Expat artist Felix Kelly is little known in his homeland but his colourful life story reads like a movie. Linda Herrick reports as an exhibition of his works opens in Auckland.

Who on earth is Felix Kelly, you may be wondering. If anyone has the answer, it's art and architectural historian Donald Bassett, who teaches at the University of Auckland. He has spent years hunting down the work and life story of Kelly, an Auckland artist who left for London as a young man in 1935 and never returned.

But New Zealand lingered in his psyche, with some of his most striking paintings portraying surreal re-imaginings of Auckland landmarks such as Rangitoto and Takapuna Beach.

Kelly's distinctive work is held in collections in Britain and America - and in New Zealand, at Te Papa and Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery - yet you won't find a single item in Auckland Art Gallery. He painted the famous murals at Castle Howard, where Brideshead Revisited was filmed, and designed sets for plays starring actors such as Sir John Gielgud and Dame Sybil Thorndike. He was also an illustrator for magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Ideal Home and House and Garden.

He had a gift for cultivating posh friends, many of them members of the English aristocracy, who adored his witty persona at their parties - and his paintings of their houses. Late in his life - he died in 1994 - he drew up the renovation designs for Prince Charles' house, Highgrove. He was also a closeted gay man who indulged in the occasional spot of cross-dressing.

Bassett's research culminated in a book published in 2006, called Fix: The Art and Life of Felix Kelly (Kelly's nickname was Fix). Bassett has also curated a touring exhibition of his paintings, stage designs, book covers, cartoons, commercial art and Christmas cards which has been to the Dowse Museum in Lower Hutt and Hawke's Bay Museum and Art Gallery in Napier. It opened at the Gus Fisher Gallery in Auckland on Thursday, its last leg before the collection is returned to its owners.

Bassett's detective work first started in 1980, when he found a little book called Paintings by Felix Kelly, who he'd never heard of, in Canterbury University library. He was struck by the "strange power of the pictures - a mix of surrealism and 18th century-style topographical drawing". Then he noticed the artist was born in New Zealand.

A decade later, Bassett was at a party where a guest lent him a copy of the very same book, as well as the name of a man in Sydney who might know Kelly. He didn't, but shortly afterwards he sent Bassett a clipping from a 1990 Harpers and Queen, showing photos of Kelly and friends at an opening night for an exhibition at Partridge Fine Arts in New Bond St, London. What friends they were, with names preceded by titles Sir, Lady, Viscount, Prince and Princess, Earl and Countess, Baron and Earl. Bassett wrote to Partridge's, who gave him Kelly's address.

Kelly replied to his letter, sending him a catalogue with a note that said: "So pleased you're interested. Felix Kelly."

"And then he died," says Bassett. "Later that year, in 1994, I was going to Britain for research and study leave and I went into Partridge's and they revealed he was dead. Possibly a little indiscreetly, they told me of his partner, Vernon [Russell-Smith], and that he'd inherited everything and gave me his phone number. I met Vernon just days before returning to New Zealand.

"Two years later, I went back to Britain and walked across Hyde Park each morning to see Vernon at Princes Gate, a posh address. They had separate flats but uncomfortable stories have come through. [Their friend] Raleigh Trevelyan told me Felix had warned Vernon against being too familiar if they met anyone on the common stairs. They were to act as if they were nothing more than neighbours. That's all part of the environment where ostracism follows.

"He engaged in these subterfuges, too. One of the upper-class people I interviewed said he'd roar up in a fast car with this blonde woman on his arm as a disguise. But they knew, of course."

Bassett met some interesting characters in the course of his investigations. One couple was Bayswater-based Sir Reresby and Lady Penelope Sitwell, Reresby being the nephew of Edith, the writer and true English eccentric.

"Sir Reresby showed me a few things, then he said: 'Penelope might know something.' It was like Gosford Park and the Maggie Smith character. She was lying there with her feet up and her hands out having a manicure. So we had this conversation about whether Felix was gay and she said: 'Oh, we all knew - it didn't matter.' Then there was a snap of the fingers and the manicurist would crunch on a toe nail."

As for the cross-dressing, Bassett says he has heard that from two sources. "His brother-in-law, who I met, said he showed up in London and knocked on the door unannounced. The door opened and somebody else's head peered around and said, 'oh, Mr Kelly is busy', but the brother-in-law swore he glimpsed somebody flitting across wearing a long feather boa. "

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Bassett argues in his book that a discussion of Kelly's sexuality leads to a fuller understanding of his work and his character. "I must say I had to ask myself, how appropriate was this? Should I be doing this?" says Bassett. "But I think it is central to his character. Curiously, I knew virtually nothing about him but I thought there was something camp about some of those pictures. I thought: 'I bet this guy is gay."'

The artist's sexuality may have been why he left New Zealand at such a young age, following his mother, Hortense, who'd gone a few months earlier with baggage that included drawings by her beloved son. Kelly and his father, a surveyor who eventually went bankrupt, never got on.

"I think it was a case of a son who disappointed his father's expectations," says Bassett. Kelly was also a "myth-maker". He always claimed he had run away to become an artist at the age of 17. In fact, he was at least two years older and maintained he was born in 1916, not 1914, for the rest of his life. He said he'd been educated at Kings College but Bassett discovered that was a lie as well: he was only there for one year. One thing is for sure - he was very good at drawing, writing in the introduction to Paintings by Felix Kelly that after leaving school, he worked for his father's business studying civil engineering, moved on to an advertising agency, then: "I took a position as art master in an art school. This was a complete farce as I was 18 and had no training at all."

Bassett believes the art school must have been Elam, where he'd been taking lessons, and Kelly would have been 20.

When Kelly arrived in London, he worked as a graphic artist and designer for many years, for companies like Uniliver's advertising wing, Lintas. He also produced amusing cartoons, which are in the Gus Fisher show - and he started to make friends in high places.

He was a bundle of contradictions: he loved fast cars but hated new technology. Many of his paintings reflect a nostalgia for dying forms of transport, like steam trains, steam ships and hot air balloons, and an attraction for Regency furnishings. Some of his most interesting works are studies of grand old houses, often in decay and shadow, with strange, leaning, small figures flitting across the darkening gardens.

Kelly first travelled to the United States in the late 1940s, and returned in the mid-60s, where the Nortons, a rich family in Shreveport, Louisiana, befriended him along with other collectors in conservative states such as South Carolina, Alabama and along the Mississippi region, people Bassett calls "very rich antebellum [pre-Civil War] house owners".

"He was a great social networker, people used to say he was very witty and charming. They also said he was completely unknowable."

The Norton family set up a private art gallery in Shreveport, which included 20 Kellys, none of which are in the Auckland show, although Bassett has visited the gallery and met the Nortons. "They were very helpful when I was there but when I finished the book and sent it to them, there was a deafening silence. I thought I had probably done the dreadful thing in putting in writing what they all knew."

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The Brideshead Revisited connection came about because Kelly was a close friend with George Howard, owner of Castle Howard, where the series was filmed in 1980. "In the TV series, Charles Ryder painted the murals and Granada TV paid Howard a substantial amount of money to film there," says Bassett. "Howard decided to use the money to get those murals done as Charles Ryder might have painted them. Kelly painted them and they are still there in the Garden Room."

The murals were created in partnership with architectural designer Julian Bicknell, which led to another collaboration, this time on the design for a peculiarly proportioned neo-Palladian house called Henbury Hall in Cheshire, for an aristocrat named Sebastien de Ferranti. Kelly had been "very insistent" on making the house more vertical than it should have been, which Bassett saw for himself when he lunched there with de Ferranti.

"I studied 19th century architecture for my PhD thesis and I asked my old supervisor from Edinburgh what he thought of this hall. He said he thought it was awful."

Bicknell and Kelly then got the Highgrove job because de Ferranti was a friend of the Prince of Wales. Kelly drew up the visual concept for glamming up the plain 1790s house and, on completion, wrote a letter to a friend boasting: "I've redesigned Highgrove ... it's had great acclaim in the London press ... [the Prince] is thrilled and, naturally, so am I."

Bassett says he was initially attracted to Kelly because of his creative diversity, but adds he has mixed feelings about the work.

"I genuinely like a lot - not all of it - of work from the 1940s. Even then he was doing some things where I feel he was pretty rapidly prepared to prostitute himself. There's a moment when he starts to veer towards something which is very modern, the Spanish things, exploring very simple form and space, but he couldn't do it so he moved on pretty quickly ... back to more fussy and decorative."

After Vernon Russell-Smith's death, his sister, Jean, was left with boxes of Kelly's clippings and cards, says Bassett, who encouraged her to let the material be returned to New Zealand. He was disappointed by a "disdainful" lack of interest from the Auckland Art Gallery but contacted the Turnbull Library and got an immediate "yes". Those items, including a number of drawings in the exhibition, are now held in Te Papa's archives.

"Personally, I think it is a fascinating career, whatever you think about the art," he says. "Hell, if you think of all the expats we do acknowledge, Kelly seems to be rather more interesting than many. The life story is quite bizarre and fascinating in a way that others are not ... the major crime was the aristocracy and the conservatism of his art. But he showed at the best galleries in London in the 1940s, he was in exhibitions with big names like Lucian Freud and Frances Hodgkins and he got reasonable crits. But then he got conservative and he associated with the aristocracy so he remains an outsider."

Public events: Felix Kelly and the Sydney Charm School, with Eric Riddler, today at 1pm; curator talk, with Dr Don Bassett, March 6, 1pm; Joanne Drayton discusses NZ expat artists of the early 20th century, Marc 13, 1pm; Hamish Coney introduces an episode of Brideshead Revisited, March 20, 1pm; Friends of the Gallery event, March 27, 1pm; Peter Wells on "What's the problem with Felix Kelly?", April 10, 1pm.