The Art Collection

Painting | Level 1
Aubrey Williams

Shostakovich Symphony No 6, Oil on Canvas, 1981, Aubrey Williams © Estate of Aubrey Williams. All rights reserved. DACS 2018. Photo credit: Milton Keynes University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust.

This work is part of 'The Shostakovich Series' by Aubrey Williams,  inspired by the music of the great Soviet composer, Dmitri Shostakovich.

The series, created between 1969 and 1981, includes thirty large paintings, painted by Aubrey in response to listening to Shostakovich’s fifteen symphonies and fifteen string quartets.

Aubrey said when he first heard the music of Shostakovich ‘…this music hit me really hard – I was hearing for the first time a sort of total sound … it had profound visual connotations – I could feel colour.’

He also was drawn to Shostakovich as he felt they shared concerns relating to struggle and conflict. The music vividly expressed anguish over the Second World War and also the composer's battles with the Soviet state.

'The Shostakovich Series' was a significant accomplishment. In scale and power it matched any other abstract paintings made in the late twentieth century.

Asked what he expected from the viewer when they look at his work, Aubrey  said: ‘To feel!’

Links with Milton Keynes

This painting was donated to the hospital by Lord Jock Campbell, who was chair of Milton Keynes Development Corporation from 1967 to 1983.

Jock Campbell’s connection with Aubrey comes through a shared concern for the rights of the sugar care workers in Guyana.

In 1934, Jock Campbell went to British Guyana for the first time to take charge of the family estates. He was appalled by the working conditions of the cane farmers and he set to work to reform the sugar industry. He succeeded securing major benefits for sugar workers in the 1950's and 1960's.

Jock donated the Aubrey Williams painting to the hospital in recognition of the end of life care his wife Phyllis received at the hospital.

Campbell Park is named after Lord Jock Campbell. There is a memorial stone by the fountain in his honour which says: ‘If you seek a monument, look around you’. This is also where the name for this app comes from!

Dmitri Shostakovich

Dmitri Shostakovich lived between 1906 and 1975, he was Russian composer and one of the most significant musical figures of the 20th Century.

He lived for most of his life under Stalin's brutal Communist regime, once describing life under this oppressive government as “unbelievably mean and hard. Every day brought more bad news and I felt so much pain. I was so lonely and afraid.”

In 1936, Shostakovich was denounced as ‘an enemy of the people’. He risked execution or deportation to the Gulag (labour camp), yet played the system just carefully enough to survive.

Restoration Work

As part of the 'Look Around You' project, Arts for Health was able to send this piece to London for intensive cleaning and restoration. We asked whether the silver gaffer tape surrounding the piece should be removed as it seemed unusual. However when the restorer investigated similar work by Aubrey held at the Tate Britain gallery, she found he had done the same thing, so he clearly wanted it this way!

The restoration work also revealed his signature on the reverse, giving us the date it was painted within 'The Shostakovich Series'.

About the Artist

Aubrey began painting and drawing from the age of five and then went on to join the ‘Working People’s Art Class’ whilst still at school. However, despite his early interest in painting, his parents insisted that he needed a ‘proper’ job, and he became an agricultural officer. During his work for the department of agriculture he became active in defending the rights of cane farmers in Guyana.

In 1952, Aubrey went to London to study agricultural engineering. He soon abandoned this to devote himself full-time to the thing he really cared about, his own painting, so went to study at St Martin’s School of Art.

At the time he arrived in London there would have been few visible black artists, and so his work represented one of the first challenges to the British Art Movement. Aubrey's work was overlooked by many British critics even though he exhibited internationally.

Although heavily involved with the European avant-garde, (artists that were experimental, radical, or unorthodox), he remained a distinctively Caribbean artist, using the myths and landscapes of pre-Columbian Guyana for his subject matter and inspiration.

In 1989 his paintings were included in an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery called 'The Other Story', which featured the work of African and Asian artists in post-World War II Britain. This was the first time that his work was exhibited in a mainstream public art gallery in the UK.

You can see other work by Aubrey Williams in the Tate Britain art gallery.

Aubrey Williams was born in 1926 in  Georgetown, Guyana, South America. He studied at St Martin’s School of Art and went on to exhibit internationally.
He died in London in 1990 aged only 63.

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Arts for Health Milton Keynes is the working name of MK Arts for Health charity number 1107625  company number 05137693