Terry Grimley admires the nuts-and-bolts art of Black Country-born Harry Eccleston
Harry Eccleston must be almost unique among British artists in that most of us have unknowingly carried examples of his work around with us for many years.
As resident artist-designer at the Bank of England - a role which earned him an OBE - he designed portraits of the Queen and such British worthies as Isaac Newton, Florence Nightingale, the Duke of Wellington and Christopher Wren for the "D" series of banknotes issued from 1971.
Born in Coseley in the Black Country in 1923, Eccleston has recently made a large and generous gift to Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. It does not consist of banknotes, unfortunately, but of something perhaps even more valuable - a major collection of his quiet but deeply impressive art, ranging in date from the mid-1930s to the late 1990s.
Eccleston has described the focus of his work as "the nuts and bolts of seeing", and this has often proved literally true, given his life-long fascination with the industrial surroundings of his formative years.
The earliest work in this exhibition is a fantastically meticulous pencil drawing of his cousin's motorcycle, made by the 12 year-old Eccleston in 1935. By this time he was already studying part-time at Bilston Art School, and two years later he was making his first etchings of the Caponfield furnaces, which would inspire one of his best sets of prints in the 1970s.
After wartime service in the Navy (of which an attractive watercolour serves as a souvenir) he studied at the Royal College of Art.
Among his surviving student works is a fine drawing of Quentin Crisp, then an RCA life model. Eccleston did not realise he had drawn a celebrity portrait until many years later, when he saw the TV film based on Crisp's autobiography, The Naked Civil Servant.
From 1949/50 come some priceless glimpses of vanished Black Country life - two members of the Willenhall Prize Band in full flight in Poet and Peasant, and a saucy performance at the Theatre Royal, Bilston, where the artist's wife's cousin was the chief cashier.
Though now almost equally lost, the traditional industries of the Black Country survived longer than most of its theatres. Eccleston's astonishing virtuosity in black-andwhite etching, evident in his haunting 1957 image of a steam locomotive perched on a British Steel slagheap, was fruitfully employed in the late 1970s when he was commissioned to make a series illustrating the Bilston steelworks. At least half the edition of 70 prints was bought by workers at the plant.
Between 1973 and 1977 he was back at Caponfield, producing his Caponfield Suite. Here, by the simple expedient of showing the plant's structures in silhoutte against a blank sky, he was able to explore their fascinating combinations of forms, particularly his favourite gantry, in a semi-abstract context.
Both Bilston Steelworks and Caponfield furnaces have now been erased from the cleaner but less heroic new Black Country landscape of saplings and giant warehouses. Eccleston described the demolition of the Caponfield gantry as being like Renoir losing all his women.
But the spirit of the Caponfield etchings continued in the early 1980s in a subject glimpsed while commuting between London and Essex, where he has now lived for many years.
Changing trains at Stratford in East London, he became increasingly interested in the complex patterns of overhead electric wires, eventually producing a series of studies of them called Stratford Variations.
The musical implication of this title highlights the fact that, though arrived at by a completely different route, these prints have a kinship with the "visual scores" which linked avant garde artists and musicians in the 1960s.
However, Eccleston remained true to his principles of scientific observation: if he found he did not understand a form in the sketches made on the spot, he went back and looked at the original.
Other delights in this consistently high-quality work include a series of watercolour beach scenes - a subject which lent itself to Eccleston's increasingly pared-down aesthetic.
In 1990 his technique in printmaking was undiminished in Gap in the Clouds, Southend, which miraculously captures the fleeting effect of luminous sunshine through cloud sparkling on water.
But the bleak but gorgeous View from Reykjavic (1996) comes from a final set of watercolours before Eccleston abandoned the medium, and a final self portrait from 1998 followed several years of inactivity.
For its documentation of Black Country life and work - a subject sadly neglectd by preceding generations of local artists - but above all for its unassuming but exemplary craftsmanship, the gift of this body of work represents a significant enhancement of Birmingham's collection.
* Harry Eccleston: The Black Country and Beyond is at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery until Dec 4 (Mon-Thu, Sat 10am-5pm, Fri 10.30am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free).