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Obituaries

Gordon Onslow Ford, 90; Painter Depicted Mystical 'Inner Worlds'

November 17, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Gordon Onslow Ford, a visionary painter who searched for truth in the invisible, has died. He was 90.

Onslow Ford died Nov. 8 of complications from a stroke at his longtime home in the Northern California community of Inverness.

A dapper, diminutive artist of great charm and quiet confidence, Onslow Ford found his first muse in Surrealism, but his later work took a mystical approach that embraced Zen Buddhism and self-discovery. His signature paintings, mainly composed of circles, dots and lines, depict magical galaxies or landscapes of the mind. More than mere abstractions of the visible world, he conceived them as revelations of "inner worlds."

The images in his art were "more real to me than what I can see," he said in a Times interview in January 1993, when his work was on exhibit at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum at Pepperdine University. Unlike the Surrealists, who were inspired by dreams and irrational aspects of the unconscious, he was captivated by what he called "realities behind dreams." To paint a dream was to paint a memory, he said. By then, he preferred to look to the future, working spontaneously and conjuring "images we haven't seen before."

Onslow Ford was born in Wendover, England, on Dec. 26, 1912, into an artistic family that included his grandfather, sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, and his aunt, painter Enid Widdrington. He began drawing as a child but had a military education, at the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth. He served as a British Naval officer for several years and resigned in 1937 to pursue art.

The aspiring artist moved to Paris in 1937 and briefly studied with Modernist painter Fernand Leger, but he had little interest in painting the precisely orchestrated arrangements suggested by Leger. Onslow Ford was more in tune with Chilean Surrealist painter Roberto Matta, who became his friend and introduced him to other Surrealist artists, including Max Ernst and Yves Tanguy. Onslow Ford officially joined the group in 1938 and worked with them until 1944.

But the artists scattered during World War II. Onslow Ford left Paris before the Nazi invasion and briefly returned to England. At the invitation of a European expatriate group in America, he went to New York in 1941 and lectured on Surrealism at the New School. While in New York, he met and married American writer Jacqueline Johnson.

Soon after their marriage, they went to Mexico to visit a friend, Surrealist painter Wolfgang Paalen, and stayed for six years. The Onslow Fords moved to the United States in 1947 and settled in the Bay Area. Gordon Onslow Ford became a citizen in 1952.

During his California years, Onslow Ford was best known as a member of a three-artist group called Dynaton -- named for the Greek word for possible. With Paalen and painter Lee Mullican, he began to seek a new direction in art. "Dynaton," a 1951 exhibition, launched what Onslow Ford called "a quest of the inner worlds."

He followed the quest in relative isolation. In 1957, he and his wife bought 400 acres of woodlands in Inverness, where he built his studio and home. Shortly thereafter, they donated most of the land to the Nature Conservancy to ensure its preservation. Jacqueline Johnson died in 1978.

Onslow Ford's work has been featured in exhibitions throughout Europe and the U.S. His paintings are also in the permanent collections of many museums, including the M.H. de Young Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Tate Gallery in London and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

He is survived by his sister, Elizabeth Onslow Ford Rouslin, and nephew, Max Rouslin.

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