What a wonderful Wold: an interview with artist Peter Watson

Cooling towers in Rawmarsh Road, Rotherham, 1975

Say it with towers: 'Rawmarsh Road, Rotherham, 1975'

By Lee Gale

The power of Rotherham. In the Seventies, young Beverley-born artist Peter Watson was a frequent visitor to the industrial heartland of South Yorkshire and found himself enthused. All around him stood steelworks, slag heaps and cooling towers but instead of revulsion, Watson liked what he saw and set about recording the scenery with oil on canvas.

His near-photographic style, a result of his training in graphic design, was spotted by the National Coal Board and he was commissioned to paint collieries as a document of an industry that would disappear from the Yorkshire landscape. It could be said that Watson was a harbinger of doom for miners in the late-Seventies; he’d usually be asked to paint a picture once the NCB had earmarked a site for closure. His series of 14 paintings is now archived at the National Coal Mining Museum for England in Wakefield.

The winding gear and plant works have now vanished but one man’s unique eye for beauty in long-ago South Yorkshire – which also included bus depots, car showrooms and motorways – means that memories of these overlooked places will live forever.

Nowadays, Watson lives close to the Yorkshire Wolds, an upland area of natural folds and unmade-duvet hills that is providing him with a different kind of inspiration: abstract detail in farmland. Although he has largely traded industrial grit for agricultural serenity, the artist’s style remains rock solid and he’s still a fan of the “not pretty-pretty”. That’s not to label his work as ugly; far from it – it’s breathtakingly sublime and strangely peaceful. Luckily for you, he also takes commissions! We speak to David Hockney’s great Yorkshire rival to talk colour, light and hedge-trimming. peterwatsonpaintings.co.uk

What are you doing this morning?
I’m about to start painting but I’ve been cutting my hedges. I’ve got about 100 yards of hedge and it’s pretty overgrown.

Much of your art centres around Yorkshire.
I’m originally from Beverley but my wife is from Rotherham so I got into doing industrial landscapes when I used to go down to see her and her parents in the Seventies. I used to love the industrial landscape round there. I was really taken with it. It’s all disappeared now. At the time, the steelworks was in full flow and all the collieries were too. I thought it was quite dramatic.

In the Seventies, collieries were everywhere in Yorkshire.
I know. I did a few landscapes of cooling towers and things like that. I had an exhibition in the library in Rotherham in 1975 or ’76. Anyway, somebody from the coal board saw them and they commissioned me to paint the pits as they were closing. I managed to do 14 in the end. They used to send me off to the pits, I’d paint one, take it to them, and they’d say, “Can you do the next one?” – because it was the next one due to close.

It sounds like it was a full-time job.
Funnily enough, I was teaching art full-time. I used to paint the collieries at weekends and holidays or in the evenings. I went to art college – I did a year at Hull College of Art and then I was at Liverpool Art College from 1966-’70; not too long after John Lennon had been there. The Liverpool scene was really buzzing at the time. All the artists and poets – The Scaffold, Roger McGough, all that lot. Art college was great. I trained as a graphic designer thinking I might finish up doing advertising but in the end I did a one-year teaching course, so I fell into that.

Where were you teaching?
Filey first of all. I was there for 20-odd years. Then I got a part-time job in Scarborough. I’ve been here about 40 years now. When I first started teaching in Filey, I was with the Yorkshire Bank and the manager said to me, “Can you do me some paintings of various views of Filey? We’ll have them in the offices.” I think I taught his kids at the school. I did three or four paintings. A month ago, I had an email from a lady in America and she’d been rummaging around a flea market. She’d found a painting I’d done of Filey Brigg.

That’s incredible. In America?
In Los Angeles. She gave it to her husband and it’s on his wall. He’s a lawyer in Washington DC. It’s incredible how it got there. I wasn’t sure if it was mine so she sent me a photograph, and it certainly is.

Is that the greatest distance one of your paintings has travelled?
I think so. I’ve no idea how it got there but it’s one of the ones I did for the bank.

Your paintings have wonderful light.
The thing is, the light here at this time of the year is fabulous. It comes to life. Like the oil-seed rape, you know, it’s a fantastic bright colour, which is so vibrant.

I saw your painting of oil-seed rape and poppies – it’s like it’s illuminated.
The farmer wouldn’t be too happy with that, of course. You’re supposed to spray the poppies. You don’t often get the two mixed together but I thought it made a great picture. I don’t know if you’ve seen it but there’s another painting called “Pole Dancing”. It’s got a telegraph pole in the middle of a field. The farmer has to go round this pole and he’s created this great shape. I’m always looking for abstract shapes in the landscape. All the machinery now is computerised. They sit in the tractor and let it do the work itself. You get these great shapes and lines, all very regular. We’ve got large fields around here, which are undulating. Great views.

Pole in a field of oil-seed rape
Playing the field: ‘Pole Dancing’ by Peter Watson, 2016

There’s a touch of David Hockney about your work.
People have compared it. I suppose if you use the same subject matter there’s going to be a likeness, isn’t there? The subjects are similar. He’s done more trees and things. I’m always looking. There’s a field near me that’s bright blue. I think it’s linseed oil. It looks incredible, like a lake. That’s given me another idea for a painting.

Do you have an idea for a series and go at it?
I’ve got about four or five on the go. I do commissions, too. At the moment I’m doing a painting of a camper van in the middle of the desert in America because someone asked me to do it. They restored the camper van. I’ll do commissions and then I’ll do something for myself. If I see something in the landscape, I might go back several times to get it right. I suppose that’s artistic licence.

Do you sit in a field or do you take photographs and take them back to your studio?
I tend to take a lot of photos. I do sketches but I might take 100 photographs of one view at different times, to pick out the best bits of each view – maybe the lighting or whatever – to be right. If it’s dull, it’s not great, but if you get the sun out in the right position, you get shadows. I take a lot of photos, some sketches and it comes together like that.

How long does it take to complete a painting?
Probably four, five weeks. I’ve got a lot of commissions. I’m behind because I’ve got this hedge to cut and things, you know. It’s probably not a great time of year to paint. I need to get cracking now. I’ve got a back bedroom where I work. I don’t know if you remember Francis Bacon. His studio when he died was an absolute tip. He tested out colours on the wall. I think they transported it to the Tate or something like that. It was amazing in itself. Mine’s a bit like that but not quite as bad. I’ve got canvases half started and drawn out and some half finished, stacked up, you know. I like to start a painting and then just leave it a little bit and then go back to it, because often you can see something different. It’s quite a good thing to do, that.

I was looking at some of your car paintings from the Seventies – Austin Allegros and Morris Marinas. They’re right up the street of British Ideas Corporation.
That’s when I was doing industrial paintings. I did some others that I’ve lost. At the time, I didn’t photograph them. It was stupid. I get them all professionally photographed now so I can do prints. At the time, I just did the painting and sold it and that was the end of it. I had a period when I was doing reflections of cars and car showrooms. I was intrigued by all that.

There’s another one as well of a bus depot. Where was that?
I think it’s Wombwell, South Yorkshire.

Bus depot in South Yorkshire
Garage ceremony: ‘Bus Depot’ by Peter Watson, 1977

Kes territory.
It is, yes. My in-laws are there so I keep going back. It’s now totally different. The mining paintings, I need to put them on my website. They’re part of the mining museum [National Coal Mining Museum for England] in Wakefield.

Do they have all your pit paintings in a room?
It tends to be in archives. They’ve got quite a bit of stuff there. They only bring them out now and again. I suppose they can’t put them out all the time. They’re very precious about them.

Do you get a lot of people contacting you about your Seventies coal-mine paintings?
Yes, I do. People whose parents or grandparents were in certain mines. Which is interesting, isn’t it? These places disappear but they’ve got a lot of memories attached to them.

You know in Yorkshire, the last colliery closed two or three years ago.
It’s a shame, isn’t it? It’s a shame in a way but if you worked in the mining industry, it’s not a pleasant life.

How would you describe your style? Is it fine art?
I think it is. I was trained as a graphic designer. I paint oil on canvas. They’re paintings but the graphic element comes through because of the lines and the colours.

Do you think you were influenced by railway posters?
Possibly, yes. My favourite artists are people like Paul Nash. It’s very English subject matter and quite whimsical in a way. People like Eric Ravilious. There’s a lot of patterns in his work. They’re both war artists. I like the English idea of it. The Yorkshire Wolds are great and it’s a bit out of the way up here. It’s not like the Cotswolds, which everybody knows about. It’s off the beaten track and it’s got something special about it.

Do you have a favourite location in Yorkshire that the readers should visit?
I’ve done a lot of work on the erosion on the coast. That’s a fascinating area because it’s not “pretty pretty”. It’s a combination of erosion and the old wartime pillboxes and machine-gun emplacements. Old buildings have collapsed into the sea. Villages have collapsed. It’s quite an interesting area. You get these almost lunar landscapes on the beach. With the pillboxes, the cliffs and the old buildings, it merges into one, like a massive cubist installation. I find it fascinating. It’s something I ought to do a bit more of.  The Wolds is a great area. Maybe somewhere like Millington is nice, near Pocklington.

Are you able to make a living from art?
It’s hard but I’ve got a teacher’s pension.

Peter Watson in his home studio
At the coalface: Peter Watson in his Scarborough studio

What’s a Peter Watson fan like?
A fan? Ha-ha! Err, well first of all someone who’s got mining connections. Often farmers up on the Wolds. I’ve been commissioned by several farmers who want their farm recorded somehow. All sorts of people, really.

You find beauty in scenes that other people would ignore. Is this unique, do you think?
I know some people who do landscapes of the Wolds but there’s nobody done quite what I’ve done. My work’s quite detailed anyway. There are people doing more impressionistic things, which is fine, but that’s not my style. You need to have a style and keep to it.

Your style has remained constant, hasn’t it?
Yes it has, it’s just the subject matter that’s changed. I work with very fine brushes. Some of the ones of oil-seed rape are just made up of dots. I might do a couple of square inches of dots over a few hours. It’s quite therapeutic. I don’t find it boring. I put the radio on, dotting for a couple of hours. I don’t mind it and I haven’t got to think too much.

What radio station do you listen to?
Radio 6Music, I like that. I like progressive rock. I’ve got Spotify, which is great.

What bands are you into?
I’m going to see Yes next week in York, at the Barbican. Genesis, Pink Floyd, all those types. I quite like some of the modern stuff, some of the Norwegian and Swedish bands. I’m a minimalist, as it were.

If somebody wants a print or a commission from you, what would be the best way to do it – go through the website?
Yes, there’s an info thing on the website. Talking of commissions – this lady contacted me from Hong Kong. She wanted to buy a painting for her husband. He was born in Wakefield and he wants the view from his bedroom window from when he was growing up, ha-ha-ha! It’s the Wakefield countryside. That’s an interesting one.

Wakefield, the antidote to Hong Kong.
Yes, it’s good, isn’t it? Something to remind him of Wakefield.

Country To Coast, an exhibition of paintings by Peter Watson, is on at The Carriage House, Burton Constable until 8 July. burtonconstable.com

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