introduced to the literary world, and through it the poet William Plomer who later became Poet Laureate. He and I remained friends for many years….

Immediately after my studies I did some teaching at the Mowden School for Boys in Hove, Sussex and then the Brighton Grammar School.

By complete contrast I then taught in the worst school in the whole of London, the position being offered as the only one available at the time since I had left the application so late: I was looking for something more art-related. Fearing for my life, I gave up the position after the first year. Then, thanks to a fortuitous meeting with a wealthy friend, I started an antique and fine art business in London which extended to a second shop in Bath.”

By this time, Michael had met Norma Parker (nee Roberts) who was working for John Le Burn in his antique shop on Westbourne Grove, just off the Portobello Road in Kensington, London. Norma was recently divorced and struggling as a single-mother to raise three small girls — Cara, Bene and Sophie. On Saturdays she had her own stall in the Kensington Antique Market. In the evenings she worked as a bartender in a Spanish restaurant. When Michael and Norma met, Cara and Bene were with their paternal grandparents in Spain and baby Sophie was being shuttled between babysitters. Michael and Norma married on March 3rd, 1967 when he was Director of the British Craft Centre.

“The antique dealing was interrupted when I was asked by the Goldsmith’s company to become the Director of the London Craft Centre which was moving out of its old premises and into new ones in Covent Garden. I was still in my late 20s and so able to relate to the new artists and craftsmen, and my reputation for being involved with extraordinary objects was supposed to influence the new ones — which it did.”

Having such a prestigious position but no inherited fortune or trust income, the young couple could not afford the evening clothes and entertaining expenses associated with the meagerly paid director’s position, as well as raise their children, so they returned to antique dealing. Their fourth daughter, Ellen, was born in 1968.

Together Michael and Norma ran a very successful antique business, specializing in the Decorative Arts, in Bath and London with a shop in the Pimlico Road and annual stands at the highly respected Olympia Decorative Arts Fair. Buyers would come from around the world and many became close friends.

In later years Michael became a well-respected authority on the Bloomsbury Group and befriended the painter Duncan Grant. Michael also became friends with the Bloomsbury’s arch-rival, the traditional neo-romantic painter Maxwell Armfield — “one of the last romantic painters”– whom he greatly admired. They were introduced by Mick Fleetwood of the popular music group Fleetwood Mac.

Fleetwood Mac had commissioned Maxwell to do the cover art for one of their albums and Mick offered to introduce Michael to him. Michael gained a great deal from Maxwell, who had always hoped to buy and move to a property in North America on the proceeds of his paintings, but by the time that was possible he was well into his nineties and too old to do so.

Michael also became friends with the writer Bruce Chatwin while his closest literary friend was Ian Somerville who had been the companion of William Golding. Ian was the inventor of the Dream Machine which he sold to Peggy Guggenheim. The prototype for the Dream Machine was given to Michael but sadly was stolen from Ian’s home immediately after his funeral.

In 1979, on the advice of his friend the artist Peter Kinley, Michael moved his family and antique business to Canada. “(Peter) had a show in Toronto at Waddington’s Gallery. At dinner one evening he was so enthusiastic about Canada it prompted our move.”

In the early 1980s Michael was elected President of The Canadian Antique Dealers Association. The eminent Marion Bradshaw noted that the tour of the C.A.D.A. show that Michael orchestrated for the media was one of the most fascinating and educational experiences to which she had ever been treated. She was beyond impressed by his knowledge and impromptu presentation.

In the mid-1980s when Michael was selling his collection of Armfield paintings, his step-daughter Bene found for sale a remarkable property on Lake Scugog near Port Perry, Ontario. So Michael and Norma bought their ‘Scugog Eden’ with the proceeds of the sale of Maxwell Armfield’s paintings, making the old romantic’s dream come true.

The paradise of Maxwell’s imagining and the land Michael was able to buy became the influence of much of Michael’s work, as is the tradition in Canadian art.

Some of Michael’s works are inspired by the Canadian artists David Milne, Tom Thompson and Stanley Cosgrove, but others honour British greats and long time friends Howard Hodgkin, Duncan Grant and Maxwell Armfield. His works were also influenced by the French artists Claude Monet, Pierre Bonnard, Marc Chagall and Nicolas Poussin.

In the early 1990s Michael retired from the antique business and returned to painting full time, thanks to Norma’s contract to design and provide furnishings for the Head Offices of the Canadian franchise of Crabtree and Evelyn and their 31 shops across the country.

During this time Michael created his largest body of work and had exclusive shows at the Lake Gallery in Toronto in 1992 and 1993. These led to another solo exhibition at the prominent Robert McLauglin Gallery in Oshawa in 1994. Joan Murray, the Director of the RMG at the time, said “Reeves’ work is a triumph of individualism. He is one of the major painters of his generation.”. She considered his work “a tour de force of inventive statement”.

In 2005 Michael and Norma sponsored “Speaking of Hope” at Sharon Temple National Historic Site when His Excellency John Raulston Saul spoke about the significance of the artist’s role in shaping culture and society which was very much in keeping with Michael’s philosophy of life. There is a strong link between the Bloomsbury Group in the 1940s and the avant-garde society created by the Children of Peace who built the Sharon Temple in the 1830s, and who founded Canadian society as we know it today.

Michael and Norma  also sponsored The Local Option Art Awards in 2008 as part of The Toronto Junction Historical Society Centennial Celebration. The guest speaker at the Gala Awards Ceremony at Latitude 44 Gallery was Don Thompson, author of the newly published best-selling book The 12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art , a history of the art world in which Michael and Norma had been such a part for many years.

Michael had a serious stroke in his mid-50s, but with Norma’s indefatigable support he persevered and adapted to painting with his left hand. Michael died peacefully in Newmarket, Ontario on March 19th, 2015 at 76.

His family is planning a Retrospective of his works in the Spring/Summer of 2019, including some of his 1950s works that have never been shown before.

For further information about Michael and his works, please contact us and we will be happy to help you if we can.