Paul Tonkin’s Biography, Exhibitions and Publications

Paul Tonkin: APT Studios


Paul Tonkin was born in 1951, Southampton, UK. He took up drawing at an early age encouraged by his father, discovering Turner, the Impressionists, Matthew Smith, Roger Hilton, Bomberg’s later work, Ivon Hitchens, Paul Klee and Matisse through frequent visits to the local art gallery and public library. Although art education was virtually non-existent in his later years at the Catholic grammar school he attended, tolerant lay teachers allowed him to read art books during History and Math’s lessons. Inspired by Klee he made tentative attempts at abstract painting.

He attended Southampton Art College 1969 – 1970. Canterbury Art College 1970 – 1973. At Canterbury his tutor was Geoffrey Rigden who had met American painters Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski through working at Kasmin’s Gallery in Bond Street. He became interested in the work of Rothko, Clifford Still, Morris Louis and Hans Hofmann. Developed the uses of acrylic paint encouraged by Rigden and another tutor, Ian Dury, exploring techniques of stain-painting and acrylic mediums.

A music fan, he briefly joined Dury’s band, Kilburn and the Highroads, (See ‘Hallo Sausages’ The Lyrics of Ian Dury published by Bloomsbury) taking up the violin but soon abandoning any notions of a musical future. Coming to a crossroads he came to the conclusion that he was better prepared, through practice and education for the less glamorous route of painting. After leaving art college found himself living in Stockwell, London SW9. Eventually he set up a studio in a squat in Brixton (above an Oxfam shop opposite Desmond’s Hip City Reggae shop) before renting space in Wapping Wall E1 (1974 – 1986). Douglas Abercrombie, who was moving Fred Pollock into another studio in the same premises, saw Tonkin’s paintings stacked against a wall and alerted Pollock which was to result in an invitation to participate in annual exhibitions held at Stockwell Depot (1976 – 79). These included sculptors, Peter Hide and Katherine Gili and painters Jenny Durrant and Alan Gouk. The exhibitions were thoroughly documented by Sam Cornish in his book ‘Stockwell Depot 1967-79’. Through these shows he was to meet Anthony and Sheila Caro and Clement Greenberg.

John Hoyland invited him to exhibit in the Hayward Gallery Summer Exhibition 1980 alongside Albert Irvin, Frank Bowling and others. He was the youngest painter in that show. Other opportunities followed: in 1982 a Serpentine Gallery Summer Show; the Castlefield Gallery, Manchester (1985) and the Whitechapel Open Exhibitions (between 1984 and 1994). Favourably reviewed by John Russell Taylor, Tim Hilton and Matthew Collings (Hilton: ‘…his colour is positively Venetian.’ and ‘Look at the way he bashes in that yellow, lifting his picture from its self-absorption.’). The late 1980s found him working at Greenwich Studios, King George Street London SE10.

He became involved with a group of artists from King George Street in the search for more permanent workspace, which they found at Harold Wharf, Creekside, and Deptford SE8. They established A.P.T, a registered charity dedicated to the provision of studios, a gallery and art education (1995). Around this time he renewed contact with John Hoyland which led to the curation (aided by Dr Cuillin Bantock) of a series of exhibitions (1999 – 2003) at the Deli Bar, near Hoyland’s home / studio in Charterhouse Square, Clerkenwell.

His musical interests date from a 1950s 78-rpm record by Earl Bostic and he gravitated towards blues, jazz and classical music attending many memorable performances and amassing a large record collection. In the mid 1970s he met Harry Diamond, the jazz photographer and later another photographer and picture-researcher, Peter Symes. Both passed on a fund of musical insights. One of Tonkin’s watercolours was used for the cover of Renato D’Aiello’s 2007 album, Sintetico (

In 2006 he was invited to show a large painting in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, which was illustrated in the catalogue. His work was also hung in the Royal Academy in later years and featured in a BBC2 documentary about the Summer Exhibition. He was given a solo exhibition at the Poussin Gallery in 2009 (catalogue introduction by John Hoyland) and another at the Delfina Restaurant in 2011. Visits to North Wales, West Cornwall, Scotland, Switzerland, Holland and the South of France in recent years have led to a renewed involvement with landscape. While both music and landscape contribute to the experiences, which inform his work, he remains committed to non-representational colour painting built up from improvised elements.

In 2014 Paul was invited by Matthew Collings to appear in a documentary entitled The Rules of Abstraction, which was broadcast on BBC4.

July 2016