'This painting has hung on my wall for years now and it still fills me with wonder.'

Man and Salamander, 1970–5, by Ken Kiff RA (1935–2001), 353⁄4in by 28in, Collection: Emily Young

Emily says: ‘I came across Ken Kiff’s paintings when I was an art student at Chelsea and he was a tacher there. It was a tough time to be a figurative painter, which we both were, and Ken was the only person who liked my work. I loved his, and still do: the brilliant colours, the cadmium yellows and the way his pictures told stories of that basic thing, which I still work with—the figure in a landscape, human consciousness in the physical world, which, in his case, was told with intense joy, delicacy and power. This painting has hung on my wall for years now and it still fills me with wonder.’

Emily Young is a stone-carver and writer. Some of her recent sculptures are on show at the  Chiesa della Madonna dell’Orto in Venice until November 22

John McEwen comments on Man and Salamander: ‘Forms take reality for me as I work. In other words, rather than setting out to paint something, I begin painting and, as I paint, the picture begins to assert itself, or suggest itself under my brush,’ wrote Ken Kiff in 1985, echoing Paul Klee.

He was born in Dagenham in 1935. His father, at one time a woodyard worker, was killed in the Blitz and the family had to live with relatives. Kiff began to suffer from nocturnal nervous attacks, wrongly diagnosed as epilepsy. Regular visits to Great Ormond Street Hospital for sedative treatment followed. But he did well at school, passing the 11-plus exam to enter grammar school. When, as an art-school teacher many years later, he spoke of his childhood woes, a colleague made him laugh, saying: ‘We haven’t all had your advantages.’

Leaving school at 16, he worked for two years in a public library—it proved his further education. He found poetry a particular solace and became engrossed by art, drawing cartoons for the staff magazine. Evening classes  in still-life and portrait painting led to art school. His confidence and self-awareness were fostered by psychotherapy and, in due course, he married an artist who became a psychotherapist.

Among his interests at art school was stained glass, which enriched his palette. Chagall, Klee, miró and Dubuffet were among his influences. Kiff was always reluctant to say a painting was finished and what it was about, but he often describes a journey, humorous and perilous, with himself as protagonist.

** Read the rest of our favourite paintings series