Major new exhibition at Firstsite this autumn revisits the work of Denis Wirth-Miller

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Major new exhibition at Firstsite this autumn revisits the work of Denis Wirth-Miller
Denis Wirth-Miller, Walking Dog on Plinth, 1954, oil on canvas, 98cm x 120cm © The Estate of Denis Wirth-Miller

COLCHESTER.- Before his death in Colchester aged 94, Wirth-Miller’s work had been shown in London's leading galleries and acquired by the Queen, the Arts Council England and Contemporary Art Society. The self-taught painter was both a friend and collaborator with Francis Bacon, but following an explosive disagreement with Bacon, Wirth-Miller ended his career in painting in 1977.

In the largest retrospective of his work to date, Firstsite displays over one hundred paintings by this influential artist. The exhibition is curated by the renowned writer and curator James Birch, who has secured key loans from a variety of sources, to give visitors a chance to view pieces that have never before been seen in public. Many artworks are from private collections, including more than 70 never shown and important artworks from Jon Lys Turner, the holder of Denis and Dickie’s personal archive and author of their biography, The Visitors’ Book.

Wirth-Miller was born in 1915 in Folkestone, Kent, where his Bavarian father Johann Wirthmuller (Denis later Anglicised his name) ran a hotel. Wirth-Miller's mother moved him to Bamburgh in her home county of Northumberland, where he was raised by his grandmother.

After leaving school, Denis joined the textile manufacturers Tootal Broadhurst Lee, in Manchester, where his natural talent prompted his appointment as a designer. In 1937 he moved to London, occupying one of the painter Walter Sickert's former studios in north London. It was in London Denis first met Richard ‘Dickie’ Chopping and their lifelong relationship began. The pair moved to Wivenhoe and solemnified their relationship in December 2005 with a civil partnership, becoming the first couple in Colchester to do so.

While living in Wivenhoe simultaneously, Wirth-Miller and Bacon would share a studio and often contributed to each other’s work - something which can be seen from the variety of brush strokes and the reverse of some canvases - however, theirs was a tempestuous relationship. After his 1977 exhibition, following a public spat with Bacon, Denis destroyed his own pictures and virtually gave up painting.

Wirth-Miller’s striking series of ‘dog’ paintings provide a highlight of the exhibition. Over ten examples are being featured in the show, demonstrating the artist’s ability to capture the movement and poise of dogs, with paintings that were themselves inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s 11 volume magnum opus Animal Locomotion (1885). It was Wirth-Miller who introduced Bacon to the works of the photographer in 1949.

Wirth-Miller was also a fine landscape painter, and the exhibition shines a spotlight on his talent for capturing the movement of wind through crops and meadows. Superb examples of which are coming from the Arts Council Collection, Tate and a variety of private collections.

This show follows Firstsite’s critically acclaimed 2021-22 exhibition Life with Art, which focused on painters of The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Benton End where Denis, Dickie and Francis were all members, along with Maggi Hambling, Lucy Harwood and Valerie Thornton.

James Birch says: “I knew Denis since I was a child, and it’s an honour to show his work now, and hopefully create more visibility for him as an artist. His work captures the magic of this country’s landscapes, especially the Essex marshes and fields, and deserves to be much more well-known in its own right, not just as an influence on one of the twentieth century’s great artists, Francis Bacon. Both Denis and Francis were known for their depictions of dogs, and this exhibition, the largest retrospective to date, shows a number of Denis’s paintings and drawings of dogs never seen before.”
Firstsite Director, Sally Shaw MBE: “It’s a great honour to be able to draw attention to an often overlooked and talented artist who loved and depicted this area with such vibrancy. A lot of works are being shown publicly for the very first time and this is a great opportunity to see pieces by all three artists, discover more about their intense and turbulent relationship and how this influenced their work. The show will examine how Wirth-Miller and Bacon collaborated together. This can been seen in the style and techniques used in some artworks –showing how powerful it can be when people are creative together.”

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