Cliff Holden obituary

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My friend Cliff Holden, who has died aged 100, was a painter, printmaker, designer and teacher and – as a student of the artist David Bomberg – the first president of the Borough Group, which brought Bomberg and his students together, in 1946.

In this role, Cliff was a major influence in two decades of British art following the war but, unlike his peers, such as his former partner the artist Dorothy Mead, is still overlooked in Britain as a painter. Instead, he settled in Sweden, where he established himself as a successful designer of wallpaper, textiles and murals.

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World news | The Guardian

My friend Cliff Holden, who has died aged 100, was a painter, printmaker, designer and teacher and – as a student of the artist David Bomberg – the first president of the Borough Group, which brought Bomberg and his students together, in 1946.

In this role, Cliff was a major influence in two decades of British art following the war but, unlike his peers, such as his former partner the artist Dorothy Mead, is still overlooked in Britain as a painter. Instead, he settled in Sweden, where he established himself as a successful designer of wallpaper, textiles and murals.

Born in Manchester, to Thomas and Ellen Holden, Cliff went to Wilmslow secondary modern school in Cheshire followed by study of agriculture and veterinary science at Reaseheath College, near Nantwich, in the late 1930s.

He came quite late to art, working first at fruit-picking, as a circus hand, as a model in art schools and as a night porter at Victoria station in London. A pacifist and anarchist, he registered as a conscientious objector during the second world war and became a political agitator and illegal strike organiser, producing a weekly journal, War Commentary.

He first made contact with Bomberg through taking painting classes at the City Lit in London in 1944, aged 25. Together with Mead, with whom he was in a relationship for 11 years, Cliff followed Bomberg to Borough Polytechnic in Southwark (now London South Bank University) in 1945. The following year he helped found the Borough Group.

Cliff Holden at work on a wall mural

The Borough Group came to an end in 1951. The next year Cliff, Mead and two other members shared an exhibition in Stockholm. After his relationship with Mead broke up he moved to Sweden permanently in 1956. He began to work with the designers Lisa Grönwall, whom he married, and Maj Nillson, eventually settling on the island of Marstrand and forming Marstrand Designers.

They won many national and international awards, including a Design Centre Design of the Year award in 1962 for a wallpaper pattern, presented to Cliff by Prince Philip.

After moving to rural Långås, near Falkenberg, Cliff and Lisa worked on murals for Swedish consulates and embassies from Moscow to Washington DC, hotels, offices, ships and hospitals. His final commission was for a ship in former Yugoslavia, which he was unable to complete due to civil war breaking out in 1999.

In 2001 I curated a show including Cliff and another Borough Group member, Miles Richmond, in the crypt of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, and he took part in the last formal discussion between Bomberg’s students in Richmond’s studio in East Rounton, North Yorkshire, in 2005. He was also included in the 2015 exhibition Borough: David Bomberg and His Students at the Borough Polytechnic, shown at the Waterhouse & Dodd gallery, Mayfair.

Cliff Holden in 2004.
Cliff Holden in 2004

His work is in collections in Tate Britain, the Arts Council, Manchester City Art Gallery, the V&A Museum and the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art. He was awarded an honorary doctorate in 2006 by London South Bank University.

Lisa died in 1996. He is survived by his son, Thomas, and daughter, Isabella, two grandchildren, Jack and Jennifer, and a great-grandson, Noah. Another grandchild, Robert, predeceased him.


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