Geoffrey Spink Bagley

Geoffrey Spink Bagley

‘Geoffrey Bagley, Esq. Ryer Extraordinary’

(Painting  of Rye Harbour by Geoffrey Bagley by permission of Your Paintings: BBC in collaboration with Public Catalogue Foundation)

This was the subtitle of a 1973 Down Rye Way column by the then editor of Rye’s Own, Christopher Davson. And as you will see from what follows, Geoffrey Bagley really was ‘extraordinary’. The article begins:

 It was with some trepidation that your reporter stepped aside from Church Square into one of Rye’s many secret corners [the Bagley home] to offer, on behalf of Rye’s Own and its readers, respectful congratulations to our Honorary Freeman designate.

Geoffrey Bagley will be the only living Freeman of the Town, and the first to receive this rare honour for 15 years.

And was he not also a former Mayor, Baron and Speaker of the Cinque Ports Confederation, County Councillor, Honorary Curator of Rye Museum . . . . [and he might have added prolific author on aspects of Rye, cofounder of the Rye Society of Artists, and much more].

 The article goes on to summarise the many achievements of Geoffrey Bagley’s pre-Rye days (see the article by Rosemary Bagley (below) and then reports that, wanting to concentrate full time on his painting, he ‘chose Rye as a nice quiet place for an artist to settle down and paint in’ and ends with a story which might make Ryers lament still more that he is no longer with us:

Well, he has settled down, and the annual Royal Society of Artists exhibition at the F.E. Centre proves to us that [despite all his other activities] he still paints. But some people do not have it in them to stay quiet! After only about 5 years Bagley rose up in wrath. The then Vicar of Rye and the Rye Town Council wished to place the tombstones around the churchyard walls of St Mary’s and have mown grass. To oppose this a committee was formed on which Geoffrey served; the plan was defeated. Geoffrey was then asked if he would be willing to stand for Rye Town Council. He agreed and was duly elected .

The Churchyard was saved, but Bagley was launched on a new public career from which he could not turn back as there were other threats to Rye. He moved on from the Rye Planning Committee and three happy and popular years as Mayor to East Sussex County Council on which he served for 12 years, much of them as Chairman of the County Records Committee. And he saw to it, there, that the County Planning Officers treated Rye with proper respect and indeed love.

Rosemary Bagley provided a more detailed account of the multiple impressive careers of husband Geoffrey Bagley in a 2002 Rye’s Own article (No 144, January 2002). It is slightly adapted here, with one of the line drawings by GSB which accompanied it.

Geoffrey Spink Bagley 1901- 1992


Geoffrey Spink Bagley was born on 3rd November 1901 at Pontefract, Yorkshire, the son of architect Frank Spink Bagley and his wife Elizabeth Husband. The family interests ranged from industry and glassware to locomotives. After Wakefield Grammar School, Geoffrey began architectural training but soon transferred to the Nottingham School of Fine Art, and in 1924 moved to London to share a studio with Bernard Hailstone who was to become a well-known portrait painter and wartime artist. After a precarious free-lance existence as a commercial artist with exciting periods of poster design and book illustration he was offered a job with Batten Ltd, engravers, the Toronto design specialists. This led to association with the then internationally known ‘Group of Seven’ and the opportunity to improve his painting skills with gifted artists. The varied Canadian scenes (French Canada, Labrador Coast and the sub-Arctic) provided plenty of material for his work.

Geoffrey Bagley as Canadian Artist

In 1934 he became Art Director of a famous firm of fine-paper manufacturers, Howard Smith Paper Mills Ltd. in Montreal– they supplied the paper for Canadian bank notes –and he became more involved with typography and printing design. He quickly began to win awards and by 1939 his work was being shown in Chicago, New York, the National Gallery of Canada and elsewhere.

With the outbreak of World War II he became Staff Artist to the Canadian government’s Wartime Information Board, producing posters for propaganda purposes and for recruitment to the Royal Canadian Navy. Later he was appointed to the National Film Board of Canada as Art Director of their Graphics Division.

During the war period he also recorded life on the North Atlantic Convoys for the Canadian Navy. A large collection of his work 1939-45 including 92 paintings and drawings as well as documentation was donated to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in 1985, the 75th anniversary of the Royal Canadian Navy.

An example is at right.

Geoffrey Bagley as Artist of Rye

While seconded to the Royal Canadian Navy as an official War Artist, there were opportunities to visit England to compare notes with his opposite numbers in the Crown Film Unit of the war-time Ministry of Information — and these probably influenced his decision to return to live in England. He settled in Rye in 1948, to pursue ‘straight’ painting, lithography and drawing. He explored the area, discovering Romney Marsh with its ever-changing light and fascinating collections of churches which he painted many times. These paintings show his appreciation of church architecture and skill as a draughtsman. He loved Dungeness with its collection of boats, shacks, various forms of habitation and flotsam and jetsam on the beach. He had a particular love of the sea and everything connected with it.

His other love was Scotland with its mountains and locks and he spent many painting holidays amongst this varied scenery. And he was still pursuing special interests in the study of rococo art and architecture in Germany, Austria, France and northern Italy.

Geoffrey Bagley and the Rye Society of Artists

Geoffrey had by now become acquainted with Wally Cole and Leslie Davie and a number of other talented Rye artists. In 1951 a decision was made to hold an exhibition in part of the Boy’s Club in Mermaid Street, Rye. They chose to call themselves the RX Group, RX being the registration of the local fishing fleet. A year later they joined up with other younger artists and together formed the Rye Society of Artists and held their first exhibition at the Further Education Centre in 1952.

Geoffrey was involved with the RSA for forty years, being a founder member, regular exhibitor and one-time Chairman. His work has been exhibited many times over the years. In Rye, for example, there was a joint exhibition with Leslie Davies at the Easton Rooms in 1971 and a Retrospective Exhibition at the Stormont Studio in 1982 entitled Ships, Nudes and Architecture.  

What was called at the time the ‘final accolade’ to a man who achieved so much in his lifetime was the Retrospective Exhibition held at the Stormont Studio, 16th October – 20th November 1993, which was attended by over 2,000 people. Here was displayed his mastery and skill in working in all media: oil, watercolour, pastel, crayon, charcoal, pencil, scraperboard and lithography. (At left is Net Houses Hastings.) Some of the works displayed are included in the permanent collection of the Rye Art Gallery.

There has in fact been yet another exhibition since , this time of his work as a commercial artist in Canada (1930-1945) at the Turtle Fine Art Gallery in 2004. The exhibitions have sometimes surprised people familiar only with his civic achievements in Rye.

Geoffrey Bagley as Museum Curator, Mayor and Civic Leader, Historian and Writer

Apart from his painting, Geoffrey found time to re-establish the Rye Museum and serve as Honorary Curator for 38 years. The Museum won a National Heritage Award in 1975, mainly due to Geoffrey’s meticulous attention to accuracy and detail and his artist’s eye for display.

In 1956 he was elected Mayor of Rye and held that post for two further years. He was also a Speaker of the Cinque Ports, a County Councillor, a JP and as we learned at the beginning of this article, in 1973 he was the last person to be elected a Freeman of the Borough of Rye. He served on numerous committees. In 1956, the first year of his mayoralty, he was also President of the Rye and Winchelsea Rotary Club, being named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International in 1989. He wss a Trustee of the Rye Art Gallery.

Among Geoffrey’s most lasting contributions to Rye are the publications pertaining to Rye and its environs which he wrote and illustrated. The list of these is long and includes:

Book of Rye, The
Connoisseur’s Guide to Rye, A
Edwardian Rye
Old Inns and Ale Houses
Pictorial Guide to Romney Marsh, A
Prospect of Rye. A
Rye Church Clock
Story of the Ypres Tower and Rye Museum
William Holloway, Historian of Rye: a Study of His Life and Times, 1785-1870 (1963)

 The Book of Rye was presented to the Duchess of Kent when she visited Rye in April, 1982.

First posted in Notable People, Rye Museum Story, Rye Town History on 9th September 2011
Last updated: 2nd December 2012
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