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Eric Tucker was a boxer and construction worker in England. Though few knew it, he was also a prolific, self-taught artist whose paintings depicted a lost industrial era. Before he died in 2018, family members discovered a trove of hundreds of canvases. And some are now on exhibit in Eric Tucker's hometown museum. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Warrington, England.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Eric Tucker's paintings have an effect on people. You can see it in their expressions as they stroll through the Warrington Museum and Art Gallery.
KRIS BURY: Happy, really happy - he's got the character straightaway.
PHIL LORD: I'm wandering around here with a smile on me face because I just think they're wonderful.
COLIN OKELL: A lot of them depict a society that's gone.
LANGFITT: That was Kris Bury (ph), Phil Lord (ph) and Colin Okell (ph) as they took in the show "Eric Tucker: Unseen Artist." Bury's a retired teacher who's lived in this former industrial town for four decades. She didn't know about Tucker.
BURY: Nobody did until he died. And that's when it was discovered.
LANGFITT: Before Tucker passed away at age 86, he spent his days in the front parlor of his home, painting the working-class world he knew - boisterous pubs where people played piano and sang, neighborhoods of terraced houses, the English equivalent of rowhomes, where men played cricket and empty lots against a skyline of belching smokestacks. It was a communal way of life that disappeared with the town's factories.
LINDA GUETHES: I can remember a time when nobody had a car.
LANGFITT: Linda Guethes is a retired secretary in her 70s.
GUETHES: So everything you did - you passed people all the time. You met people at the school gates, you know, with prams. Now they pull up, drop kids off and go. And all that community's gone.
CRAIG SHERWOOD: We were struck by the quality of the work.
LANGFITT: This is Craig Sherwood, curator of the Warrington Museum.
SHERWOOD: One of the real, real strengths with Eric's work - it's the connection that he feels with the people of Warrington. He is very much part of the community. And he's communicating it through his art.
LANGFITT: Tucker's subjects ooze character. A woman stares out of a canvas with one eye closed as smoke billows from the cigarette hanging out of her mouth. A miner, his face streaked with coal dust, stares up toward the light. Tucker was a figurative painter who incorporated elements of surrealism. He worked in oils and watercolors. Sometimes, he just grabbed a pen and sketched portraits on whatever he found, like a sheet of paper for a trivia contest at a local pub.
SHERWOOD: This piece here - now we've given it the title "Study On The Reverse Of A Pub Quiz." He's in a pub, a bar. And he has turned over his pub quiz that he's answering the questions on. And he started sketching the people around him.
LANGFITT: The exhibition's driving force was Tony Tucker, Eric's brother. He thinks Eric's work is particularly interesting because he created it outside of the art world.
TONY TUCKER: What's important about an artist like my brother - and I'm sure there are other artists - is that they vhad to find their own way. The class he came from - there was very little opportunity for him to be able to become part of the arts establishment. Even when we tried to show his paintings or sell his paintings, people were not really interested.
ROBERT: Hey, guys.
TUCKER: Robert (ph).
LANGFITT: Hi, Robert. I'm Frank.
ROBERT: It's OK. Don't worry. Don't worry.
LANGFITT: Thank you very much.
ROBERT: I thought you were the Mrs. That's why it took so long to answer.
LANGFITT: Eric Tucker's home is now owned by a young family who allowed Tony to show me around. Standing at the top of the stairs, Tony described how he discovered much of his brother's work.
TUCKER: These were just stacked with paintings. Along the walls, on the beds themselves, they just piled up. And then (laughter) I looked into the loft, and there was stuff there stacked away - and then finally, I guess, the garden shed.
LANGFITT: In the 1970s, Eric sold two paintings through a gallery in Manchester. But the gallery took a fat commission and didn't want any more canvases. Tony says, after that, Eric gave up trying to sell his paintings.
TUCKER: I think he just thought, nobody's going to be interested in me and my work. Why would they be, you know? I'm just a bloke on the bottom of the pile. You know, I'm an unskilled laborer.
LANGFITT: As Eric was dying, Tony tried to drum up interest in his brother's canvases but to no avail. After Eric passed away, the family decided to stage an exhibition in his home and arrange for a press release. Hundreds of people showed up.
TUCKER: By the time we arrived, they were going round the corner. And it never stopped for two days.
LANGFITT: What would your brother have thought if he had seen all those people?
TUCKER: I think he would have loved it. I think he would have enjoyed just talking to people about his work.
LANGFITT: Would he have been surprised?
TUCKER: Yes. I think he would have been shocked (laughter).
LANGFITT: Tony's determined to establish Eric in the art world of which he was never a part. That will require selling a few paintings. Tony says two London galleries have already reached out. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Warrington.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIROCRATIC'S "SHAKEDOWN")
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