Irwin first came to wide critical notice in 1958, in the Three Collagists show at the old ICA in Dover Street, London, and would continue to make collages throughout his working life. Although he would always consider himself a painter, the working method he developed through his collages would inform everything he ever did.
In 1979 his biographical in entry in the directory of Contemporary British Artists states that "In the past I have made collage, assemblage, constructions and paintings, using the backs of old posters, string, wood-shavings, cardboard, matches, nails, wood, cloth, paint and so on, but I am currently working with oil paint on canvas." He went on to describe his "invariable" working method. "I write the pictures. Starting at the top left-hand corner I work along, adding individual ribbon-like unit to individual unit until I reach the right-hand edge. I then return to the left-hand edge and repeat the process until the bottom right-hand corner is reached, some 400 hours after beginning ... I watch with wonder and excitement as the colours and marks, falling from my hand as if propelled by a source of guidance other than myself, slowly spread across the surface."
Irwin was born at Basingstoke, Hampshire, but grew up at Trebetherick, on the north Cornish coast. He was educated at Bryanston school in Dorset, where the painter Roger Hilton was briefly the art master, before going on to art school in London, first to Goldsmiths College and then, from 1951 until 1954, to the Central School at Holborn. The 1950s were the crucial years in the development of later 20th-century modernism, and while many of Irwin's contemporaries fell under the growing influence of abstract expressionism and the New York School of Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and the rest, Irwin, no less sympathetic to the abstract, was drawn rather more to the currency of the European avant-garde - to art brut, Tachisme, graffiti and the found image, and the continuing legacy of surrealism.
In those early days, he took his material, quite literally, from public advertising hoardings, not in the imagery they carried but in, as it were, the archaeology of posters laid layer upon arbitrary layer, a thick, dank mass that at first he would strip away himself on furtive night-time expeditions: later, it would be delivered openly to the studio by the bale. From this came those first collages, constructed strip by torn strip, row upon row, to draw a strange beauty from the rough tears, the arbitrary overlays and the rotted damage thus inherited. The critics were enchanted: "The patience, the subtlety, the muted gradations of every effect combine to produce an atmosphere of studied beauty," said the Times in 1959, of his first solo show at Gimpel Fils; Irwin "cannot put two pieces of torn paper side by side without creating an atmosphere of poetic tenderness", John Russell wrote in the Sunday Times in 1963.
Continuing critical success seemed assured: the Paris Biennale came in 1960; the Venice Biennale, with Joe Tilson, Bernard Meadows and his old teacher Hilton, in 1964. In the same year he figured prominently in Private View, a sweeping survey of the contemporary English art scene, by Bryan Robertson and John Russell with photographs by Lord Snowdon, and was included in the Tate's major international review of the painting and sculpture of the previous 10 years.
By the end of the 1960s, the shows had dried up, and he was teaching at Corsham, Hornsey and Chelsea. In 1969, became head of fine art at Brighton College of Art, where he remained until 1984. Retirement brought something of a renewal of critical interest in his work, even as he addressed himself to it with a renewed energy. Gimpel Fils gave him a retrospective in 1987; there were shows at the Redfern Gallery in the early 1990s; and he was included in important survey shows of the 1950s and 60s at the Barbican (1993) and Tate Britain (2004).
A large retrospective planned for next year at the Lemon Street Gallery in Truro must now be his memorial. He will be remembered as a man of irrepressible, often unpredictable energy, fun and spirit, and of great charm.
David Gwyther Broome Irwin, artist, born May 7 1931; died October 18 2008
Based on an obituary by William Packer which appeared in the Guardian on 29 October, 2008.