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22 January 2014

Roberta Penelope Kelly (1918 - 1993) postal worker, soldier, artist

Robert Percy Kelly was born in Workington, Cumbria, a twin and one of seven children. His mother was Scottish and his father a Manx carpenter. He was drawing by the age of two. He grew up a keen footballer (he played for Workington Town FC), cyclist and hiker.

In 1932 he won a national handwriting competition organized by the Royal Mail. His first job was as a Post Office telegraph boy. He bought paints with his first pay packet. He then moved to Kendal as a telegraph officer, where he joined the Kendal Art Society.

During the war he served first with the Royal Border Regiment,  but then transferred to the Royal Corp of Signals when his talent for drawing was recognized.  He was assigned to GHQ in Whitehall, where he sat next to Winston Churchill during an air-raid. Churchill admired his draughtsmanship and suggested a visit to the National Gallery. He had never been to an art gallery before, and the visits to the National Gallery did leave a mark on his paintings.  Three of his watercolours were accepted for a forces exhibition at the National Gallery and he was presented to King George VI on its opening.
"Drawing is as natural as walking, A piece of charcoal or chalk is like an extension of my forefinger."
He later served in France. He married for the first time in 1942. After the war Percy and his wife Audrey ran the Post Office in Great Broughton, Cumbria, where he had an easel set up behind the counter. He managed to exhibit at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Arts.  Percy and Audrey had one son, Brian. In the 1950s Percy suffered several nervous breakdowns, and in 1958 relinquished the position of sub-postmaster. Supported by Audrey, Percy in his 40s studied art at Carlisle College from 1961-5.

At the end of the 1960s he seemed to be on the cusp of fame. He was admired by royalty and written up in the The Guardian. At age 48, he was exhibited in Workington, London and Kings Lynn. But he couldn't co-operate with dealers, and especially he could not bring himself to sell his work.
"I cannot paint for monetary gain. I would rather starve than sell one piece of my work but I know when I depart this world people will stop and wonder at the beauty and truth that I have portrayed."
Audrey came home to find her husband dressed in her clothes, which confirmed her disappointment that he had not turned out to be a football-playing breadwinner. They divorced in in 1970.

The next year Percy married Christine, a mother of three and the now ex-wife of his eye specialist. This was a scandal, and they fled to St Davids, Pembrokeshire, where Kelly attempted to come out as a cross-dresser, but this was not well received. His paintings changed also: more colour, lighter, more flowers. In the early 1980s they moved to Rockland St Peter, Norfolk. Christine finally ran out of patience and left in 1983. A private exhibition of Kelly’s paintings was arranged the next year specifically to pay the alimony.

In 1985 Kelly changed her name by deed poll to Roberta Penelope. She continued to live in the house in Rockland St Peter which became increasingly cluttered both with Kelly's paintings and various junk that she scavenged. By this time Roberta was dressed as female almost all the time.

During her last few years she sent lavishly illustrated letters to her few friends, which are now considered an important part of her oeuvre. Her paintings for the first time included a human figure, usually Roberta herself.
"I cannot stand the male species. I find them quite pitiful. They have brought me so much misery."
She did start taking female hormones, but never considered the operation. Apart from the cost, she thought it superfluous.
"I now feel I am a woman first and not the other way around."
Roberta died aged 75.

She died intestate, and her estranged son Brian inherited by default. The paintings in his house were sold in five sell-out exhibitions in Cockermouth, Cumbria. Brian died during the fifth, aged 47. Other collections of Kelly's work were discovered stashed with friends and forgotten. She had been afraid of losing his supplementary benefit.

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