Cunningham, who died in 2014 aged 85, was a contemporary of Frank Auerbach and Leon Kossoff at the Royal College of Art in the mid-1950s. Auerbach recently recalled his ‘outstanding talent,’ and his tutor, John Minton (1917 – 1957), described him as ‘one of the most gifted painters to have worked at the Royal College’.
On graduating from the college in 1956, Cunningham exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Beaux Arts Gallery – then one of the most influential galleries in London – at the invitation of its director, Helen Lessore (1907 – 1994). His work was shown twice with the prestigious London Group, where it was singled out by The Times art critic for its power and suggestive presence; meanwhile, The Jewish Chronicle spoke of the intense yet controlled atmosphere of his work.
While he was supported by influential collectors of the time, such as Hans and Elsbeth Juda, as well as public institutions in the UK and abroad, in 1967 Cunningham declined all further invitations to exhibit. Instead he pursued a highly successful career as a graphic artist. He continued painting, visiting his studio every day. Few, however, got to see the fruits of his labours.
This exhibition is the first of a series that are planned, and has been co-curated by Bobby Hillson and Stephen Rothholz. Says Rothholz: ‘Cunningham was a painter of extraordinary talent, and it has been a hugely rewarding experience helping to put this exhibition together. The great question for me is why, when he appeared to have the world at his feet, when he was being courted by gallerists and acquired by museums and collectors, did he step out of the limelight? Only he could answer that question, but at least this show, the first of many I hope, will allow people to see and enjoy his work.’