Art champion for King's Lynn

Ian Collins This year’s King’s Lynn Festival exhibition celebrates the life and work of the late great Walter Dexter. Ian Collins pays tribute to a wide-ranging artist who treasured most the world on his doorstep.

Ian Collins

When, 50 years ago, an elderly gent was killed after colliding with a motorcycle as he crossed the Saturday Market Place, King's Lynn was turned into a town in mourning. The ancient port on the Ouse had lost its greatest artistic champion.

The dead man was the painter and draughtsman Walter Dexter, and he was known to everyone not simply for the quantity of his fine creative work - which ranged freely over style, subject and medium - but for the quality of his character.

He'd had expertise and enthusiasm in boundless measure, and had poured his broad interests into lifetime labours to salute and safeguard Lynn as one of the treasures of England, however unsung it might have been by almost everyone else.

Although folk came flocking to the funeral, history has not been so respectful to Walter Dexter. Growing up in the shadow of the Norwich School masters, he was one of four excellent, Norfolk-associated painters born between 1866 and 1878. But his reputation now lags far behind those of Sir John Alfred Arnesby Brown, Campbell Mellon and Sir Alfred Munnings.

Having been honoured with a major retrospective exhibition at the King's Lynn Festival of 1951 - the year of the Festival of Britain - he fully deserves this magnificent reassessment on what is otherwise a rather sad anniversary.

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Walter Dexter was actually born in Wellingborough, in 1876, but his father soon returned the family to his native King's Lynn. Here, already encouraged within an artistic clan, he was lucky to be taught by Henry Baines - the brother who valued the world on his doorstep, whereas Thomas Baines bestrode the empire for swashbuckling images like a Rider Haggard in paint rather than print.

Maternal family connections led Walter to Birmingham School of Art where he proved a brilliant student. In that great manufacturing city arts and crafts flourished, most particularly along Pre-Raphaelite lines pioneered by local lad Edward Burne-Jones and pursued by Joseph Southall (1861-1944), who painted gem-like images in oil and watercolour on holidays first on the north Norfolk coast and then, each summer from 1903 almost until the second world war, in Southwold. As artists and socialists, Southall and Dexter were kindred spirits.

After Birmingham, Dexter spent time in London and toured the continent, following particularly in the footsteps of the Dutch and Flemish Old Masters, who would remain life-long guides, and also exploring Paris. Two masterly paintings of 1904, each called The Workshop, and demonstrating both his skill and his William Morris-style reverence for craftsmanship, earned him membership of the Royal Society of British Artists with which he was to exhibit regularly for more than half a century.

Returning to Lynn, he lived for a time on a converted fishing boat on the River Nar and then, from the eve of the first world war, with his wife in the old toll cottage at East Winch - savouring the views of a town which, in a certain light, and from a certain angle, appeared straight out of an Old Master painting from the Low Countries. Poverty had proved the once-great medieval port's cruel conservator.

Art teacher, collector and antiquary - studying the history of the Fens and medieval architecture and making it a goal to paint all of England's cathedrals (he would manage them all except Worcester) - he threw himself into the cultural and political life of King's Lynn. But for all that artistic diversity - and sheer Dexterity! - in illustrating Methuen travel guides, in commercial commissions and frequent touring with camera and sketchbook - his beloved town became his overwhelming subject.

There are the great buildings of Lynn squashed together for posters and publicity materials and arrayed, as in reality, in watercolours and oils where much of the scene is cloud-rife sky.

Although he was patronised by royalty - with the late Queen Mother a buyer, and Queen Mary among subscribers for the 1936 view of the Custom House which Lynn presented to Vancouver in Canada for the George Vancouver jubilee celebrations - Dexter's gift was to connect with ordinary people and to show the beauty of a town menaced in the 20th century by both economic blight and bulldozers.

How fitting that, from 1955, he should have worked from the old Valiant Sailor public house in Nelson Street, whose merry ghosts stalk his pictures.

The Walter Dexter exhibition, including many works from private collections never previously seen by the public, is at the Fermoy Gallery from July 12 to August 9.