Harry Bush was born in Brighton, moving to London as a child in about 1898. His father Thomas came from Assington, Suffolk, and was perhaps the descendant of Flemish weavers. After four years as a copyist at the Admiralty, Harry studied at the commercial Carlton Studio, Chelsea, under Frederick Taylor (1875–1963), RI, and later at Regent Street Polytechnic, where he met the artist Noel Laura Nisbet. They married in 1910, and later shared 6, Stamford Studios, Fulham Road, Chelsea. In October 1914 the Principal of Clapham School of Art, L. C. Nightingale, formally offered the couple admission ‘without fee’ to the school, allowing them ‘to turn up at any time’, though Harry’s war service in Scotland prevented this. During the war Noel moved to Speen, near Newbury, where daughter Janet was born in 1916, and the family may have met the artist Fred Hall as the 1984 Christie's auction included a painting by him.
The couple would live in the same semi-detached house in Queensland Avenue, Merton (a gift from Noel’s father) from 1914 until their deaths, but while Noel’s work featured imagined scenes (often for book illustrations), over the years Harry regularly depicted the suburban back gardens seen from his studio. He also painted landscapes, portraits and still life studies, but is best known as the ‘painter of suburbia’. In truth, though, he remains largely unknown today: the inclusions of his 1923 painting A February Afternoon and 1940 painting A Corner of Merton, 16 August 1940 in the Tate Britain’s 2004 exhibition Art of the Garden was a rare – and fully deserved – recognition.
During his lifetime Bush’s work was appreciated in art circles for its craft and studied finish; Spring Morning Merton (1932) was exhibited both at the Royal Academy and at the Paris Salon that year and his paintings were shown at the Royal Academy every year from 1922. Purchasers included galleries in Britain and Australia, but regular income was always short for the couple; Harry did occasional art teaching and sometimes took private pupils. After he died, his daughter Janet and her husband lived in the house for almost 30 years and, after Janet’s death, Christie's held a studio auction of 81 works by Harry. The location of most of these paintings is today unknown, including his best-known work, The Builders (1933), which was reproduced on the catalogue cover.
Bush greatly admired the Dutch masters, and The Tiled Kitchen (Museum of London), a 1954 portrait of Janet at his house, paid homage to them. The working drawing for this picture (also held by the Museum) reveals the meticulous composition that underpins his detailed rendering – even fish scraps for the cat are included. The value of Bush’s work lies precisely in raising the everyday to the level of art through understated composition and impeccable finish. His work presents suburbia, where he himself lived for the whole of his working life, unexceptionally yet with faithful detail and artistic coherence. In Bombed House, Merton 1940 (Imperial War Museum) once-private domestic interiors are exposed by the blast, while denuded branches blend compositionally with pipework on exterior walls. Rhubarb flourishes regardless above the garden’s Anderson shelter: life goes on.
Bush’s work is a unique portrait of Merton, in peace and in war, over some twenty five years. It is also a finely-wrought and absorbing portrait of humankind in that most human – and artistically neglected – of environments: the suburb itself. As one contemporary critic argued, his paintings ‘send one with new vision to the contemplation of the apparently commonplace amongst which so many of us pass our lives’.
Dr Peter Quartermaine