Aspex Portsmouth

Week 24, John Thompson, 40 Stories

Les Buckingham, Director 1984-99

John Thomson was always one of the great animators at Art Space Portsmouth, especially in the early years. A founder member, he was involved in the early exhibitions, was the inspiration behind bringing the great Richard Wilson to Aspex, and has always put forward ideas of his own for exhibitions as well as having his own shows in the gallery. I have been involved in many of his projects, the residencies and exhibitions throughout the UK and have contributed to his catalogues. 

Our first collaborations was ANZART, Australian and New Zealand art, inspired by John’s own New Zealand heritage (born Dunedin 1948) and my wish for the gallery to always have an eye on what was happening in places where the Eurocentric art world of the time had not ventured. ANZART was a collaboration with the Edinburgh Festival and the Richard Demarco Gallery so we were able to host a number of the artists who were already here for the festival. This led to the very special residency of the great NZ sculptor Andrew Drummond ( With his intense interest in the natural world, ley lines and places of spiritual importance. Andrew brought a fresh antipodean breeze to Portsmouth and his show at Aspex, In the Valley of the Shadow in 1984, was a revelation to many. 

John’s exhibition Star Gazing in 2000 was also a highlight. I had left the gallery in 1999 but had planned the show, and meanwhile we had the opportunity to create a publication entitled Animal + Vegetable = Mineral. We produced a wonderful publication together with designer Sue Hudson, who suggested that it should be large format with oversize illustrations to match John’s larger than life personality. It is a tour de force of design between artist and designer, a collaboration between Aspex and the Southampton Institute (now Solent University) Fine Art Research Centre and City Arts in Portsmouth. John had found a supporter in broadcaster Paul Evans, who wrote an inspirational essay that started with a meeting with John in front of his ‘Peeled Landscape’ in Portsmouth Museum and Art Gallery where it is permanently housed. Academic Graham Coulter Smith wrote about John’s incredible drawings (included in the exhibition ‘Fifty Years of British Sculptors Drawings’ – Musée de Beaux Arts De Besançon alongside Armitage, Flanagan, Frink, Gilbert & George, Long, Mach, Nash, Moore, Plackman, Sandle and Willats). Emeritus Professor of Civil Engineering at Southampton University, Peter Morice, contributed an essay on John’s unique designs for steel bridges and I talked about the superb film by John and Anthony Atanasio, The Construction of Literature. 

All the writers wrote in depth about John’s deep relationship with nature. It is the animating force that continues to this day to inspire the artist. More than anything he is always looking for the means to transform the ordinary, though never ordinary to him, into something meaningful and spiritually sustaining. Long may it last.