Surprise legacy of Owen "The Secret Artist"

When museum technician Owen Sutcliffe died suddenly he left more than 30 paintings created in his lunch breaks. Fiona Finch reports how a new exhibition of his work will boost funds for a charity with special significance for him.

By Fiona Finch
Wednesday, 4th December 2019, 11:45 am
Painting by Owen Sutcliffe
Painting by Owen Sutcliffe

Owen Sutcliffe spent most of his professional life working with art works.

But when he died unexpectedly at the age of 58 the full extent of his own creativity was discovered.

Now an exhibition showcasing his work has opened.

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Painting by Owen Sutcliffe

Owen, from Longton, worked for the county museum service for 39 years and six months.

He often transported works of art around the county and further afield, solved technical problems about their display and created perfect locations – even repainting gallery walls when required.

Colleagues recall how his skills helped several generations of curators, conservators and technicians .

They and friends decided to hold an exhibition to honour of his memory and as a “tribute to those people whose work and care remain behind the scenes.”

Owen Sutcliffe (right) pictured at work with colleague Graham Dowling

The display at Clitheroe Castle Museum’s Stewards Gallery is in aid of a cause with special significance for Owen - Alzheimer’s Research UK.

His former boss, Heather Davis, Conservation and Collections Manager with the Lancashire County Council Museum Service, said: “Owen never married. He looked after his parents. His mother developed dementia in her later years. He described her as the best little lady in the world.”

Owen’s brother Thomas also helped care for her and the charity was chosen in consultation with Owen’s family

Owen, who died in 2018 from a sudden illness, was based at the museum service’s offices behind the former Museum of Lancashire buildings in Preston.

Claire Sutton, Clitheroe Castle Museum Manager, pictured with two of Owen's paintings

It was here, in his lunch break, that he developed an interest in and talent for painting his own pictures.

Heather said: “He used to paint in the workshop where all the paint spraying and building of museum cases (is done). He spent his lunch happily painting away and often listening to country and western music so we saw him develop his style. He never had any lessons, but every time anyone retired from the museum or moved on to a new job Owen always gave them one of his paintings.”

She added: "He was employed at the tender age of 18 as a museum handyman and driver and worked his way up to being assistant museum technical officer ... museum technician is what everybody knew him as. Owen was absolutely critical to ensuring events worked OK and there was a seamlessness behind the scenes.”

He was a modest painter and it was only after he died his brother learned of the “secret” stash of paintings. Heather said “It was all squirrelled in the workshop at the museum."

Portrait by Owen Sutcliffe

She continued: “Owen liked to go walking in the Lake District. Often when he had been away for one or two walks he would come back and paint the scenes he remembered For somebody who never had a single lesson from anybody and picked up stuff from TV programmes on painting his style developed ... We had seen his works in the workshop. Seeing them together it showed how he had developed very much from his early style to (create) impressionistic and really powerful pictures. We thought we wanted to do something to celebrate Owen’s life and his death was terribly unexpected. Everyone who worked with him will remember him and everyone will smile. He was a nice bloke, somebody with a good heart.”

Claire Sutton, Clitheroe Castle Museum Manager, said: “We miss Owen terribly, so it’s an opportunity to commemorate him and show his work. I think it’s wonderful.”

* The exhibition The Secret Artist will be on show until December 16 in the Steward’s Gallery at Clitheroe Castle Museum. Suggested donations are £50 plus, should anyone wish to purchase a picture.

One of the paintings by Owen Sutcliffe now on display in the Steward’s Gallery at Clitheroe Castle Owen (pictured right) at work with Graham Dowling

The gallery ‘s winter opening hours are Friday - Tuesday noon - 4pm. Thurs(closed Wednesdays and Thursdays) until Feb half term when we re-open seven days a week.

One of the paintings by Owen Sutcliffe now on display in the Stewards Gallery at Clitheroe Castle Museum.