Dudley Council
Dudley Skyline

1906-1942

This student displays marked ability, and it is interesting to note the local authority have granted him a scholarship to attend Birmingham School of Art for figure study.

The Dudley Herald, 1923. Reporting on Dudley School of Art's third annual exhibition. 

Childhood

Percy was born in Kate's Hill, Dudley on 28 February 1906. He was the fourth of eight children of John Thomas Shakespeare (a steam engine fitter) and his wife Ada. Percy's family were very poor.

He could have expected little in the way of education.  When he was old enough he would have gone to the local primary school, probably St John's on Kate's Hill. 

By the time he was 14, school leaving age, his education would have been very basic. His family would be expecting him to look for work. There was nothing in his education or background to give him hope he may, one day, be a painter. 

Percy often found his way to the exhibitions at Dudley School of Art; one day when he was looking at some pictures, conspicuous in his dirty, ragged clothes when the School Principal, Ivo Shaw spoke to him asking, "Are you interested in pictures?"

 

Dudley School of Art

Dudley School of Arts and Crafts was housed in the building on the corner of St James's Road. The building was opened with an elaborate ceremony in 1884. It was designed originally to house a free library, an art school and a single room art gallery. 

By 1913, the Art School had established a firm place in Dudley and was seen as a vital asset to the town. A new library had opened in 1900 and so the art school expanded into the available space. 

Ivo Shaw,  became Principal in 1913, intending to only stay a few years. He was an artist and craftsman and was able to turn his hand to any of the arts and crafts taught in the school. 

When World War I broke out, Shaw was 32 and in a Reserved Occupation. However, he felt compelled to join the war effort. 

In early 1920, Shaw met Percy Shakespeare. He gave him a pencil and some paper after Percy confessed he liked to draw. 

Recognising his talent Ivo Shaw took him into the school and waived the fees. 

So began Percy's Shakespeare's art education. From the start Percy had a remarkable gift for figure drawing.  He could see the lines in the human form and put them on paper with rare and confident precision.  And he was prepared to work hard.

He spent at least six years attending Dudley School of Art, either full or part time. 

 

Royal Academy

From 1928 Percy divided his time between Dudley and Birmingham. He was welcomed as a member of Dudley Art Circle, indeed the other members were proud of him. They began to hold annual exhibitions from 1929 and Percy was one of their key exhibitors. 

At the end of 1932 Percy was working on a painting of a young lady, 'A Mulatto'. The portrait is a celebration of her beauty. She is tossing her head back, looking down pensively. Her brown, unruly hair gives vitality to the picture. This painting, alongside 'Isobel' was submitted to the Royal Academy for the summer exhibition in 1933. Both pieces were accepted but only 'A Mulatto' was hung. 

Neither piece sold but it must have been a boost to his confidence. 

In the autumn of 1933, at the Fifth Annual Exhibition of Dudley Art Circle, 'A Mulatto' was formally presented to the town. 

Leisure Paintings

Most of Percy's early work was figure drawing and portraiture, mainly of women. It was figure drawing that he was teaching

 1936, Percy was 30. he was still teaching part-time at Birmingham School of Art. 

He continued to paint portraits but now devoted his energy on a series of oil paintings showing groups of people at leisure. These compositions were the result of intense work with many preliminary drawings of the component figures.  The drawings themselves are of considerable merit in their own right.  He painted one or two of these compositions each year and submitted them to the Royal Academy. Often they were accepted.  They are remarkable in their colour and figure arrangements and together they capture the spirit of the Thirties. He subsisted on a few hours teaching a week.  He had no studio and often painted in his small bedroom in the family council house on the Wren’s Nest.

World War II

When the Second World War broke out, Percy continued to paint with even more determination. In the summer of 1941, at the age of 35, he was called up for the navy. On 26 August, 1942 he became Ordinary Seaman Shakespeare, JO282699.

He was doing special work in a naval shore establishment, HMS Vernon, at Roedean School near Brighton. He lived in lodgings somewhere near, still finding time to paint. Two oil paintings are known from this period, 'December on the Downs' may well have been his last picture.

Percy went for a walk alone on the cliffs during an air raid. A stray German bomb dropped near him and he was thrown into the sea. 

The Express and Star reported his death:

"Brilliant Midland artist blow from cliffs into sea by bomb, killed."

He died on 25 May, 1943. 

There are a number of paintings by Percy Shakespeare currently on display in the Museum.