Artist on File: John Rae

'The Colonel' by John Rae

'The Colonel' by John Rae

Clare Kendal Bate recently met with HVA Member John Rae - Painter/ Illustrator

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the charming John Rae. Born in Exeter, Devon, John was a pupil at Blundell’s School in Tiverton in the 1940s.

‘It was one of the most progressive schools in the country. Art, music and drama were particularly strong. Willi Soukop had arrived from the Dartington College of Arts to teach sculpture. Art was in the hands of William Lyons-Wilson, who was a practicing artist and regularly showed work at The Royal Academy. So at an early age I was plunged into the forefront of the European movement of modern art before it has really taken root in this country’.

John was hugely influenced and inspired by Lyons-Wilson and, following his death in 1981, he helped organise a major retrospective of his work and co-authored a book with Peter Blundell Jones, who was then Prof of Architectural History in Sheffield.

John went on to study at University College London (the Bartlett School of Architecture) and the Slade School of Art.

From 1955 John spent 2 years with The Royal Engineers fulfilling his National Service. He was very popular with the other servicemen as he kept them amused by drawing brilliant cartoons of them and the officers. (see image above) ‘I found the ways of the army very funny and creating the cartoons helped me cope with a life that essentially was not for me.'

John Rae

John Rae

In the late ‘50s he joined the firm of eminent architects Maxwell Fry and Denys Lasdun (Lasdun designed the National Theatre), and worked with Fry on West African and Indian architectural projects. Whilst with the company he won a competition to redesign the town centre of the Royal Burgh of Dumbarton, a historic fortress town on the north bank of the Clyde.

He continued to create cartoons which regularly appeared in The Builder and Architects Journal, as well as being a published writer on countless architectural and academic subjects.

In 1960 John began a 10 years stint as Principal Lecturer in Creative and Lateral Thinking at Hornsey College of Art and was there during the famous 1968 student occupation. ‘One of my students, Kim Howells, was very active in the student union and went on to be a minister in Blair’s Labour government’.

After a decade of teaching, John returned to architecture as a tutor for the Architectural Association and from 1973-88 was a lecturer at University College London. Through this post he travelled extensively, spending 3 months in Nigeria and teaching for five years at the University of Dublin. He was also a visiting lecturer in Sweden, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and in the UK, including Oxford and Cambridge.

The Rape of England

'The Rape of England' by John Rae


Just some of the paintings that caught my eye were ‘The Rape of England’, in watercolour and ink. The scene isn’t a real place, but a collection of English features plus the ubiquitous rapeseed.

'L'Herault' by John Rae

'L'Herault' by John Rae

And two pieces in conte and watercolour, ‘St. Guilleme le Desert, L’Herault’ and ‘Mirabeau, The Luberon, France’.

‘The Magpies’ depicts a German baroness as she defends her home in Wales from an attack by magpies, using mirrors and dolls placed in the windows. 

John knew ‘The Baroness’ in the 80s and how she dealt with the magpies was real!


'Mirabeau' by John Rae


'Magpies' by John Rae

While John and his wife were on a world trip visiting places such as China, India, Japan, Pacific Islands, Scandinavia and Europe he was inspired to write and illustrate ‘The Sketch Book of the World’. It was published in 1994. He has also written a delightful children’s book, a ten chapter strip cartoon called ‘The Hedgers’, which took him 20 years to complete.

I asked John what his artistic influences are: ‘Abstract, surrealist, geometric, and proportional systems are strong influences. Also, and unsurprisingly, buildings, and their relationship to places and landscapes became an important aspect of my art.’

John’s work is mesmerisingly varied, using such materials as watercolours, gouache, conte and inks to create landscapes, buildings and people. From cartoons to the geometric design work and the miniature paintings using PVA, I find his body of work captivating and impressive.

John regularly exhibits in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and has held many solo exhibitions, not only in the UK but Australia and New Zealand. Whilst he was working in Nigeria he created over 80 paintings and sketches of the people he met and these were shown at the Rennie Mackintosh School of Art in Glasgow and the Universities of London and Lund. Some of these paintings were displayed on his walls and I found them visually striking. The focal points of the work being the villagers who would watch John painting; sketched in conte, John has the wonderful ability to capture the essence of the person.

At the moment John is preparing work for exhibitions next year at the Hilliard Society, The World Federation of Miniaturists exhibition in Moscow and the Royal Academy.

You can also see some of John’s work more locally in the Walkern Gallery in Stevenage.

If you would like to visit John’s studio please contact him on:
01727 850417