A Huddersfield man is credited as being the first British pioneer of 1960s computer art and graphics. Now the work of artist Desmond Paul Henry is on show at Manchester’s Museum of Science and Industry. KATIE GRANT reports
ARTIST Desmond Paul Henry was described as the “Picasso” of his day.
But few people know the story of the Huddersfield-born creative genius, who is credited as being the first British pioneer of 1960s computer art and graphics.
Now the cream of Henry’s artwork is on show at the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry in a commemorative exhibition curated by his youngest daughter Elaine O’Hanrahan.
Elaine told the Examiner how her late father’s machine-produced art was first inspired by his time growing up in Huddersfield.
The 53-year-old said: “My father had a love for mechanical engineering and he was full of admiration for all the great inventions that he saw around him in Huddersfield.
“He used to go for walks with his family along the canal towpaths and he and his father were fascinated by the engineering feats in the town and all the mills and factories run by steam power.”
Elaine, who is Henry’s youngest daughter, said his parents Joseph and Eileen, who lived on Wentworth Street, Huddersfield, pleaded with the headteacher at the local grammar school, Huddersfield College, to accept him.
She said: “He went to St Patrick’s Primary School. But back then in 1933 there were no grammar schools for Catholics and his parents recognised his talents and wanted him to get a good education.”
Despite being an academic success, Henry’s parents couldn’t afford to pay for further education after he left the grammar school and at 16 he went to work for Huddersfield Waterworks, who were based in Springwood.
Elaine said: “The only formal art training he ever had was from art evening classes at Huddersfield Technical College.”
In 1939 Henry volunteered for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, where he worked as a technical clerk during the war.
Henry’s life-long passion for all things mechanical inspired him to purchase an army surplus analogue bombsight computer in the early 1950s.
Elaine said: “For years he would gaze transfixed at the ‘peerless parabolas’ of its inner working parts when in motion.
“Then in the early 60s, he decided to try and capture these mechanical motions on paper and so was born the first of a series of three drawing machines based around the components of the bombsight computer itself.”
The bombsight computers were used in World War II bomber aircraft to calculate the accurate release of bombs on to their target.
Henry, who became a Philosophy lecturer at Manchester University, took many of the parts from Lancaster Bombers.
He combined the parts with other components to create electronically-operated drawing machines which relied mainly on a ‘mechanics of chance’.
This meant the drawing machines could not be pre-programmed or store information as in a conventional computer and Henry had overall control and could intervene to direct the course of image production.
Henry inserted ballpoint pens into the machines and then tube pens with Indian ink which created the abstract, repetitive line drawings.
Elaine said: “I remember standing and watching him working the machine when I was about three-years-old. It was just about my eye level.
“I was intrigued by the machine going round and round and the abstract pictures it made.
“My father was passionate and certainly realised how original his work was when he first exhibited it in 1962.
“But his work never really got accepted by the art world because they didn’t consider it as traditional fine art – it was too progressive.”
Some critics, however, did recognise the originality of Henry’s work. In 1963 the machine drawings were to be featured in Time Magazine, but following the assassination of US President John Kennedy the story was scrapped.
LS Lowry discovered Henry when he won an art competition at Salford Art Gallery and he won a prize for a solo exhibition at the Reid Gallery in London where Lowry encouraged him to display the drawing machine pictures.
The Guardian described the images he produced as being “quite out of this world” and “almost impossible to produce by human hands”.
Henry was dubbed the ‘Picasso of the Machine Age’ for his breakthrough style of art.
Elaine has also compared her father’s work to the art of famous Impressionist artist Jackson Pollock.
She said: “My father referred to his machine-drawings as machine-Pollocks because of both controllable and uncontrollable features in their production, much like Pollock’s drip-painting technique.
“Importantly, it must be remembered my father’s machines relied in part upon a mechanics of chance and were not designed as precision instruments.
“He liked to let them do their own thing.”
Henry was born in Huddersfield in 1921 and died in 2004.
The Manchester exhibition runs until May 7.
For more information visit www.mosi.org.uk