Michael Finn

Art college principal who, in retirement, blossomed as a painter

Elizabeth Knowles
Thursday April 11, 2002
The Guardian

Michael Finn, who has died aged 80, was head of two art colleges before devoting the last 20 years of his life to his own painting. In 1958, he was appointed principal of Falmouth College of Art in Cornwall, where he stayed until taking over as principal of Bath Academy of Art at Corsham in 1972. Under his leadership, both were among the most highly regarded art colleges in the country.

As John Halkes, a former director of Newlyn Art Gallery, wrote: "Finn's talent at Falmouth had been as visionary and persuader. At Corsham he showed his other side: the conviction, determination and patience which made him a steely defender of the visual arts and a sharp adversary in bureaucratic wrangles." His gentle and supportive style was combined with high standards, while his infectious enthusiasm for the language of visual art was underpinned by a strict sense of design and form.

Michael Finn was born in Chertsey, Surrey. His father was an architect, and he went to Westminster school, before going to Kingston-upon-Thames School of Art in 1938. His student life was interrupted by wartime service in the RAF from 1942 to 1946, but resumed at the Royal College of Art, until 1949. He took a teaching job at Somerset College of Art at Taunton, where he stayed until his move to Falmouth.

On his retirement, in 1982, he moved with his family to Tregeseal, near St Just in the far west of Cornwall, and began his long-postponed career as a full-time artist. At first he returned briefly to a style that dated back to the 1940s, making small still lives of pebbles from the beach or of autumn leaves, before launching the sustained series of flat, colour-saturated canvases that were to become his main preoccupation. At the same time, he began using scraps of timber to make simple altar crosses and crucifixes.

His work was rooted in the principles of constructivism, including the use of collage. In developing the ultra-simple configurations of bands and lines with which he articulated his colour fields, Finn drew directly upon doorways or window shutters, the lines most often framing sides of a broad expanse of colour, or dividing a tall canvas into horizontal bars. His touch upon the canvas was extremely light, and his paintings combine a balanced insubstantiality with formal gravitas.

His profound Christian faith and Catholic observance formed the foundation of his life and the direction of his art. He sought, modestly and graciously, to deal with the ineffable through art. He would mention an "up there" with a smile, glancing briefly upward, that the language of painting might possibly help one sense. His deep reds, earthy browns and stained, murky, real-life whites elicited elegiac moods. When he used grey and black, he always set against their sombreness a touch of hope, a sense of potential peace.

Some of his wooden crosses, often with washes of white or bleached colour, were cast for him by Michael Werbicki of Bristol, who thus helped him to realise his sculpture in its most powerful form. In his crucifixes, the central image is often expressed as a simple disc, imbued with all the iconic power of Christ's head and shoulders, and the emanation of his halo.

Finn had two fine one-person exhibitions at Newlyn Art Gallery, in 1989 and 2001, the latter in conjunction with a show of his sculpture at Falmouth Art Gallery. He showed frequently at leading public and private galleries in west Cornwall and elsewhere in Britain, including London, where David Messum showed his work in 1993 and 1996. Sister Wendy Beckett used his work to illustrate three of her books.

Michael Finn will be remembered with affection for his gentle nature, for the example of his faith and for the tenacity that led him to pursue his uncompromising and beautiful art under increasingly difficult circumstances to the very end of his life.

He is survived by two daughters, Christine and Michaela, and a son, Richard. His wife, Cicely, whom he married in 1943, died earlier this year.

Michael George Finn, artist and teacher, born July 7 1921; died March 24 2002.