“Those who can, do, those who can’t, teach.” A damning statement if ever there was one and one so often untrue. Pierre Adolphe Valette (1876 – 1942) is often labelled with the faint praise of being “Lowry’s teacher.” He was far more than that. He could do, and did. As the very best of teachers do, he passed on his knowledge and skill with enthusiasm to his pupils, he inspired. They loved him for it, but there too is one of the curses of teaching, the best of teachers are not selfish as some great artists are. In caring for his pupils; in encouraging them, in earning a living, the time to promote himself became a lesser concern.
The fact that Valette became an art teacher, and in Manchester, is in itself a remarkable circumstance. It reveals a young man of sterling character determinedly overcoming considerable challenge. Born in Saint Étienne, France in 1876, his parents, though by no means poor, were never quite in a position to financially support their son’s ambitions. His father Ferdinand was an armourer, working in the manufacture of military equipment. Metal working processes were dominant in the industrial town of Saint Étienne indeed the workshops for the armaments firm of Claude Brondel were right next door to the town hall. Is there art in armoury? At the high end yes and perhaps young Valette saw some examples of elegant patterns and designs engraved in the polished metal of gunstocks and barrels at the factory where his father worked, or the local Palais des Arts.
Mastering the engraving process gave young Valette a means not just to express his creativity, but to justify it in commercial terms too. His skilful draughtsmanship is so apparent in the engraving “Dog surprising a partridge”, this, a typical hunting subject, is enlivened by the animation of the partridge and the sharp fixed stare of the dog and all of course executed on a small scale. The startling thing is that it is accurately dated 1890, when Valette was only 13 years of age. His artistic ambition is already well established and his ability to work hard in employment to further that ambition is clearly his means.
Engraving provided Valette with an independent income, one that he used to further his artistic education, but there was recognition too. When enrolled at the School of Art in Bordeaux in 1900 he was partially funded by a scholarship from the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce. Bordeaux was a prestigious academy and through his tutors and occasional trips to Paris Valette became aware of the wider French art scene. By 1900 the Impressionists were publically recognised as an important art movement and their ideas and methods would have had a powerful effect on students. Valette was particularly intrigued by the influence Japanese prints and oriental art were having on his artistic contemporaries. In 1903 he was recommended by his tutors for the Poirson scholarship and he determined to use the travelling scholarship of 400 francs to travel to the Far East. Sadly he was not successful, the judges felt , “he already had income from his skills,”1 and of course as we are already aware, those who can, do. For the first time Valette’s strong work ethic had worked against him.
Perhaps the disappointment of missing out heightened his desire to travel. If though this was to be by his own means there would have to be compromise and so his sights turned to a less distant land. There is precedence for Valette coming to England. Several Impressionist artists had already made the trip, drawn by Turners use of light or more prosaically to escape the effects of the Franco–Prussian war. Intriguingly there was a more liberal approach to art teaching in England. In France a presidential decree in 1899 had suppressed the use of nude models in life classes, replacing them with rubber mannequins.2 That would have so frustrated Valette and gives impetus to the brilliant life drawings he was to produce here. I wonder too if he saw Claude Monet’s “Houses of Parliament” series, painted, to begin with, in London from around 1900? In these paintings the Palace of Westminster is shrouded in fog. Monet softens the gothic façade into a dreamlike blur of colour, blues and pinks when the fog is at its thickest or tinged with gold as the sun sets. Monet found a way of turning what many considered to be London’s blight, the smog, into something of beauty. The very thing Valette does to Manchester a few years later?
Valette was of necessity a practical man, a hard worker who had to pay his own way. Though he enrolled at Birkbeck College in 1904, London would have been an expensive place to live and a competitive place for a young artist, particularly one not fluent in English, to find work. Manchester at the turn of the century was a centre of industry, dominated by the cotton trade, but engineering and manufacturing were strong too. Perhaps there Valette with his commercial engraving and drawing skills might find work. Winters in the early 1900s were harsh ‘up North’ though, so Valette’s first taste of the city would have been a chilly one, a dirty one too. Combine the cold and damp with the smoke of industry and you can see why John Ruskin described Manchester as the spiritual home of pollution.3 From the haze of uncertainty Valette did indeed get his chance in Manchester. He was offered a job with printing company Norbury, Natzio and Co. Ltd of Trafford Park.
Logo from Grace’s Guide to British Industrial History
An ideal job for an artist fluent in impressionist stylings too as it turns out, drawing and painting young ladies to be printed on sales tickets for textiles. Manchester of course exported textiles to the world and examples of his promotional work have echoes of Toulouse Lautrec, proof that Valette was already bringing a French touch to the city. As his employment prospects look up, he raises his eyes to his new home, but he doesn’t see the filth of pollution or the all pervading grime, he sees shimmering blues and violets, indistinct shapes and twinkling lights in high windows, he sees hustle and bustle, smoke and steam, he sees something mystical. He must hone his skills though to capture this murky magic, he needed a place and the means to paint.
So it was that he enrolled in Manchester Municipal School of Art studying life drawing and engraving. To his fellow students he was an exotic presence. The epitome of an artist, with his short beard and piercing eyes and most of all that French accent, he must have cut an elegant dash.4 Ah that Frenchness. Here was a man who came from across the Channel where all that exciting Impressionism and Post impressionism was happening, of course his fellow students wanted to know more. Suddenly his lack of English was a positive advantage it added to his mystique. His drawing skill impressed the school hierarchy too. It was Headmaster Richard Glazier who encouraged him to apply for the position of Master of Painting and Drawing, an appointment that garnered an annual salary of £2255. A fascinating aside to his acceptance of this role, and perhaps acknowledging the language barrier he still faced, is that Valette declared a proviso to his contract saying that he should “teach the pupils by actually painting with them.”6 This may not seem unusual today, but in 1906 it was an extraordinary teaching revolution, one that was greatly appreciated by his students. One such, Sam Rabin said, “One Valette drawing was worth three hours of talking.”7 rapid advancement from pupil to teacher in the space of a couple of years is not just a mark of his artistic skill, but also that drive to become accepted by his Mancunian contemporaries, he had found his niche. Perhaps a much better epithet for “can do” Valette is, “If you want to learn, teach,” for in teaching drawing and painting he truly becomes a master of pencil, charcoal, pastels, watercolour and oils and that mastery enables him to work quickly, demonstrating to his students how to rapidly capture a figure, landscape or still life.
Only a teacher who was striving himself to master his art would have the confidence to wander amongst his students, as Valette did, suggesting improvements or making corrections. His French accent must have undermined his authority a little though, the students called him “Mr Monsieur”, but his enthusiasm and sheer dexterity with all mediums easily overcame this. Cécilia Lyon in the definitive book on Valette relates the following lovely story. “His rather approximate English and inaccurate pronunciation sometimes gave rise to plays on words and some surreal situations. For example if he asked a student to “re-paint” something, his bad pronunciation would suggest that he was asking the student to “repent” for his painting.”8 The affection his students had for him is clear in so many favourable testimonies that reveal Valette not just as teacher, but also as fellow artist and friend.
Valette encouraged his students to paint “en plein air”. Painting outside was very much an Impressionist cornerstone and Valette himself painted many quick small studies in preparation for his large Manchester canvases. These small boards are glances into the past, you can feel the vitality in the brushstrokes, the sense of urgency to record a moment or atmospheric affect, or indeed to demonstrate an effective composition. Valette led painting trips into Manchester and the surrounding countryside. A former student described watching him painting,” Mr Valette loved the misty and foggy atmosphere of Manchester and would stand sketching with his paintbox supported by a strap round his neck, holding a small canvas or board in the lid … it was like watching a display of fireworks.”9 It is therefore entirely appropriate that a teaching institution like the University of Salford should hold examples of such work. It is documented that Valette took students to Dunham Park, Alderley Edge, Prestbury and Didsbury. So it is quite possible to add to that list Romiley, near Stockport.
There is a small Valette painting called, Open Air Art Class, June 1906. It shows four people out sketching in the woods. Two men and two women sit amongst the foliage, the ladies white blouses and gentlemen’s white collars picked out in the dappled sunlight. They sit elevated, on foldable stools maybe, and all are working on small rectangular boards approximately 30 x 40cm. In June 1906 Valette would have only been teaching at the Municipal School of Art for a few months so this must have already been an established practice, but one that has caught his attention. He sees the potential the immediacy of working outside provides, and we see how his students can be his inspiration too. It is quite possible that the lively little oil sketches in the University collection were painted in this way.
In viewing the University of Salford pieces today one gets a sense of looking over Valette’s shoulder. You can almost hear that entrancing French accent as he describes the painting process. I like to imagine him saying… “See the red brick building draws the eye this bright October day. It is placed off centre, so can be included the little barn on the right. There, the light in the white curtained windows. There again it catches madams shoulder as she looks toward us. A flash of red used to portray her long skirt. Now see the muted colours in distant trees as the leaves turn, but bold be with the small trees in the foreground to give the depth.” Mr Monsieur is teaching us still.
Danny Morrell. July 2017.
- Adolphe Valette, Cécilia Lyon. Phillimore and Co Ltd 2006. Pages 14-15.
- Adolphe Valette, Cécilia Lyon. Phillimore and Co Ltd 2006. Page 10.
- The Chimney of the World: Smog in Manchester through the Ages. Manchester Evening News 3rd April, 2014.
- James Fitton RA, a fellow student of Valette’s described Valette thus, “He looked like all the Impressionists rolled into one with a little black beard, black hair and a black cloak.” L S Lowry: a biography, Shelley Rohde. Lowry Press 1999 Ed.
- Equivalent to approx £25,000 today.
- Adolphe Valette, Cécilia Lyon. Phillimore and Co Ltd 2006. Pages 36 – 37.
- Adolphe Valette, Cécilia Lyon. Phillimore and Co Ltd 2006. Page 38.
- Adolphe Valette, Cécilia Lyon. Phillimore and Co Ltd 2006. Page 38.
- Adolphe Valette A French Impressionist in Manchester, Sandra Martin. Scala 2007.