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News > Archive News > Obituaries > Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly 1896- 1971

Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly 1896- 1971

1 Feb 2021
Written by Tracey Ahmet

Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly (1896-1971) 

A double anniversary  

2021 marked a significant double anniversary in the artistic life of Rugby School. It was 125 years ago that Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly (or ‘TK’ as he was known to most Rugbeians) was born and 50 years ago that he died. ’TK’ spent 35 years of his life at Rugby, both as a boy and later as an art teacher. Hugely influential in the most unobtrusive of ways, he was a skilled observer, patient teacher and a simple man at heart. A helpful listener, people took an immediate liking to him.    

The only son of the distinguished artist Robert Talbot Kelly, he arrived at Rugby in 1911, leaving early at the outbreak of war to train at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. In the spring of 1915 he joined the Royal Field Artillery on the Western front, catapulted almost immediately into the Battle of Loos, followed by the Somme, Butte de Warlencourt, Arras and the Third Battle of Ypres, when his luck ran out. Wounded by a German shell, he was invalided home, mentioned in Dispatches and awarded the Military Cross, all before his 21st birthday!   

There was a measure of serendipity in this unfortunate event, for it put the convalescent ‘TK’ into a camouflage course, developing methods of concealing gun positions, an arena in which he soon became an authority and one which had a curious affinity with strategies of animal camouflage and their depiction in art. After the war, ‘TK’ became an instructor at the School of Artillery, a post that gave him the incentive to resign his Commission and apply for the post of Director of Art when a vacancy arose at his old school in 1929. 

The 1930s marked a golden era of art at Rugby School. From his home in Temple Reading Room House, ‘TK’ was able to develop his art to exhibition standard. Influenced by Chinese Art and the Ancient Egyptians, his work was selected for the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, the Royal Academy and even the Paris Salon. Favourably reviewed by Country Life, whose critic marvelled that “Talbot Kelly seems to know what birds are thinking about,” he evolved to become the most imaginative bird painter since the great Archibald Thorburn. Assisted in the Art Schools by the hugely gifted writer and painter Denys Watkins-Pitchford, more familiar as ‘BB’ to his growing army of readers, it was the place to spend time for many Rugbeians during the inter-war years. 

When the Second World War broke out in 1939, ‘TK’ was back in military service, this time as Chief Instructor of Camouflage at the War Office. Bird plumage was the perfect training for his ideas, which resulted in the award of an M.B.E. He also found time to link up with his Rugbeian friend and fellow camouflage expert Dr. Hugh Cott to paint huge bird murals for the Cambridge University Museum of Zoology. After the war he became a design consultant for the 1951 Festival of Britain, where he was responsible for the Pavilion of the Natural Scene, before returning to Rugby, where he continued his work in the Art Department. There ‘TK’ would fashion marvels of ornithological animation, inspiration that didn’t stop at paper birds, but extended to London Transport travel posters, art deco advertisements, uniforms of the Roman army and even characters from the Wild West! His numerous publications, include The Way of Birds, Birds of the Sea, Bird Life and the Painter, Paper Birds and, of course, the posthumous A Subaltern’s Odyssey.    

At the grand age of 70, ‘TK’ finally considered his retirement. It was 1966, the 50th Anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. ‘TK’ was persuaded to take a final curtain call, recounting his memories of that campaign in a talk given in the Old Sanatorium. Boys crowded in to hear his recollection and, fortunately, a recording was made which now resides in the archives of the Imperial War Museum. It stands as one of many tributes to a greatly respected artist, marked with the award of an annual Talbot Kelly Art Medal and celebrated in the ‘Floreat’ on this double anniversary.   

By John Winchester, former staff (1972-01) 


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