Born in England in 1912, Gordon Onslow Ford is noted for having been the youngest member of the pre-World War II, Paris-based surrealist group and for his lifelong pursuit of an independent path of discovery through his art. The trajectory of this pursuit led him from England to Paris, to New York as a wartime émigré, and then to a remote Tarascan village in Mexico. After the war he traveled up the Pacific west coast to San Francisco, eventually coming to rest on a hilltop in Inverness on the Point Reyes peninsula of California where he lived for fifty years until his death in 2003.
Onslow Ford was the grandson of sculptor Edward Onslow Ford, one of Queen Victoria’s favorite artists, who had married into Bavarian aristocracy. Onslow Ford’s father was a doctor who had been with the British army at Gallipoli and died not long after World War I. At age eight, Onslow Ford was left with his mother, younger sister, and his uncle, the painter Rudolph Onslow Ford.
Onslow Ford learned about painting from his uncle and by age eleven he created his first accomplished landscape oil painting. Although he had shown an early interest in art, his guardians were determined that he should train for a career as a naval officer. At age fourteen, they enrolled him in the Naval Academy at Dartmouth, England. After graduation as a midshipman, he was assigned to the Mediterranean Fleet as a navigator’s assistant, pinpointing the ship’s location through observation of the stars. He filled the journal he was required to keep with well-executed watercolors of the ship’s ports, landscapes, and several self-portraits. The work was impressive enough to the ship’s officers that commissions soon followed.
Determined to devote himself to painting, Onslow Ford was able, with considerable difficulty given the tense political climate, to resign his Navy commission in 1937. Moving to Paris, he enrolled briefly at the academy of André L’hote and the atelier of Fernand Léger. Four days at the latter convinced him that he would do better on his own. His independence was encouraged by a chance meeting with a young Chilean artist, Roberto Matta, who was employed as a draftsman in the atelier of Le Corbusier. The two artists inspired and encouraged each other, vacationing together in a stone customs house during a rainy summer on the Brittany coast and in a snow-bound chalet in the Swiss Alps. Together they read P.D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum in which the author urged his readers to break the boundaries of the “prison house of sight” in order to grasp the continuum of time and space. “We were trying” Onslow Ford recalled, “to enlarge perception. We wanted not to be limited by what we could see, but to extend in time, to see through mountains, to see the roots of a tree as it grows.”
Toward the end of 1938, Onslow Ford was invited to join the Surrealist Group headed by André Breton and began attending their meetings. As a surrealist, Onslow Ford was initially interested in dreams. He recorded and made sketches of his own dream experiences. Early on, however, it became apparent to him that it was impossible to paint dreams, as the rendering of the dream image was merely a copy of a past event. Unlike many surrealists who were interested in Freud’s theory of dreams, Onslow Ford gravitated toward Carl Jung’s idea of the Collective Unconscious. His new artistic passion focused on the archetypal, nonrepresentational aspects of consciousness.
On the eve of war in the summer of 1939, Onslow Ford rented a chateau in Chemillieu in the Rhône Valley of France near the Swiss border. He was joined by Matta, Matta’s wife Anne, André Breton, Esteban Francés, British surrealist Ithell Colquhoun, American artist Kay Sage, Yves Tanguy, and Jacqueline Breton with her daughter Aube. The summer was spent painting and writing, with visits to the Palais Ideal du Facteur Cheval and to Gertrude Stein’s home nearby. In the evenings, Breton recited poetry, they all played games of chance, and enthusiastically shared their work. Onslow Ford’s sister, Elisabeth, who had worked for the British photographer Dorothy Wilding and became an accomplished photographer in her own right, joined the group and documented their time together. With the outbreak of war on September 2, Onslow Ford was ordered back to England to serve in the Navy, while in the ensuing chaos his companions were dispersed in different directions.
Back in London, Onslow Ford organized a surrealist exhibition, and together with Roland Penrose and Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens, he coedited an issue of the London Bulletin devoted to surrealism in 1940. He was assigned to sail on a destroyer, but illness prevented him from going. That same destroyer became the first British vessel to be sunk in the war. Soon after, he received an invitation from the Committee to Preserve European Culture to join other artists and give lectures in the United States. He obtained a leave from the Royal Navy and set sail for New York in June 1940. There he was reunited with his surrealist friends Matta, Yves Tanguy, and Kay Sage. His stay in New York is most notable for a series of lectures on surrealism he gave at the New School for Social Research in 1941 and for the exhibition of surrealist painting he arranged at the New School concurrent with the lectures. Although he was received with much excitement by the New York artists, he became unsettled by the prospect of becoming a spokesman for surrealism in New York. Instead, he decided to join other surrealists in Mexico seeking greater isolation to travel his own artistic path. He married Jacqueline Johnson, a writer whom he had met at one of his New York lectures, and they left for Mexico in August 1941.
In the Tarascan village of Erongaricuaro, the couple found an abandoned hacienda, called "The Mill," which they renovated and made their home for the next six years. They arranged several rooms for their artist friends to visit, in particular other surrealist refugees, including Esteban Francés, Remedios Varo, and Matta, as well as inquisitive young artists from the Chicago School. They were frequently joined by former surrealist Wolfgang Paalen who had founded a new “post-surrealist” publication, DYN, as a challenge to André Breton’s magazine VVV in New York. Paalen and Onslow Ford shared a passion for art, science, and pre-Columbian art. In Mexico, there was a new serenity in Onslow Ford’s paintings as he responded to the landscape of lakes and mountains. The work also reflected the harmonious relationship with his wife Jacqueline. Eventually the bright colors of Indian weaving and the geometric patterns on ceramics influenced his paintings, as did the unique manner in which the Tarascan people viewed the world. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Johnson assisted Paalen in editing DYN and contributed her writings to the journal.
In 1947, Onslow Ford and Johnson moved to California, choosing the San Francisco Bay Area as the fertile soil where their creative ideas could flourish. In 1948, Onslow Ford was given a retrospective show at the San Francisco Museum of Art. The title of the exhibition was Towards a New Subject in Painting, which expressed his aim of breaking new ground in art. While living in Mill Valley, California, Onslow Ford met the Greek painter Jean Varda and together they acquired the ferryboat Vallejo, which they converted into their studios and docked in Sausalito. For many years the ferryboat was an inspiring haven for artists and exponents of the Beat movement; it became a small cultural center on the waterfront.
In 1951, Onslow Ford, Wolfgang Paalen, Lee Mullican, and Jacqueline Johnson created an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art called Dynaton. Dynaton in Greek means “possible.” This exhibition was the launching ground for the concept of the “quest of the inner worlds” and firmly established the future direction of Onslow Ford’s artistic endeavors. In the early 1950s, Onslow Ford was introduced to Asian philosophy. He studied Hinduism with Haridas Chaudhuri and Buddhism with scholar Alan Watts at the newly-formed American Academy of Asian Studies (now called the California Institute of Integral Studies) in San Francisco.
While walking one day among the ancient redwood groves of Muir Woods near Mill Valley, Gordon observed that lines, circles, and dots occur consistently in nature, and are the primal root of art, conveying the “underlying ground of existence.” He had an insight that lines, circles, and dots were the visual elements by which he could travel into deeper layers of consciousness.
In 1952, he met the venerable Zen master Hodo Tobase of the Soto Zen sect and began a five-year period of studying Chinese calligraphy. This introduction to Asian thought and practice had a profound influence on his paintings. Buddhist teachings of the Void and Emptiness, as well as the practice of calligraphy, opened an exploration of the depths of the Mind and its images for Onslow Ford.
In 1957, Onslow Ford and Johnson acquired over 250 acres of land in the hills of Inverness, California. They collaborated with architect Warren Callister and built their house in 1958. The artist J.B. Blunk worked on constructing the roof of their house and when the project was completed, Blunk was invited to build his home and studio on the land. A few years later, Onslow Ford gave permission to his painting assistant John Anderson to build his own house and studio on the land. Soon, an artists’ colony emerged on what is known as the Bishop Pine Preserve. In the 1970s, the Onslow Fords deeded the majority of their land to the Nature Conservancy so that it would remain forever wild. Currently, there are eight artists in residence on the land remaining in the Bishop Pine Preserve.
The lifestyle of an artist colony/residency was deeply appreciated by the Onslow Fords. As a graduate student in the 1930s, Jacqueline Johnson commissioned architect Richard Neutra to design a house for her in Los Altos, California. She shared the land with poet Clayton Stafford, and another writer. In Chemillieu, France, in 1939, Onslow Ford created a temporary community of artists living together and inspiring each other. He kept his vision of community, which he practiced in Sausalito with Jean Varda in the 1950s, and later fulfilled with Jacqueline through the Bishop Pine Preserve.
Onslow Ford published his first book Painting in the Instant in 1964. The book was written in the spirit of Zen. His wife died in 1976 as he was working on his second book Creation. It was published in 1978, following his major retrospective at the Oakland Museum of California in 1977. After these events, he embraced a more solitary life as he continued a rigorous regiment as an artist.
In 1989, he met Fariba Bogzaran, an artist and doctoral candidate in lucid dream research. They began a series of dialogues on inner world painting and experiences. Bogzaran found a visual connection between Onslow Ford’s paintings and his theory of line, circle, dot with her research observations in contemplative lucid dream practices and meditation. Onslow Ford collaborated with her on several books and artist manifestos, including Insights (1991), Ecomorphology (1994), and Once Upon a Time (1999), as well as the concept of Lucid Art. With Onslow Ford’s close friend and associate, Robert Anthoine, they cofounded the nonprofit organization called the Lucid Art Foundation (lucidart.org) to support artists whose work reflects inquiry into deeper levels of consciousness.
The last decade of Onslow Ford’s work and career was perhaps one of the most prolific times in his life. He was reintroduced to European audiences in the early 1990s and had two major museum retrospective exhibitions in Germany (1994) and Spain (1998). In Santiago, Chile, his retrospective show (1995) was recognized as one of the best exhibitions of the year. The following year, in conjunction with a 1996 retrospective exhibition at the Arts and Consciousness Gallery at JFK University in Berkeley, Onslow Ford received an honorary doctorate degree in Fine Arts.
Gordon Onslow Ford died peacefully in his home on November 9, 2003 at the age of ninety.
From 2000 to 2012, Gordon Onslow Ford had twelve successful solo exhibitions: in San Francisco at the Campbell-Theibaud Gallery, Braunstein/Quay Gallery, and Weinstein Gallery, and in New York at the Francis Naumann Gallery. He left his legacy and estate to the Lucid Art Foundation.
Inner Realism: The primary purpose of life is to achieve a growth of consciousness. It follows that the principle aim of art is to see the world anew.
At the end of the nineteenth century in Europe and America, the world was still being seen through a perspective invented in fifteenth century Italy. This renaissance way of seeing originated from the individual observer as the point of origin, moving from foreground to middle ground to background. This way of seeing, now sometimes called “illusionism,” was taught as gospel in art schools and was taken for granted as the way in which the outer world was represented.
Modern Art came into being with the aim of introducing a more open and innovative relationship between painters and their subjects. In Modern Art, new approaches to seeing manifested in the expression of light, space, time, and speed. A more contemporary imagination came into play in the portrayal of beings and objects, and their interrelationship with the environment.
The abstract language of line, form, and color was explored. The relationship between dream images and the waking state was delved into. Faster and more lively forms of expression were achieved. By the mid-1930s, all the different movements of Modern Art combined had achieved more direct ways of seeing, and an interplay between the observer and the observed had been awakened.
A new level of consciousness in relation to seeing the Outer World had been attained. The haunting questions now arose:
In which direction did the next stage of Modern Art lie?
How could seeing the world become more direct, profound, and open?
The art world was in crisis. In desperation, Picasso tore a square from his shirt and stitched it to a canvas. Miró stood a ladder upright on the earth pointing to the heavens. Giacometti’s figures, in the search of a primal human image, became smaller and smaller, and risked disappearing altogether. Henry Moore’s reclining figures took on the dimensions of a rolling landscape.
In the 1939 in the magazine Minotaure, volume 13, André Breton’s article “The Recent Tendencies of Surrealist Painting” hinted at the new direction in painting. He said, “the younger members of the Surrealist group were moving away from Salvador Dali’s images of paranoia and were moving towards the direction of Yves Tanguy, who was expressing an inner world seen for the first time. Images never seen before began to appear in the automatic manifestations of the fumages of Wolfgang Paalen, in the decalomania of Oscar Dominquez, in the spontaneous drawings of Matta, in the grattages of Esteban Frances, and in the coulages that appeared under my hand.”
In 1940 during the second World War, the climate in Europe became inhospitable to creative life. The center of Modern Art moved from Paris to New York. In the United States, there were already fine collections of art. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City became the temple of Modern Art and was visited with reverence and awe. In the United States, the culture was young and the Industrial Revolution was in full swing. In the hustle and bustle of everyday life, there was little inclination to ponder the mysteries of life. Energy was directed towards harvesting the resources of nature for human needs, the invention of machines, and the building of cities. Commercial interests were a predominant influence. In the art world of New York, the aim of painters tended towards the search for intellectual novelty and the winning of recognition. Painting became focused on technique (paint for paint’s sake), on surface reality (sometimes called "wall paintings"), and on preoccupations that could be readily appreciated by reasonable people. Action painting and abstract expressionism took over.
Modern Art, with its inquiries into the mysteries of life, as far as the New York art world and its worldwide influence was concerned, went underground. It has remained there until recently when present planetary conditions demand, on pain of human extinction, a new attitude towards life. This new perspective reflects a deeper respect for the interdependence of humankind with nature leading to the need for a deeper and more inclusive way of seeing the world in which we live.
The profound preoccupations that inspired Modern Art during the early part of the last century are now once again, for more and more people, coming back into view, and they are finding expression in deeper levels of consciousness.
The focus of Modern Art on the Outer World has transformed into the focus on the Inner Worlds of the collective unconscious, moving from the visible to the invisible.
Every night in deep sleep we travel over vast distances at great speeds in the Inner Worlds of the Mind-Shared-by-All, and in this way, we become recharged with cosmic energy for the next day. Upon waking up, our experiences of deeper dimensions are too fast, vast, or minute for human memory, with its limited range of awareness, to recall.
Inner Realism is dedicated to the quest of the Inner Worlds of the Mind-Shared-by-All.
Images of the Inner Worlds appear through spontaneous painting. Spontaneous painting comes about through cultivating the Open Mind and painting just slightly faster than rational thought. It is just faster than the painters' speed of consciousness while giving their full attention to what is appearing in the painting as it materializes.
In spontaneous painting, the Mind acts directly through the hand of the painter and never-before-seen images arise.
The painter, as a separate individual, becomes an instrument of the Mind-Shared-by-All, the creative spirit of the cosmos.
The Inner Worlds are invisible or, at best, appear as a white light, blurred, ghostly, and hypnotic. In spontaneous painting, a line or mark from the Inner World that exists in a time speed outside human awareness is captured while in motion as it happens and is seen in the painting as being still. In this way, aspects of an invisible world become visible. The Inner Worlds are different dimensions from the visible world to which the human mind is at present attuned. Through spontaneous painting, little by little, aspects of the Inner World present, and in time, through contemplation of what has appeared, the nature of the Inner World enters ever more clearly into consciousness.
The principle preoccupation of Inner Realism is to express the nature of the Inner World as directly as possible from the Open Mind. When the painter, after long experience, feels at home in the Inner World that has appeared, and when the time is ripe, spontaneous painting can speed up and there is a leap into a world of deeper dimensions.
In this way, the Inner Worlds evolve from the worlds of Inner Earth to the worlds of Inner Sky to the faster depths of the Mind-Shared-by-All to the omnipresent Depths, where time and dimension no longer apply.
The nature of each Inner World seems to be inexhaustible. Every pioneer painter, through spontaneous painting, has a chance to make a unique contribution. The inner worlds are always present in spirit.
Inner Realism is the quest of the Inner Worlds.
Seeing aspects of the Inner Worlds within changes life irrevocably and leads to seeing the Outer World in a deeper and more intimate way
that engenders a corresponding growth of consciousness and a deeper participation in the evolution of the cosmos.
The Gordon Onslow Ford Archives consist of photos and letters that he bequeathed to the Lucid Art Foundation. The Foundation makes the archives available to qualified researchers through formal proposal. For more information, please go to the contact page.
To see the work of Gordon Onslow Ford, please go to the Retrospective page.