Artwork by William Kurelek,  Streets Pier, Worthing, circa 1957

William Kurelek
Streets Pier, Worthing, circa 1957

signed lower left
30 x 21.5 ins ( 76.2 x 54.6 cms )

Auction Estimate: $35,000.00$25,000.00 - $35,000.00

Price Realized $144,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Collection of Harry Streets, Brighton, United Kingdom
Collection of Patricia Morley, Ontario (purchased from Harry Streets in 1981)
By descent to the present Private Collection, Ontario
Letter from Harry Street Jr. to Patricia Morley, 3 January 1988
Patricia Morley, “Kurelek: A Biography”, Toronto, 1986, page 135
William Kurelek was equally adept at painting crowded interiors as he was at rendering his best–known subject, the vast, open fields of the Canadian Prairies. This postwar tableau depicts New Amusements, an arcade that, while its name has changed, has been the anchor of the famous Worthing Pier on England’s South Coast since the late 1930s. Dominated by the multicoloured grids and spheres of a bingo game in progress at the scene’s centre, the perimeter teems with a competing range of human activity, expression, and sartorial detail. Kurelek captures a preoccupied motley of families, friends, and strangers—the young and the old—as they swarm a network of coin–operated electro– magnetic games, amid change booths, cigarette dispensaries, and directional signage. Phrases like “Our Motto is Fair Play” and “What Has Life in Store for You?” at once reassure and motivate the arcade’s otherwise distracted clientele.

Kurelek’s attention to observational detail is on full display in “Streets Pier, Worthing”. The painting, which was completed while he was living in London, U.K., is of a piece with several other of the artist’s early (and otherwise radically distinct) expressions of horror vacuii that brim with a similar claustrophobic pressure. These include his “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” (1950; private collection), “The Maze” (1953; Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Beckenham, U.K.), “Netherene Hospital Workshop” and “The Bachelor” (1954 and 1955 respectively; Art Gallery of Ontario). Born in Alberta in 1927, Kurelek lived and worked in England between 1952 and 1959 where he also spent several years in–and–out of two psychiatric hospitals before returning to Canada and settling in Toronto where he would build a successful career and remain until his death in 1977. Effectively a series of microcosmic details stitched into a single universe, “Streets Pier, Worthing” was completed at a time when Kurelek had been producing small “trompe–l’oeil” panels for display at successive Royal Academy summer exhibitions between 1956 and 1959. Indeed, it was the sale of a trompe–l’oeil featuring a penny and a lark farthing on checked blue cloth at one of these Academy exhibitions that led Kurelek to paint “Streets Pier, Worthing”.

Harry and Rosie Streets established New Amusements in the mid–1950s. The married couple were so charmed by their purchase of Kurelek’s “trompe–l’oeil” still life at the Academy exhibition in the summer of 1957 that they commissioned the young Ukrainian– Canadian artist to portray their arcade. As the Streets’ son Harry Jr., who would assume control of the arcade in the early 1960s, recalled
in a letter to Kurelek’s biographer Patricia Morley in 1988: “I was working on the Pier then and naturally remember Bill Kurelek arriving to collect information for his picture of the Amusement Hall. He took a lot of photographs, many perched on top of a step ladder which my father held safely.” Morely’s book indicates there was mutual admiration between Kurelek and Harry Sr. :

“The two men, patron and artist, had both had domineering fathers and were similar in other ways. As the acquittance grew, and a second purchase followed the first, it occurred to the patron that his two dreams were coming together. Two of the passions in his life were his amusement arcade and his love of art. Now, for the first time, he actually knew an artist. He would have his artist paint his kingdom.”

“Streets Pier, Worthing” remained in the Steets’ private collection until 1981, when Morley purchased the work directly from the family.

While the painting was a commission, it is clear Kurelek found the subject of an arcade intriguing for its own sake. As a composite of human activity, he would have seen a deeper significance to the scene’s quotidian details. In the same way his Norther Renaissance heroes Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, and Joachim Patinir emphasized the moral and spiritual significance of everyday life Kurelek, who converted to Roman Catholicism the same year “Streets Pier, Worthing” was likely completed, brings an almost parabolic weight to the scene. Not unlike several of Kurelek’s best known paintings, including “Manitoba Party” (1954; National Gallery of Canada) or “Light Trading Day, Toronto Stock Exchange” (1971; Richardson & Sons Ltd.), “Streets Pier, Worthing” resonates with ambiguous feelings of sympathy for human frailty as well as moral judgement against worldly distraction. As he also would in both later works, Kurelek incorporated himself into the arcade scene; he can be seen at top right, casually leaning on the ledge of a booth—the only figure in the painting who looks back at us, unabsorbed by the surrounding spectacle.

We extend our thanks to Andrew Kear, Canadian art historian and Head of Collections, Exhibitions and Programs at Museum London for contributing the preceding essay. Andrew is the past Chief Curator and Curator of Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a Curator of the 2011/2012 national travelling exhibition “William Kurelek: The Messenger” and author of the Art Canada’s Institute’s “William Kurelek: Life & Work”, available at www.aci–

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William Kurelek
(1927 - 1977) RCA

Born on a farm near Willingdon, Alberta in 1927, William Kurelek created paintings that explored the reality of farm life during the Depression, with a focus on Ukrainian experiences in Canada. Kurelek’s mother’s family settled in Canada during one of the first waves of Ukrainian immigration in 1899 before the painter’s father arrived in Alberta from Western Ukraine during the second major wave to the province in 1923. In 1934, Kurelek’s family moved to Manitoba, near Winnipeg, due to falling grain prices and a fire that destroyed their home. Upon moving to Manitoba, Kurelek began attending school at the Victoria Public School.

Influenced by the apprehension surrounding the Depression, World War I, and the instability of farming, Kurelek focused on his studies. However, his father did not approve. While Kurelek’s father valued physical labor on the farm, Kurelek concentrated on school and drawing, which caused tension in his household. As a child, Kurelek covered his room in drawings from literature, dreams, and hallucinations. At school, Kurelek’s classmates were enthralled by his stories and drawings.

In 1943, Kurelek and his brother attended Isaac Newton High School in Winnipeg. While in Winnipeg, he frequented Ukrainian cultural classes offered by St. Mary the Protectress. In 1946, Kurelek enrolled in the University of Manitoba studying Latin, English, and history. While in university, Kurelek’s mental health spiraled, which he later self-identified as depersonalization.

After university, in 1948, Kurelek’s family relocated to a farm near Hamilton, Ontario. The next fall, in 1949, Kurelek began studying at the Ontario College of Art working towards a career in commercial advertising. While in school he was uninterested in the competitiveness and emphasis on earning high grades. So, he decided to study with David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. During his hitchhike to Mexico, Kurelek experienced his first mystical experience while sleeping in the Arizona desert. In this vision, a robed figure asked him to look after his sheep. Upon his arrival to Mexico, Kurelek learned that Siqueiros had departed, and the program was under new direction by Sterling Dickinson. Dickinson’s program was more informal and allowed Kurelek to become aware of social issues and develop his belief system.

Kurelek returned to Canada in 1951 and traveled to England in 1952 where he was admitted into a psychiatric treatment center at London’s Maudsley Hospital. The doctors noted the severity of his illness as well as his artistic talent. After his discharge, Kurelek traveled throughout Europe to view works by Northern Renaissance painters, such as Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosh. In 1953, Kurelek was readmitted into Maudsley, then transferred to Netherne Hospital in Surrey, which had a cutting-edge therapy program. He continued to paint during this time. In early 1955, Kurelek was discharged and returned to London where he worked at an art framing studio, apprenticing with Frederick Pollock.

“Stephen Franklin in ’Weekend Magazine’ described his years in England as follows, ‘In seven years Kurelek found both happiness and sadness in London. His painstaking fool-the-eye paintings of pound notes and other objects found their way into three Royal Academy summer shows, but he was increasingly bothered by eye trouble for which there was no physical cause. He plumbed the depth of emotional despair, contemplated suicide, and wound up in hospital for more than a year. It was here that he began his conversion – from boyhood membership in the Orthodox Church and subsequent atheism – to Catholicism which has deeply affected his life since.’

It was there that he drew many self-portraits and scenes of farm life from his youth. He also developed his unique style of outlining the drawing with a ballpoint pen, using coloured pencils for texture and adding details in pen. Careful examination of his drawings reveals images full of realism with minute details of things like cots, clothes and even insects. Under the pen of William Kurelek, prairie farm scenes and landscapes came to life.”

Kurelek permanently returned to Canada in 1959. Later that year he met Avrom Isaacs, of Isaacs Gallery, who invited him to work in his gallery’s frame shop and hosted his first solo exhibition in 1960. In 1962, Kurelek married Jean Andrews and they relocated to the Beaches area in Toronto. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, he began painting in a “fire and brimstone” style and constructed a fallout shelter in his basement, which eventually became his studio. He visited Ukraine in 1970 and 1977 and during this period he took a multicultural approach to his art. After his second trip to Ukraine he was admitted to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and soon passed away from cancer.

Literature Sources:
Andrew Kear, “William Kurelek: Life and Work”, Art Canada Institute, Toronto, 2017 (