In conversation with Jake Attree
Painting The Landscape is this month’s theme for Messums Northern views and we are delighted to invite the artist Jake Attree for our first interview.
Born in York, where Jake first studied painting, he graduated from Liverpool College of art and went on to study at Royal Academy Schools. He is now living in the popular Village, Saltaire in North Yorkshire, with his art studio located at Dean Clough, Halifax.
A poet of painting, Attree celebrates the art of suggestion through his evocation of North Yorkshire’s cities and landscapes:
“I was initially, and still am deeply influenced by the art of northern Europe, principally because, I suppose, I am northern European. The light Rubens responded to in seventeenth-century Flanders, later influenced Constable in nineteenth-century Suffolk, and later still, Constable opened my eyes to the flat water meadow-surrounded city of York.”
Given the variety of landscape in Yorkshire, can there ever be one representation of Yorkshire? If you had to choose, which would it be?
No, I don’t think there can ever be one representation of Yorkshire with examples of work as diverse as Turner, Ginner, Hockney, Laura Knight, Lisa Dracup and Constance Pearson, her daughter and granddaughter, Philippa and Katharine Holmes. It seems to be a county that inspires wide and varied responses.
If I had to choose one image, well, John Sell Cotman’s “The Drop Gate, Duncombe Park” seems pretty good, as does Turner’s “Frosty Morning”, which I believe developed from drawings made around Farnley Hall near Otley.
Are you influenced by the cultural landscape? Do you feel a responsibility to paint Yorkshire proud?
I think we are all influenced by the cultural landscape, whether we choose to be or not. I think Igor Stravinsky said “I am the vessel through which The Rite passed”. If we are artists of integrity and authenticity, I feel that to be a pretty accurate observation.
John Constable, a big influence on me, observed: “I shall always paint my own places best.” and I feel that is the case for me also. So, if not “proud”, then perhaps I would rather say “paint Yorkshire true”.
Has there been a shift in aesthetics about what sort of landscape/view appeals to you and or your audience?
If there has been a shift in aesthetics, I am not conscious of it. I am aware that I do not want to go on always making the same kind of work but that really is not some conscious, analytical decision but rather a purely intuitive one and one which I am really not aware of until the work is hung on the wall; and by that, I mean I have no idea how the work will look until it is completed or, rather, I should say, until circumstance dictates I leave it alone. As to my audience, I am not really aware that I have one.
Looking at the landscape we think first about its strength, of course now we are more than ever aware of its fragility, is that something that has entered your thinking and work?
This must sound as though I am not cognisant of anything when I am painting and, in a way, that is true: my complete focus is on making the painting work as a painting and not as some kind of statement. Having said that, any landscape painter of value would inevitably make work that expressed something that somehow reflected the physical and emotional climate of the time in which they were working.
Whilst making the transcriptions after Bruegel, I began to be aware that these beautiful paintings were being made whilst the plague was raging across Europe and yet we are still here, so, without in any way failing to recognise the tragic impact of the current pandemic, I feel there is a message of hope here. We do, however, have some very big issues to address and it seems to me the painting of landscape is one means of articulating a deep connection to and a kind of reverence for our planet. To quote David Bomberg, painting for him was “the celebration of a memorable hour”.
by Peter Brown
It was not until after Christmas that I realised while flicking through a Messums brochure that my spring show in Harrogate actually opened 5th February. This meant I had 2 weeks to see what I could produce and would need to order frames ahead.
“What time are you leaving in the morning dad?”
“I dunno 4 or something ridiculous”
“If you are staying up all week an hour here or there won’t matter will it?”
From the mouths of 14 year old girls…. When Lisa asked me the same question later that Sunday evening I said “Shortly after I get up whenever that i
I am slowing a bit.. not much.. just a bit. Less 2pm bedtimes. Less 5am rises. I left at 6.30 and arrived in Harrogate at 11am. I had had some pointers from a friend who lived here years ago and a couple of ideas from Johnny Messum. I had done a quick google image of Harrogate which proved heavy on Bettys Tea Rooms and The Victoria Shopping Centre. Google maps informed me this town had at its heart a large green park area called the Stray. I did not know really where it was other than near York maybe and below Durham.
When I got here I drove around the centre, noting the Baths and steep streets pointing into a blinding low sun. I noted how much foot traffic was holding the flow of cars up at the crossing on Royal Parade as people headed into Valley Gardens. Parking at the Montpellier Shopping Centre Car Park I did the same exploration on foot. I was struck by the Victorian feel – the cast iron structures fronting parades of shops the wonderful tool shops such as Arkwrights with their old style graphics advertising ‘Electrical goods’ and ‘Spanners’, “Laddes’ and so on.. It was clearly an affluent town – plenty of designer shops, interior shops, Bespoke Kitchen Shops and a surprising number of commercial art galleries. I had noticed the large semi-detached, detached and terraced houses skirting the centre of the town on my way in. It was clearly also a town reliant on tourists with grand old hotels, numerous restaurants and antique shops. It seemed a thriving town in normal times but now it was one on hold. The posh shops were open and `I am sure Christmas trade would have been good but the town was by no means busy. I guess what you would imagine at the end of the Christmas period but that is usually replaced by sales fever which it was not.
8 x 24 Cambridge Crescent
I was not desperately comfortable driving all this way from tier 3 to tier3 – Would I be welcome? I found my first painting looking across the front of the Yorkshire Hotel at Cambridge Crescent, Parliament St and Bettys. It was a nervous fiddly start lacking confidence and residing in tiny detail. Those paintings finish you off. You fiddle and fiddle and are never happy but determined to break the duck, you work on it for too long and finish exhausted. Kept going by frequent trips to Neros for coffee, I set up a small nocturne looking in the reverse direction from below the obelisk. I had had few interactions but they were encouraging or at least pleasant.
At 8pm we had Boris’ announcement. – Oh god – what to do. Legally nothing had really changed – I was still doing my work and it was essential for me to be here to do it (if I was to paint Harrogate). Johnny texted me. He had rather come round to the idea we should shelve it. If it were to go online as he hinted it could. we now at least had more time. The paintings would not need to be framed so imminently and online never seems to have a real hard deadline – no things to be at a certain place by a certain time. But this was not really the issue. It was more ‘should I do it?’. Is it the right thing to do in terms of our communal fight against this pandemic. The first lockdown I talked it over and over with the family and the next morning declared to 60k followers that PTS was going to remain in his studio. But it was different this time. We are more ‘used to it’. I am isolated when I paint. I will not infect anyone. I am outside and it is essential to my work. So I decided to stay this week and see how it went – to a certain extent see how Harrogate would react.
Tuesday 5th January
I parked the car at Montpellier Shoppers Car Park. I struggled with the App and spoke to a traffic warden. We chatted. I told him what I was doing – what I did.. His reply “But aren’t we on lockdown?’ I explained the ‘essential’ bit but asked what he thought. He shrugged. This was not a good start. Luckily a business owner decided to give the chap both barrels as the council were not offering free parking while they had to lock up their businesses. The town was desolate. I headed off to the bottom of Cornwall Road to paint that delicious curving dipping and rising of Crescent Road and Royal Parade with the Royal Pump room in the fore. I painted with confidence and chatted to locals. They all offered hellos and good mornings and “Aren’t your fingers chilly?”. I am no front line worker but perhaps I could be a small distraction – seeing a scruffy cold grey haired man trying to paint a picture of a street seems to make people smile. Whether it’s a ‘Silly old Fool’ or a ‘Bless him’ or a ‘Good for him’ or as has been voiced quite a bit ‘What a good thing to do during lockdown’, it seemed my fears were perhaps unfounded. Next was looking across the park from Montpellier Hill. – a 30cm x 60cm (Pete goes metric!). A I set up a couple of ‘oil paint beginners’ quizzed me. I explained my view and why I had chosen it. They left and I set to work as dog walkers ‘Good Afternoon’ ‘d me and the odd lone walker stopped for a nose. The groups of teenagers were absent today. You always hear them a mile off and you await the “Hey there’s an artist” before they arrived and you get nosed at and commented on – always polite I have to say. As the afternoon drew on grey turned to winter sun then back to grey and then twilight as runners used the hill for repeated sprints up and recovery jogs back down. The ‘oil paint beginners’ returned and were pleasantly surprised that what I had done resembled the view. I finished the day on an attempted nocturne of the front Betties.
Wenesday 6th January
I stepped out of the hotel to a dusting of snow – “Wonderful” “Help. Which view?”. The van was frozen. I Turned the ignition on and let it run while I got a coffee from Neros. I drove up Cold Bath Road and back down. There were views. Was the sun going to appear? It seemed so. Which view. Any view Pete. It’s all good. The Park! I headed for Valley Gardens, Parking on Valley Drive, I did not scout but committed to every shaped board I could carry and walked in to the park. It was the right choice. The sun did make an appearance but not til late. the Gardens are low and the snow I was painting was untouched by the messy sun! The gardens were quite busy – couples, mums and toddlers, elderly people on constitutionals. They all said good morning and admired the progress.
“oh you are making me feel very guilty”
“I saw you up the top yesterday. I used to do this but have not done it in ages – I’m too scared now. You should brighten the green on the right to give it some depth”
He was an elderly gent with hearing aids. I decided he knew his painting and wanted to share my earlier conversation with a couple who were very complimentary about my painting. I had felt quite warmed by their accolades until they started to enthuse about Bob Ross
“I am hard of hearing I’m afraid”
I spoke louder.
“No not louder. Just clearer”
“Sorry I do mumble”
I mentioned Bob Ross. He laughed but went on to say he did see a bit of him the other day and he thought he was actually quite good.
The painting was done and so was the snow.
I was cold so went for a drive. The only way you can warm up in lockdown – no cafes or bars.
The sun was out. I was surprised how low it was at midday. This is its peak I thought. Navigating the Roundabout of Leeds Road and West Park the view through the trees to Trinity Road of the priory with its lantern tower and Trinity Church winked at me. So I parked up and worked on a 12 x 16. I met Phil who confessed (?) to being a depressant. I don’t know why but I find people who admit to this extremely good to talk to or rather listen to. No memory of what we chatted about but we hit it off.
I was now cold and had another drive, a coffee and a cake. I returned to my first painting and fiddled some more until it was dark. Betties now did not have their lights on so I could not work on the night before (nocturne) pic. I was painting by the van and packed everything away. Looking at the same view again towards the Memorial I got all my stuff out again and attempted a 12 x 16 nocturne attracted by the lit façade of the Yorkshire Hotel. I was cold and tired and should have called it a day. Sometimes I think I cannot see any more!
A cold frosty bright morning.
I turned the van on, walked up Cold Bath Street to the bakery for a coffee then drove. I checked out high Harrogate but found it mainly residential and not very unique so, spotting a sign for Knaresborough, set off to check out the viaduct. It was impressive – hidden from the sun it would be icy to paint from the bridge and it would always be there for another day. I wanted to take advantage of this crisp morning. Thinking of viaducts I remembered a conversation I had in Valley Gardens on Tuesday in the snow. The chap told me there was great view of a viaduct in Hornbeam park. So I headed that way. The satnav was taking me to the Railway station. I could see an area of green on google maps next to it and drove alongside in what looked like an industrial estate. Driving to the end of the road I parked in customer parking for one of the businesses and managed to collar a walker returning to his car. He was plugged in to some podcast and although I had interrupted him he was very polite and helpful. My guess as to which way the viaduct would be was completely wrong and he directed me the opposite way. Looking at my shoes he suggested I took the longer route via road rather that direct as it was very muddy. I ignored him. He was right although the mud on the whole was frozen. It was like walking on chocolate crispy cakes. As I entered the wood I asked a dog walker whether I was heading the right way.
”Straight on and you’ll see it. 500 chocolate crispy steps later to my right over a beautiful frosted field licked with pale shadow and peachy morning sun was a long expanse of elegant arches. A draftsmen’s nightmare and something I would usually duck, I told myself I could do it. I did not count the arches relying instead on gut. I did make sure the spacing was even but it was long and the perspective of the arches changed from left to right. I was aware of the frost melting and the light changing and was calm and pragmatic. ‘Don’t stress. Just get on with it Pete’. I was surprised how much I enjoyed trying to get the sheep and also how much they moved as they munched grass rotating like teenagers slow dancing at a disco. There were quite a few walkers with or without dogs on their own or as couples. One was running a virtual race and could not stop. The couple I spoke to as I was packing up pointed me down to the beck (?) for a closer look at the viaduct although they pointed out much to my delight that I had the better view.
The mile or so walk up the path in the now defrosted mud was hard in my twenty odd layers of thermals and I was knackered when I got back to the van. I got a coffee at ‘Indulge’ in one of the units and headed back to town. Parking on Montpellier Hill and after much ruminating I decided to work some more on the 30 x 60 cms of the park with the ice cream hut. I did not like the lime green grass I had painted originally and thought I could get the painting to a more resolved, more ‘real’ level. It was mistier today and the light had now flattened a lot although sun and shadows came and went. I was pleased I had a second go. There was lots more that I noticed and adjusted – tones in particular.
I had some weird Scandinavian lunch of beetroot and potato bravas that relied heavily on the pot of ketchup for its flavour. But it was hot and filling. It was 3 now so dark in an hour and I returned to outside the bank to start a 12 x 16 of Bettys shortly moving on to the nocturne I had started on Tuesday (?). A man started talking to me. I am not sure what he started with but again I realised he knew his painting. Initially annoyed with the interruption I warmed to him. He used to illustrate for the film industry – advertising posters mainly but for his soul. He used to do this a lot. He told me about a trip he did with mates years ago on the East Coast of the U.S. painting and flogging off the easel. He said he wish he had the nerve to do it again and he said I had inspired him to maybe get out there. Empathising with his lack of confidence and explaining how hard it is to start again I said “You know what you have to do don’t you?’ He was nodding in agreement before I had finished “You just have to do it.”
We were joined by a woman with what sounded like an American accent. She was a writer and we drew comparisons between writing and painting and in particular the block. Attention was now moving to her.
“That accent. Are you from America?” said Frank
‘Bradford” she said. We were amazed. She said people often thought that. The reason for her accent she surmised was that she had travelled a lot and also spoke several languages. We quizzed her. She listed 8 and said she was currently learning Arabic as she was becoming a Muslim and wanted to read the Koran in the original.
She wished Frank well in getting back to painting and suggested he go painting with me. I hate it when people do that. Promising my time away for me. She left and we looked at each other stunned “Aren’t some people amazing. What an amazing person!”
We talked a bit longer then Frank left after repeating that I had inspired him.
It dawned on me that perhaps this was something useful I could do. I seem to be stumbling on quite a few people – particularly men late in life, who have or had a talent for painting and are keen to re-engage. It seems this could be my market where `I could make a useful difference’. So that is duly filed in the charity folder for later…
Friday 8th January 2021
I was really looking forward to driving home at the end of today to see the kids and Lisa. I knew it would be a full-on day. Heavy snow/ sleet was forecast. I looked out the window which overlooks a small back yard of the hotel at 7am – the night’s snow had not settled. As I left the hotel an hour later snow had started to fall again. I switched on the van and walked up to the bakery for a coffee and a croissant. Walking back the snow had got heavier but the ground was wet. The van was now toasty and I sat in drinking coffee and scoffing my croissant. The snow got heavier still. The flakes where huge. The snow was winning. Landing rate was beating melting rate and in 20 minutes the snow was 2cm. I decided to drive around looking for best possible view. Big mistake. The snow was getting serious and traffic was struggling to navigate the roads. I abandoned the van on crescent road and headed up Parliament St armed with canvases and boards of all shape. Cars were sliding into each other at the bottom and Parliament street was becoming gridlocked. It did this on and off throughout the day. I found shelter with a view under the awning of a jeweller looking directly at Bettys. I phoned Lisa and asked her to rebook me at the White Hart. I assumed I would not be able to drive out of Harrogate. I have never experienced snow like it. It was consistently heavy all day. I had to paint under shelter or I would not last an hour before everything would be soaked through and useless. I really struggled – nervous and lacking confidence. Everyone was consumed by the snow but if they noticed me they could not resist a peak. As I set up an elderly man in an electric mobility scooter looked at me and declared ‘Bloody Hell!”. I laughed not knowing if he was cross or just a bit of a card. He passed again a few minutes later and it turned out I did make him cross for some reason. Perhaps he was struggling in this awful stuff yet I was treating it as a bit of fun? Later on a man called Mark struck up conversation. He lives in a chapel he had converted in Harrogate. I imagine anyone from Harrogate reading this would now know who I meant. We seemed to agree on most things art. Both obsessed with paintings and the need to acquire them although it seems he has the means, is more ambitious, Fanatical and his taste is more eclectic than mine. Another couple he knew pulled him away from me although they included me in their chat. The second man had just bought (well the development company he worked for) an impressive grade 1 building in an industrial estate in Leeds which they were making good for the British Library to the tune of £75million. They eventually left. Mark remained. I had to keep making the point of trying to look around him as he kept blocking my view so ‘into’ our conversation as he was. He left after us exchanging numbers and him insisting I come round for a nose a chat and a bottle of wine. OMG how I’d love that. I returned to the hotel later to a DM from hin confirming the offer which I ducked. Rules is rules. It will have to wait until spring. I’d started this painting at 8.30 and as I was packing up a lady asked how long I’d been painting it.. ”What’s the time?” “2pm”. “Christ. Have I been painting that long?”. I panicked. It’ll be dark soon.
I headed to the Betties awning. The view back to where I had been was good but the on and off grid locked Parliament Street meant I could well be looking at the side of a van for the most part. I found a view under another cast iron awning a little further down Parliament St and on the other side. Again I was looking back at Bettys but with a much more interesting perspective up the hill. I continued to struggle with the pale greys and was frustrated by the view being constantly blocked by delivery vans and trucks. The linguist from the day before spotted me but I was grumpy and gave her short shrift. She said she would buy one but her place was more Morocco really. As it inevitably got dark sooner than I wanted I rotated and tried a view down into the melee of purple snow on the rooftops of the buildings on the rising hill from the bottom of Parliament Street. An opticians threw peachy light across the snow in the foreground and the view was framed with some cast iron work of the awning. I pushed it further than I would normally these ‘end of the day’ ones even though I was knackered. Usually these paintings get abandoned and left unfinished. This one felt close to resolution.
It had been a long hard day. I managed to move the van from its parking spot surrounded by a foot of snow and drove round town trying to work out where would be best to leave it as we expect a big freeze tonight. Driving up Cold Bath Road I was managing until I had to come to a rest behind a Seat that was being pushed by three men. They got it going and then they came to help me. One played foreman and he knew what he was about. The 3 tonne van had more traction. As I got purchase I tooted a thank you and drove on up passing the Seat that was now in more trouble. I eventually settled on leaving it on West Park giving me the more likely better option of Parliament Street but also Montpellier Hill.
I ordered a click n collect wagamamas, crunched through the snow to the hotel and checked in at which point I stopped feeling sorry for myself. ‘We’re busy tonight sir. Most of Harrogate Hospital are here as they could not get home. Today’s Covid death toll is the largest it has been at 1,325 with 69,025 people testing positive. Tomorrow we have -2c and sun so the snow will remain I imagine through Sunday and Monday which is overcast. It looks like I will head for home Monday night.
Today I let it feel like work. I am a twat. Tomorrow I shall relish it!
Saturday 9th January
12 x 16 West Park. Tree limbs laden with lilac snow against ochre viridian sky. As sun rose chunks of melted icy snow fell on me and pallet.
10 x 12 Tree in Snow and sun. Keeping it chill Crossed road and painted just some light on snow
Sun weakened to a light I prefer.
30 x 60cms Waking on the Stray, Snow. 2 pairs boots swapping for warm pair from the windscreen van heater.
18 x 24 ? second go as sun was lowering – Bettys from Parliament st
16 x 12. Twilight snow Parliament Street.
Lisa booked me in for another night as snow was still deep on the stray and my view is it will be here til Monday afternoon.
Sunday 10th January
It was thawing. The roads were now black and trees had shed all their snow and were now just sodden. The stray was still covered as was the ungritted pavements and the awning of Bettys but it lay in patches on roof tops.
I revisited ‘Bettys from Parliament’ St 18 x 24 inches now with no queuing cars in front. But I mainly concentrated on the left façade which I had ignored the day before. The painted shop fronts and windows reflecting grey sky and white snow it was a treat to paint. Couples on a Sunday morning stroll greeted me.
“Ah! It’s Pete-the-Street. We’ve been reading about you. You’re all over social media.”
Fame at last mother!
12 x 16 ‘Bettys, Thaw’
I had an idea that the grey ‘moving towards twilight’ painting I had started of Bettys from the bank could convert well to the thawing snow. I nipped up the street to confirm and went and grabbed it from the van. It was the last painting I would work on for this trip and I was comfortable driving away knowing I’d got the good stuff. I was pleased to see the surrounding countryside on the way to Wetherby and beyond was devoid of snow drift and stunning white rolling landscapes. I was a bit shagged out and just wanted to listen to my audio book and drive home.
Thursday 14th January
I dropped Ollie back at Durham on the Wednesday and headed down to Harrogate to meet Tony the Yorkshire Post photographer. I was booked in to the White Hart Wednesday night and Thursday it seemed Harrogate was doing its snow thing again:
8.30am – 1pm ‘Down Parliament Street from under the Bettys awning’ 16 x 20 (pictured right)
1.30pm – 4.30pm “West Park from Bettys, Snow’
The glowing window display of the Bettys fought with the reflection of the white snow across Parliament Street’s pavement and road. Harrogate was very quiet. Behind me a homeless man was sitting under a red brolly. Over the morning 2 or 3 customers knocked on the Bettys door to collect an order and a handful of people walked by as well as 2 gritters and 3 snow ploughs .. oh and of course the odd runner. They are mad on running here. They’ll run in anything, over anything, precariously slipping up and down hills on icy rutted snow and in biting winds. A young couple appeared from below at one point – barring their pink glistening legs they were covered head to toe in the snow they had been running into. They seemed to be perfectly happy! After a while joining the brolly man and I were joined by two gentlemen. One of them offered his friend, the chap under the brolly and me a coffee. He took the orders and returned from Neros with hot drinks for us all. The two friends then immersed themselves in serious conversation about erecting shelves, their wives habits, weekly shopping and other things.. I did not notice them leave. The homeless man had now been joined by a young woman and they were gassing with as much gusto as the previous two. I painted til 1pm and then starving offered the brolly man a coffee. I returned to finish the painting off. Brolly man had noe left his corner and it offered me a good sheltered spot with a view down West Park at oncoming warm car headlights. I painted here on a 16 x 20 until it was too dark.
16 x 12 Twilight Snow, Parliament Street
Twilight is both longer and more enticing. The view down Parliament Street from the other side of the road was fantastic.: A jeweller or optician spilling bright light across the snow, the Skipton Road melting into the sky in the background, even the warm glow of the top floor lights in the 60’s office block on the left looked yummy so I dumped the 2 previous canvases back at the van and returned with a 16 x 12 board. I set up under a bright white streetlight. Unfortunately, however it was still snowing, and I remembered the value of shelter as I pushed oil paint and ice crystals around a piece of MDF for an hour or so. Ruby from the post phoned as I was walking back to the van. I said I’d ring her back when I was somewhere warmer. I sorted the paintings back at the van stripping my wet let layers while catching the ever more depressing 6 O’Clock News then checked back into the hotel where Lisa had booked me another night. I ordered room service – a samosa and an aubergine curry and phoned Ruby. The room was warm. My back ached but I quite liked it. Tomorrow would be bright sunny and icy…
Peter’s exhibition of Harrogate paintings opens at Messums Yorkshire on Saturday 20 March 2021
Following two shows in Messums Wiltshire, and online, Charlie Poulsen has lately been preparing for a new collection of drawings debuting in Messums Yorkshire, Harrogate.
To bring Charlies character to the fore and to shine a light on the artist behind his collections we talked to him about his working day, his creative practice and his inspirations.
Drawing has, in recent years, been Charlie’s primary means of expression however it is only one of many. As Lynne Green says, ‘that Poulsen is also a sculptor is important. He works with the solidity of wood, the weight of lead and the malleability of wax (in 3D drawings). Moreover, he is a gardener – or rather a sculptor of growing form – whose preference is for order, repetition in planting and colour, and the training of tree branches and shrubs in to unaccustomed geometries.’ Charlie’s many projects of all shapes, sizes and materials are a large influence on his abstract drawings.
In this transcribed interview with our Head of Programming, Hannah Hooks, Charlie discusses the essential collaboration between the physical making process and the concept, as Charlie Says; ‘The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making’.
HH: Good afternoon Charlie, thank you for taking the time to talk to me this afternoon.
I thought we should start with.. You’re up there in your studio in the Scottish boarders, it’s a beautiful spring day, and so what does a typical day in your studio look like.
CP: At the moment I’m in the middle.. well I’ve started another drawing. I’m in the middle of the first stages where mostly the first stages are pencil work which is very quick and very busy, it’s a very active time where I’m really buzzing. And in some ways, you ask that question about automation, and in some ways yes, I’m in automation role. Because you stop thinking, the whole aim is to stop thinking really and just do and react to whats in front of you. Obviously I have done some small preparatory drawings but they’re a guide and I try not to be too strongly guided by them if I feel the drawing is going another way because in the end it’s the big drawing that counts not the small one.
The drawing is the quickest part of the time and that might be a matter of a day or two only, and then you’re doing the other processes which is adding a layer of wax and gouache and so on which gives more depth to the painting, to the drawing, and at the end you can go back to drawing because the pencil lines, because I use a very hard pencil it creates a groove in the paper and when you apply the gouache the gouache will go into the grooves and so in a sense it becomes a bit like a print if that makes sense.
Especially if, a lot of the drawings, just before I put the final layer of gouache on I run a layer of wax on the whole surface so what that means is that the gouache only goes in the lines, it just picks up the lines. I suppose the wax must glide over the top of the grooves. So on the final stages I’m trying to emphasise various parts of the pencil line and various parts of the drawing. It comes to a point where I’ll even use a very very fine number one paintbrush to actually paint in individual lines if I had to. At that point then, at that stage of the drawing, it slows right right down, and I can be messing around for several days, trying to get it adjusted. I suppose i’m trying to get to.. stillness or something, yes I’m trying to get a sort of calmness and stillness within the drawing even though its very busy I suddenly want to control that business, I’m not quite sure why but that feels right anyway.
HH: So is that what satisfaction in a painting looks like or feels like to you? Its arriving at a point of stillness?
CP: Yes I think so. Stillness is important and I don’t really know why but in some ways my role is not to ask the question why my role as I see it is just to do.
HH: What’s interesting about your drawing practice it that you’ve been an artist for many many years but you haven’t always made drawing a primary means of expression but more recently you have, for something like ten years?
CP: Yep, I think partially I got very frustrated with sculpture because if you’re not selling it or showing it a lot the damn stuff just sits there and if its quite big you keep having to move it and I get really fed up with it. And also its very slow work and in some ways because I felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, and I wasn’t for years really with sculpture I suppose, and so I decided when, well this would have been 2010, that I was going to concentrate on drawing because one, you can get through ideas very quickly and in some ways its more me in my head, in some ways it’s a bit like.. lets put it like this on a musical thing.. it’s the difference between a big concert piece and a chamber work, something classical, and it’s the chamber work which is more personal, more introverted if you like but I find that more interesting and the sculpture was the more public side of things so i’ve turned to drawing as a way of getting through ideas faster and maybe finding myself more. Because about fifty I suddenly realised you’ve got to stop getting frustrated at not getting anywhere with this work, you’ve just got to do it for yourself. And I think I thought sculpture wasn’t doing it for myself so much. As well as.. it just took too long really. I’m inpatient. The older you get the more impatient you get. You can sort of see the departure lounge you know.
HH: So the date that you give as the title on the work has always interested me because I’ve never known whether it was the start of the work or the end of the work.
CP: The end. Very much so. There doesn’t seem much point in putting the date where you begin because you might never finish. In some ways you make a decision that its finished, it isn’t, its never rea
lly finished, there’s always something you can do but I think in some ways also you can lose the freshness of it and that sort of thing and that’s a sort of decision you make somehow that you’ve got as far as you’re going to go with that piece of work.
HH: I think that’s what is really captivating about your work is that energy you’re able to harness within the framework or the constraint or outline of the square so you start always with the square and then you’re working within that each time but there’s this sort of containment versus this sort of freedom or energy that I think, that kind of push and pull creates a really interesting practice.
CP: Yeah, because, you mention the word restraint and you meant the square. It is a restraint but also it makes decision making a lot easier, otherwise theres always all those different sizes you can do. You can have a rectangle in all sorts of different proportions but there is a convenient side of things because as a maker of things, i’d rather call myself just a maker of things, as a maker of things there are so many choices and its actually quite important to reduce your choices. But there was a logic behind reducing choices to a square, well you’ve got the classic thing about the portrait and landscape isn’t it. Painting is always in a proportion of landscape or portrait but a square in neither so it has that great advantage, it is a very powerful structure and virtually nothing will break it down really so I’m constantly trying to break it down to a point where it just.. sometimes it may nearly disappear altogether but its got that nice tension about seeing how far you can go with a drawing. In terms of extending the drawing, not beyond the boundary and yet its still feels like a square even though the drawing escapes right the way to the edge of the piece of paper, you’ll still feel the square when it’s finished, I hope.
HH: You mentioned a few moments ago your changing concerns or a sense of being impatient as you feel time is against you and I wonder if your inspirations have changed and who and what they were to start with. You sent me a beautiful picture this morning saying ‘this is my inspiration’ the view from your studio window but I wonder beyond that creative space what really influences you.
CP: Its always a very difficult that one Hannah, because you know as a painter yourself that it’s very hard to pin down what influences are and where they’re from. There are certain people, I would probably say some of the abstract expressionists and minimalists, Pollock, Agnes Martin, Sol Le Witt, Rothko, those sort of people, but funnily enough on the other end of the thing i’d probably say Ravilious and Nash, I sort of follow their English landscape, i’m quite interested in having all those influences mixed up. But then you look at a Turner or something, or a Seurat and you get very excited by seeing those so how do you know where you’re coming from in many ways, you pick up all these influences over your life and so i’m really not sure and I think that it pays not to have heroes anyway. In my opinion if you’ve got a hero and I mean a female or a male hero in some ways you can’t get past them so you’ve got to see them as mortal if you like. That’s the trouble with Heroes, they tend to be immortalised and you’ve got to get past that. But then I talked about the allanbank, there definitely are influences from landscape and where you live. But again I used to start the basis of a drawing on something particular so in the earlier works, the drawing behind me, well that’s about the year 2000 and at that same time I did several drawings which were influenced by the hedge if you like and trying to sort of make sense of the hedge but I think In many ways the one behind me was more successful than the ones where I was trying too hard so about that time I thought I should abandon any thought of representation because somehow I couldn’t do anything with it, in that sense I can’t cope with drawing in that way and i’m a great admirer of people who can in fact i’m rather jealous of their abilities but I feel its not a route that I can take. I remember when we were doing life classes, you know, I would plug away at them but in the end Hannah I don’t think I was that excited by it. But just starting with a pencil and just doing something, just sticking a pencil on paper and just going for it is, it’s a bit basic but there you are.
HH: You gave a wonderful talk as part of the last exhibition with us in Wiltshire in the long gallery about drawing and that sort of immediacy of it and the importance of it as an action, as a way of mark making and the kind of accessibility of it as well as the fact that its sometimes not seen as the highest of art forms when actually I think, what amazing about your work, and I don’t know whether it’s the scale or the detail or the way that you make them, there’s something about the mark making its almost like listening to music, there’s a lot to be absorbed by and I suppose what’s strange about this exhibition is that people wont be seeing your works in real space. They will be experiencing them virtually which is a sort of departure because artists want people to stand in front of their work and I wonder whether there was any advice we could give to people looking at your work and maybe experiencing it for the first time through a computer screen.
CP: well on the whole I prefer not to give advice because I thinks it’s a bad idea but you put your finger on it really I mean if they approached it like music because music in the end that’s instrumental it is abstraction and so if they can cope with the abstraction, you know, abstraction didn’t start in the 20th century in my mind it started long before and certainly in music, abstractions always been there but people haven’t talked about it like that have they. But its always been there with music I think, nobody know really, all these people tell you what’s its all about this music but I’m always sceptical about their claims because as in all the people who create things I don’t think they always know where they’re going because if you know where you’re going do you bother to do it so I suppose I’m thinking the only reason you’re going in a direction is because you don’t know where it’s going to come out and that’s where the excitement is of creating anything. I obviously cant speak for anyone else but I do feel that that must be to a certain extent how it is because, in fact I remember someone recently who, she was doing something for the Tate, she said she’d got this great idea, and now she had to go an make it, well she didn’t really like the idea of making it. And it happens at colleges now, you’re meant to write it all down what you’re going to do and then you do it. Well that seems pointless. The great idea, to me, has to be modified by the physical facts of making and so if you just have an idea on paper and you totally translate physical reality I’m not sure you’ve achieved very much, you might as well just have the idea on paper which is in other words just the concept. There’s nothing wrong with that, the conceptualists did that, but then im old school. You’re always taught that, you’ve got to let the material have some say in the matter when your making something.
HH: for a man who doesn’t like to dish out advice that is excellent advice. Because I think all the best artworks rely on the artists ability to use their materials well and you certainly do that.
CP: I forgot to say that of course I listen to music a lot with the drawing, I don’t let the music influence the drawing if you like but it does calm me and also I suppose its that parallel nature of it that I like. Though having said that it did influence me this morning, I was dancing to that, but then I just left the drawing and sort of danced around the floor. But then Ive always danced in some way, even in college id be the first one on the floor. No girl would ever dance with me because I was just too wild I would go on for hours, anyway.
Our represented artist Charles Poulsen is featured in The Times newspaper this month. The image was chosen as one of the publications photographs of September 2020 and taken by James Glossop. The sculpture is Poulsen’s Skyboat an 11-metre wooden former fishing boat built in Whitby, which is now suspended on a wooden frame more than four metres in the air. The sculpture is created at Marchmont House in the Scottish borders and will eventually be supported by the oaks planted beneath it which will form a living cradle. The boat will appear to float and take up to 70 years to complete.
An exhibition of Charles’ 5ft square drawings will be shown at Messums Yorkshire from 31 October.
Barbara Brown ‘Sweetcorn’ 1958
The conversation below between Barbara Brown and Ashley Gray took place on 17 April 2020 –
Hello Barbara, thank you so much for speaking with me today. Can we talk about your experience of art school prior to the Royal College?
I was at school in Ashford first of all and travelled to Canterbury by train each day to attend the Art School there before finally finding digs in the town. I did the Intermediate and the National Diploma and wanted to be a sculptor but they said to me “you cannot be a sculptor because you are a woman!” It was very much like that in those days. They said, “you can do textiles” so I did textiles. I did what I was told as that had always been my background. Sculpture was really my first love, Textiles were my second. There were very few of us doing Textiles at Canterbury.
Yet it was textiles that brought you to the Royal College?
It was wonderful, I loved the Royal College. The atmosphere, everything, Humphrey Spender who taught there influenced me.
He designed for Alistair Morton’s Edinburgh Weavers too?
Yes, Humphrey Spender was lovely, I got to know him very well and we became great friends. We taught at the Royal College together later. I taught for twenty years there.
The earlier textiles like Sweet Corn were more painterly?
I was really mucking around in a way, having a good time. Trying to get away from very recognisable things. It was not until later after I left the Royal College that I started doing the very abstract things. Those are the things I still respond to – the abstract things.
You met Tom Worthington, a legendary figure at Heal’s whist at the Royal College?
Yes, he would come to the degree shows and bought what he saw at that time. Later he commissioned things from me.
What was your next step after the Royal College?
I went to teach. First at Medway where Zandra Rhodes was one of my first students.
She told me you were a great influence on her.
She has always been so nice about that, she was a fantastically hard worker, she never stopped. She was one of my first students. I got quite a few students into the Royal College at that time. I also taught visual research at Hornsey. This meant looking at different ways of drawing using microscopes and all sorts. I had a wide range of different students, painters, sculptors, everything. I was teaching in the same way also at Guildford.
Was this a time of evolution for you personally in your own work, I know you were interested in Victor Vasarely, Bridget Riley and others?
Yes, I was very influenced by them and I was looking at things in a very different way. I loved American art at that point too.
This influence also seems to have allowed you to work on a much larger scale than previous designers.
I never thought of these things as hanging in somebody’s front room. I always saw them as something for big spaces, to the extent that one of the big black and white ones was bought by Manchester University and put in their lecture hall. Apparently, all the students complained because it was so strong that they could not focus on the lecturer! It was much too commanding and distracted them all.
A great example of Op Art!
I always knew that the cloth was 48 inches wide so I always tried to work at 48 inches. I used to make the repeat to the full width so when you joined them up it became even bigger. I was interested in making images. That’s why I was never very good at repeat.
Was it the fact that you were not a traditional textile designer that drew Tom Worthington at Heal’s to your designs?
He came to my flat after the first view and saw what I was drawing. Bits of paper I was playing around with and he would say “I like that, or I like that” and I would develop them from that. He did not arrive and say, “I want to see some textiles”.
He was a powerful force in bringing Modernism into the home.
He had a really wonderful vision, he was a brilliant man at his job. He really did know what he wanted and what he was going for. It shows in the sort of things he picked.
He seemed to have that genius of moving and leading trends at that time.
Very much, he was very much the leader of it all, he picked all sorts of strange things that were wonderful. He did not go for pretty flowers in repeat! He had a lovely vision.
In 2017 there was the wonderful retrospective of your work at the Whitworth in Manchester. What was your reaction to seeing that work shown on such a grand scale?
It was great, I liked it a lot and I very much liked the way they had hung them. You got the feeling of what I was after in terms of the scale of them all.
Let’s discuss a few of these key textiles, but am I right in saying that the titles were actually given by Heal’s?
Yes, that’s right.
So, starting with the first for Heal Fabrics; Sweet Corn 1958, tell us a little about this piece?
This was the first one that I ever sold. It came from my degree show at the Royal College and Tom Worthington from Heal’s came and bought it. There was more than one colour way even then I did not like colourways!
Recurrence 1962 – very diffident to the painterly quality of Sweet Corn!
This is the first of all my abstract ones, very geometric and I like it a lot. It was also done for ceramics for Midwinters, Recurrence and Reciprocation with smaller circles was from the same time. Recurrence I liked best because it was very simple and I like them when they are very simple.
Frequency 1959, a very different approach tells us about this design.
I became very interested in geology and earth movement. Here you get the strata and the folds in the rock. Heal’s photographed it really well and hung it with chimneys above it – it was rather wonderful, it became part of the landscape. It is very much about strata and mountain moving.
Spiral rather later 1969, again for Heal’s, was very dynamic. Tell us about this.
This one I really like a lot, there was one similar to this one called Automation. They were very much about engineering drawing. So this one is a great big screw and Automation was from the idea of a building. I was very pleased with these and I particularly like them in black and white because it makes more sense and I like the scale of them.
So, we enter the early 1970s here with Ikebana.
This is very much about movement, these two big blocks of white coming from the left are moving the balls. So, like frequency it is about earth movement and how it is affected by water. You get the water bubbling up between the rock. It’s very much about earth movements again but in a very geometric way. You see these great huge white lumps coming through which move the water.
Barbara, Thank you so much.
Saturday 11 July 2020
Internationally renowned contemporary art dealer Johnny Messum hosted a summer opening at the new gallery in James Street, Harrogate, following the success of the James Street pop-up exhibition held just before lockdown. Launched over the weekend of 11 – 12 July, guests were invited to book timed appointments so they could view the exhibits in a safe and relaxed environment. Johnny plans to hold six shows of the best of international contemporary and Modern British art each year with accompanying talks and events, mirroring the highly acclaimed programmes currently on offer at the galleries in London and Wiltshire.
With a nod to Yorkshire’s deep links with the textile industry, the Harrogate programme opened with Material Textile: Modern British Female Designers, which showcases some of the most colourful, important and collectable textiles created by female artists during the 1950s – 70s. They have been brought together this year for the very first time. To complement the textiles, one of France’s leading ceramic artists Thiébaut Chagué, familiar to visitors to the V&A and the Louvre, also has his most recent studio works on display.
The upper floor focusses primarily on British Impressionist paintings championed by Messums since the 1960s, including artists such as Walter Sickert and Harold Gilman. The sculptor Dame Elisabeth Frink, the subject of a major show this summer at Messums Wiltshire, is also represented.
Messums historically has strong connections with Yorkshire and Yorkshire artists. Regular exhibitors at the Harrogate Art Fair, the gallery promoted artists of the Staithes School, in particular Dame Laura Knight, to London collectors. We have also shone a light on Northern artists with an annual exhibition on Cork Street titled The Elemental North, which focuses on renowned artists such as Jake Attree and Norman Ackroyd RA. In addition, Johnny Messum represents the sculptor Laurence Edwards, whose important installation The Doncaster Heads: Portraits of a Mining Community commissioned by the town of Doncaster, will be unveiled later this year.
Johnny Messum says, “I am delighted to be opening a gallery for Yorkshire’s discerning viewers in a town we know so well. I am looking forward to strengthening the gallery’s longstanding relationships in Yorkshire as well as to forging new ones. At times like these, the power of art to inspire and uplift is more important than ever. Our vision is to create a place where artists, art lovers and collectors can come together on a regular basis to enjoy the best contemporary art and craft from every corner of the world”.