John Kingerlee was born in Birmingham, UK in 1936, and grew up in London, reared in the poker club managed by his father and in the circus run by the club's owners. Kingerlee had an early interest in art, which was encouraged when he attended a boarding school in Exeter, run by the Marist Fathers. As a student he was also drawn to modern literature, reading voraciously, and considered becoming a writer. Instead, Kingerlee turned to visual art, and began his strikingly independent path as a self-taught artist. During his first years as an artist, he would paint in the early mornings, before going to work. His jobs included working at a bike factory, in the garden of a special needs school, and managing an organic flour mill. In 1962, Kingerlee and his wife Mo moved to Cornwall, where they lived for the next twenty years.
Kingerlee's early representational paintings were influenced by Surrealism, especially the work ofDali. Kingerlee has acknowledged an affinity to a core group of artists: Kurt Schwitters, the Dada master of collage, Braque and Picasso, (the co-originators of Cubism), Paul Klee, and Asger Jorn, in whose energized imagistic work we can see a direct kinship with Kingerlee's own paintings. The American Abstract Expressionists Pollock and de Kooning are both highly regarded by him for their gestural, painterly invention.
Kingerlee's first exhibition was held in 1967 at the Ewan Maddox Gallery in London, and in 1968 he had two exhibitions, including one at the Walton Gallery. The next year he made his first visit to Fez, Morocco, whose atmosphere and particularly whose walls would come to have a strong presence in his paintings. Beginning in 2000, he began yearly three-month stays there. In the 1970s, Kingerlee started his own pottery, and began using his personal sign of a man in a boat (visible with his signature on paintings) to symbolize the artist following his own path. That spirit of self-reliance was manifested in 1982 when he moved with his wife to the wild and remote Beara Peninsula in the West Cork area of Ireland, first to Cleanagh and then to Kilcatherine, where they have lived since 1990.
Beara's wind-blown landscape of rock, sky, and water has had a deep effect on Kingerlee's work, and his painting captures its essence in nearly abstract form. He works slowly on paintings, which may take years to complete. He also produces collages, which involve found printed matter and drawing, and figurative paintings, including an ongoing series of heads. Kingerlee's abstract grids reflect both the walls of Fez and the artist's devotion to the mystical Sufi branch of Islam.
The new millennium saw a great upsurge in recognition of Kingerlee's work, with exhibitions in Dublin, Belfast, Cork, New York, and Dallas. In 2006, an exhibition is planned for Montreal, a television documentary on Kingerlee's life and work will air, and a book by Jonathan Benington on the artist's oeuvre, with 250 reproductions, has been published by Nicholson and Bass.