Percy Kelly was born into a poor, devoutly religious household in Workington, Cumbria, one of 7 children.
Despite an early aptitude for drawing (he could draw as soon as he learned to hold a pencil) Percy left school at 14 to work for the Post Office – Percy’s father had been approached several times by teachers at Percy’s school who advised his son should go first to grammar school and then to art college but in the family’s economic circumstances this was impossible. During the war, he served in the Royal Signals, where his talent for draughtsmanship was utilised in the production of maps. In 1946 Percy returned to the Post Office until he took up a full time place in 1961 at the Carlisle College of Art and Design.
Until the age of eight Percy lived close to the docks in Workington and he wandered freely, drawing boats, engines, trains, cranes and clumps of flowers. Later, when he would walk the pitoresque villages and countryside, he eschewed the bucolic and always returned to the strong black lines and dark vistas of the coast, the mining villages, pit heads and railway lines.
In the early 1950s, Percy submitted works to the Royal Academy, Royal Institute and Royal Society of British Artists; all were accepted, and from 1956 until 1963, Percy was a member of The Lakes Artists Society.
In 1966, when he 48, his patron Sir Nicholas Sekers gave him his first exhibition at Rosehill Theatre and then in 1968 at his showroom in Sloane Street. Lady Fermoy at her Gallery in Kings Lynn (1969) and Mary Burkett at Abbot Hall in Kendal (1976) were the only others to succeed but then only once. He was difficult to deal with, vacillated, cancelled and constantly changed his mind about what he was prepared to exhibit or sell. He turned down approaches by many well known commercial galleries to exhibit his work – Andreas Kalman at Crane Kalman in London: Mike Goldmark at Goldmark Gallery in Rutland: The Stone Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne: Geoff Green at Tib Lane Manchester: Agnews of Bond Street and many more failed to get him to commit to exhibit. His final solo exhibition was held in Troutbeck, Cumbria, 1984 in order to to pay the alimony on his second divorce. His few exhibitions were undertaken reluctantly and through necessity.
Percy moved to Norfolk in 1980, and died there in poverty in 1993.