Hi, and welcome to articles regarding my art and my life.
These articles will fall into four areas with each area discussing various aspects of my art work and history. The four categories are:
- In My Life. In which I have articles and events regarding how I started in this career.
- My Paintings. Where I show you a particular favourite of mine and the process of how I painted it.
- Artist’s Support. Where I can maybe give advice or help to anyone who may learn from my experiences (mistakes).
- Childhood Stories. Little sketches and tales from my life growing up in a railway town in the 1950s, and yes I am that old.
The current Idols exhibition in the gallery has taken me back to my first paintings in the 1960s.
I don’t recall the exact age when I first discovered my talent for drawing and painting, but one particular memory stands out from when I was around fifteen. It was during that time that I gained popularity among the girls in my school due to my ability to create striking watercolour portraits of popular singers of the era.
My art teacher, recognising my potential, came up with the idea that I could offer portrait services during lunch breaks, charging a shilling per portrait and using the earnings to invest in better art materials. However, much to his surprise, the demand was solely for free paintings of The Beatles, and his plans to fund art class supplies fell through.
I then decided I would buy a sketch book and paint portraits on each page, Lulu, Nancy Sinatra, Roy Orbison plus The Beatles etc. The plan was to fill the book, but then I left school and started an apprenticeship at Bakelite Plastics. Then I turn 18 and found other interests, girls and pubs. I forgot all about the book until years later after my parents had died I found it again in a drawer in my mam’s council bungalow where she had kept it. That book is now on display in our gallery and Lynn has created some great prints from it.
Reflecting on my early days, I remember an incident when I painted an enormous 8ft mural of The Beatles on a wall in our house. My wife to be couldn’t believe that my Mam had let me do this on the living room wall.
During my childhood, I had enjoyed watching my Uncle Arthur as he skillfully brought World War Two scenes to life through his pencil drawings. It was he that inspired me to take up drawing, and encouraged me to start painting.
I won my first art show when the local cinema (The Hippodrome) had an Easter Art Competition. The prize was an Easter egg which I unwillingly had to share with some older lads who met me on the way home. I never bothered entering any more competitions just to give it away to someone else.
As I mentioned earlier Shildon tunnel, at nearly a mile long joined Shildon to Bishop Auckland. The tunnel went under Shildon and at one time trains ran through both ways but later it was deemed unsafe so now there is only one line through. The line comes out into a deep cutting with a deep bankside running along it.
In the winter days this bank would be a magnet for kids with their sledges when the snow was down. It was quite steep but luckily there was a fence to stop you from flying over the tunnel top. But if you wanted to get enveloped in the smoke as a train came out you could climb the fence and slide on your backside down to the top of the tunnel entrance and wait to get lost in a cloud of steam and smoke.
We didn’t buy sledges as such because our dads made them for us, and they were great sledges. Because they worked at Shildon Wagon Works, or Shildon Shops as it was known locally, all the materials and skills were available to make or repair sleds or even bikes. My dad was a welder so he would fashion the irons and my Uncle Fred and Uncle Tom would sort out the woods. All this was done on nightshift and brought out under jackets or in bait bags, then assembled at home ready for the snow.
Uncles played a big part in my education, well not so much in school education but in surviving life’s little ways. As I said anything could be made by those who worked at the railways, but Uncle Tom also had an extra rare skill on the side. He could put a pan on your head and cut round it until there was only short hairs left on the top of your head. Every now and then we were required to line up outside his washhouse while he cut all our heads/hairs in turn. This would be that short that you could go for months before you were sent again, the army couldn’t have done a better job. Actually Uncle Tom did one more thing for which I will be grateful. One day I was sucking a large gobstopper and it slipped down my throat choking me, my friends didn’t know what to do and I was struggling for breath when Tom walked round the corner. He took the situation in and belted me on the back forcing the sweet out. I never bought another gobstopper again.
We owe a lot to our uncles and aunties who helped us grow into decent adults and I remember them all with affection, but my Uncle Arthur on my mam’s side encouraged my creative side. He was a brilliant artist who showed me how to draw and paint from being very young, I would stand and watch him draw superb detailed pictures with just a pencil. He had a proper full time job as well which was a dream job in my kid’s eyes. He worked for a plastic model company called Kleemans who made beautiful model kits for people to build, not like Airfix aimed at youngsters, but large Mississippi river boats and highly detailed WW2 aircraft. His job was to take home 20 or 30 of these kits and build and paint them for displaying in store windows. They would give him a spare kit to practice on but he didn’t need it, and so who do you think would take home at night a large box containing everything needed to build a large Sunderland Flying Boat or a Tiger Tank, Moi.
For the first couple of years after turning professional I was painting portraits etc, in oils and doing commissions, which generally were copies of Constable paintings for peoples’ walls. I entered the odd craft exhibition here and there and hired a table to show my work.
It’s odd how sometimes a break can come from out of the blue. I was at a craft exhibition near Whitworth Hall (the ancestral home of Bonnie Bobby Shafto) with some of my oils when this gentleman asked to buy a couple. Quite chuffed I started to wrap them up when he introduced himself as Derek Parnaby and he was the millionaire owner of Whitworth Hall. He said he would like a couple of paintings done of the Hall but he wanted watercolours and asked if I did watercolours. Of course I do was my response but as I had never painted any large scene in watercolours I had to buy some materials and practice very fast. I found that I liked them and seemed to paint stronger watercolours probably because of my oils techniques coming across.
Anyway I presented Derek with two large watercolours of the Hall and the church which he loved. Then he gave me free rein to wander around the grounds and paint some more for him. After chatting with him over a cup of tea he asked if I would like to have a one man exhibition in the main hall at Whitworth. I thought about it for a nano second then cuddled him (not really but I wanted to) and said that would be wonderful. He sorted it all and arranged press coverage before and during, and let all his friends and family know, so a few weeks later after I had painted watercolours from local scenes and Durham we had a preview evening in the hall with invited guests. There was food and drink laid on and an enormous fire in the room and my paintings were hanging in the room alongside paintings of Bobby Shafto and other ancestral portraits.
The exhibition was a great success and set me on my way to receive more commissions from new contacts made that week. It also turned me onto watercolour painting for the next 40 years as I learned more and more about this wonderful medium.
And through a lot of those years Derek kept popping back into my life with more work for me, including painting all of his lorries (He had a great collection that he exhibited at shows) onto the sides of the other lorries. This was done over a period sitting on a tall stool in a freezing factory storage unit using enamel model paints.I’ve forgotten how many there were because I think I must have passed out a couple of times with the cold.
So that meeting set me on my way with watercolours and the next break was coming along with a man called Anthony James, but that is another story.
I hated Sundays, apart from two events that made the day less boring. Sunday meant Sunday School, having to put on proper shoes, being tidy, and waiting for Monday to come along. No football or going off on a bike ride, it just seemed we had to spend the day waiting, for what I never knew, but I did know it was boring. If you managed to sneak out of the house it didn’t help as when you called on one of your friends their parents always came to the door and said they were all dressed up for church and were clean for a change.
In those days there were not many cars around our area, if you wanted to collect car numbers you needed to go up to the main streets and catch some there. Now there was one house in our cul de sac that had a car, it didn’t really go very far and spent most of it’s existence parked on the road alongside the green. But a Sunday was different, the car was still parked there but the husband and wife would come out of their house, get in the front seat of the car and sit and read the Sunday papers. I thought they must be rich if they could afford a car to sit in and read the papers whereas my mam and dad had to sit on the couch to read.
The best thing on a Sunday was that I or our Michael could go to my grandma’s for Sunday dinner, not both of us together because we apparently would end up fighting and disrupting dinner. Now my grandparents lived in an old aged miner’s cottage with a large fireplace range which had an oven in which my grandma made her Yorkshire puddings. It was these puddings that caused me and our Michael to fight over whose turn it was to go that Sunday. They were filled with onions and were more like inch thick pancakes than traditional Yorkshire puddings, and they were lovely, I have never seen or tasted anything like them since. In mining communities Sunday dinner was a tradition, the puddings were served separately smothered in rich onion gravy, I think the idea was to fill up on them so that you didn’t need as much meat which followed later. My grandad would produce a bottle of lemonade and fill up our glasses then dinner would start. Only one glass though, the bottle was corked and put back in the cold larder out of sight. After dinner we would sit on the couch while my grandad dozed off to the gentle ticking of the wall clock and I would sit patiently for what seemed like hours until my grandma would set me free.
Sunday nights were all about getting ready for school next day. Our new council house had a bath, a proper one, not a tin bath dragged into the front room which was the case at our last house. After the bath routine we would watch Sunday Night at The London Palladium and an American TV series, 77 Sunset Strip which had a cult figure called Cookie who was always combing his hair. At some point Gabby, the ice cream man, would arrive in his van and play his loudspeaker to let us know he had arrived. We were all then treated to a 99er, a large ice cream cornet with chocolate flake. Gabby also provided another great service, comic swapping. You could take your Superman or Batman read comics to the van and swap them for unread ones which would then be exchanged with other kids in other parts of the town,
The problem with my grandma’s cottage, especially in the winter, was the toilet. It was an earth closet in an outhouse at the bottom of the garden, and if you needed to go it meant braving the weather conditions outside such as rain, wind, and even snow.
A quick dash down the garden path, into the brick shed, hoist yourself up onto the wooden closet, then sit and contemplate your future while nature took its course. The toilet paper, (The Northern Echo torn into strips ) hung from a nail on the wall and could be quite damp depending on the weather at the time. Then trousers up and run back to the warmth of the big fire stove while shivering at the same time.
The toilet was cleaned out by council workers in a special van arriving along the back lane where they shovelled out the contents via a small door in the back wall.