R. H. Ives Gammell: The Hound of Heaven

by Elizabeth Ives Hunter



The 1930s were Gammell's most productive period, when, in addition to portraits and murals, he began to produce the highly personal allegorical pictures to which he had always aspired. However, the decade that had started with such promise ended with the outbreak of the World War II.

Gammell's knowledge of the destructive power of modern warfare led him to fear the desecration of Western civilization. At the same time, the spread of modernism throughout the art world and the abandonment of traditional criteria for determining and defining artistic excellence filled him with horror and an increasing sense of isolation. These and other personal factors combined to bring about a psychological breakdown.

It was during his recovery that Gammell became acquainted with the writings of C. G. Jung and so discovered "a quantity of pictorial ideas which had haunted my thoughts for many years but for which I had never found a connecting link capable of giving them artistic unity." Thus Gammell began what he regarded as the greatest undertaking of his artistic life -- his work based on Francis Thompson's poem, The Hound of Heaven.

Gammell's subject matter was drawn equally from Greek and Roman mythology, Biblical sources, and modern anthropology. He used these sources to visually address the deepest human psychological experiences. One of the few allegorical painters of this century, Gammell's The Hound of Heaven sequence is the most remarkable work of his career.

It is significant that both Gammell and Thompson produced their greatest work after profound life experiences: in Gammell's case, his breakdown; in Thompson's, his rescue from three years spent living homeless on the streets of London. The parallels between the artists themselves strengthen the bond between the poem and the paintings. Gammell's notes and sketches, combined with examples from Thompson's notebooks and manuscripts, therefore, form an important part of R. H. Ives Gammell: The Hound of Heaven. They validate an underlying theme, where the traditions of the past are revived in the context of the contemporary world. In addition, they demonstrate how Gammell's notably literary approach to his art is complemented by the strong visual element that characterizes Thompson's poetry.

With the completion of The Hound of Heaven sequence in 1956, Gammell's work as a painter seems to have become entirely more personal. The scale of the pictures are reduced from the monumental and the figures are clothed in contemporary dress, a trend which began late in the 1930s but which came to fruition only after the completion of The Hound of Heaven.

In addition to painting, Gammell actively took on students for his small atelier, modeled on the successful training techniques used in the pre-art school era. He also became a prolific writer on the subject of painting and painters, recording all that he knew to preserve the information against the day when he knew that tastes would shift back in a direction more favorable to those aesthetic principles which he valued.

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