By Jeremy Miles
One thing you quickly learn about Dorset artist Brian Graham is that he’s a great enthusiast. His paintings are powerful and emotive landscapes, evocations of the scars left by long past habitation. They are inspired by years of visiting ancient sites, studying geological patterns and archeological artifacts.
The things that excite him are the old flints, stones, arrowheads, fragments of long forgotten lives that he collects on his regular walks along the Purbeck coast.
This gently spoken 64-year-old regularly returns home with pockets full of fantastical objects, wondering at the stories they could tell. The home he shares with his wife Carol overlooks Swanage with glimpses of towering cliffs and the sea. It’s like a particularly homely gallery containing a wonder-world of fascinating flotsam, bits of old sea-defences, intriguing pieces of driftwood. There’s even a dolphin’s skull hanging on the kitchen wall.
I was therefore not particularly surprised when I walked into Graham’s Swanage studio a couple of years ago and he was cheerfully brandishing an axe. Not just any axe you understand. This was a half-a-million year-old hand-axe once used for slaughtering and skinning animals like the great woolly rhinoceroses that once bestrode the south coast of prehistoric England. The flint hand-tool was a gift from the archaeologists in charge of the famous Boxgrove dig. It’s a trophy he keeps with pride, a direct reminder of what his art is all about – the clues left on our landscape by the ancient past. His piercing eyes sparkle with delight under a luxurious shock of grey hair as he talks about it.
Strangely perhaps Graham’s paintings are often described as abstract. More often though they deal with the figurative reality of marks on the physical landscape left by flood, fire, ice, earthquakes, meteor storms, and of course, man. Any single canvas might portray a sweeping range of towering cliffs or a tiny detail on the side of a pebble. With a penchant for changing scale and a little imagination and intelligent guesswork thrown in for good measure, Graham manages to produce works that seem imbued with a solid honesty about the nature and history of landscape.
They work simply as fine paintings of course (and sell extremely well, usually through his London gallery (The Hart Gallery in Islington) but they have also attracted the attention of some of Britain’s leading archeologists and geologists - the intellectual elite who work literally at the rock-face of our country’s prehistoric digs. In Graham they have found someone who not only intuitively understands the fundamentals of their discipline but has also discovered a way to tell a greater truth about the distant past.
Brian Graham cut his artistic teeth painting places like Hengistbury Head, a favourite haunt when he lived in Bournemouth 20 plus years ago. “What I was so excited about at Hengistbury - stories of reindeer hunters’ camps and so on - was happening 11,500 maybe 12,000 years ago. That’s like yesterday compared with what I’ve been looking at recently.” Even his 500,000 year old hand-axe is beginning to look relatively modern. Earlier this year research teams revealed that they have uncovered remains that revolutionise the way we think about the early human colonisation of Northern Europe.
At Happisburgh in Norfolk evidence has been found of human habitation nearly a million years ago. Graham, who visited the project team on-site, says he is particularly fascinated by the discovery of relics from a pre-Neanderthal race who may even belonged to a different species. “I love the idea of our connection to these people, our shared humanity. “I want to know who we are, where we have come from and what we are all about."
His latest project has taken him to 33 different sites around the country. Called Starting From Scratch, it also bears the lengthy but descriptive subtitle: ‘Site-specific paintings that consider aspects of human activity from Britain’s ancient past’. It led to Graham producing a painting representing each location.
Some of the sites were astonishingly rich in the information they had to yield. Others, he says, were a little more challenging. He instances a dig in Ipswich. “There’s really nothing there now except a housing estate and light industry. “So I went to the local museum and looked at their collection of 400,000-year-old hand-axes to help me imagine what life was like.”
Back home in Dorset he shows me the paintings - a remarkable body of work. There are already major exhibitions lined up in Cardiff and Colchester (late 2011 and early 2012) and almost certainly more to follow.
Professor Clive Gamble, a pre-eminent expert in the evolution of human society, said of Graham: “He shows a way of looking that is beyond the academic procedure. I think he believes that to look at the ancient past you need to take all points of view on board.”
Graham looks at his works and nods: “I think maybe my paintings do touch a nerve in that way,” he agrees. They certainly do. He uses variations of scale, ancient and contemporary imagery that indicate passing millennia and his powerful canvases are scored, gouged and scratched to underline the ravages of time.
Brian Graham’s research may take him far and wide but his heart and soul belong in Dorset. He remembers the joys of playing in the family garden in Poole in the late 1940’s and early 1950s. “I was lucky enough to have a childhood where I had a huge garden with a stream running through it. I remember digging and building camps. Even then I used to love finding different coloured stones. When I think about it now I realise that my childhood play became my adult fascination.”
At school in Poole it was soon recognised that he was good at art. He was advised to become a commercial artist. He’s glad he did.
“I spent years working in marketing. Maybe it wasn’t particularly what I wanted to do but it was invaluable experience. It’s served me well.”
He has remained absolutely loyal to his home county and says he could never imagine living anywhere else. For many years he has been a fine art consultant to Bournemouth University and two years ago was rewarded with an honorary doctorate.
He tells me that the greatest joy of exploring Britain’s pre-history is in the certain knowledge that there are thousands of undiscovered treasures, every one of which can make the scientists gasp in amazement. “Every time they find something new it throws everything into disarray. It’s so exciting. I’m certainly not drawing any conclusions with my paintings. I’m presenting evidence and allowing people to muse on it.”
*For more information about Brian Graham go to www.hartgallery.co.uk
Pix: Hattie Miles
By Jeremy Miles
Artist Brian Graham is standing in his Swanage studio brandishing an axe. Not just any axe mind you. This one is half-a-million years old and was once used for slaughtering and skinning rhinoceros in the wilds of what is now genteel West Sussex.
For Graham this flint hand-tool, given to him by the archaeologist in charge of the famous Boxgrove dig, is a trophy that has a rare resonance. It engages directly with what his art is all about – the clues left on our landscape by the prehistoric past.
His powerful and often highly emotive paintings are routinely described as abstract. In fact more often than not they deal with the figurative reality of scars on the land. Marks on our physical landscape created by ice-ages, landslides, flood, fire, meteorites, and of course, man.
Any single canvas might deal with an entire cliff-side or simply the scored surface of a pebble. Whether playing with scale, mixing things up or telling it like it is Graham’s extraordinary paintings deal with over-arching sense of reality that has succeeded in chiming with both the art establishment and the world of archaeology and geology.
On one level they work simply as paint on canvas while on another they impress academics and scientists who can see that Graham intuitively understands the fundamentals of their discipline.
What makes this remarkable is that 62-year-old Poole-born Graham is a largely self-taught artist who spent years working in advertising in the Bournemouth and Christchurch areas before, in his own words "breaking free" and moving with his wife, Carol, to Swanage and life as a full-time artist,
His success over the past decade and a half has been quietly spectacular. He exhibits internationally and his works - many of which are in important public and private collections - sell for the kind of sums that he once wouldn’t have dared dream of. For the past 10 years he has been represented by the prestigious Hart Gallery in London’s Islington, a platform that has provided the springboard necessary to make a break from his initial reputation as someone who was simply a Dorset artist.
Graham, who will collect an honorary doctorate from Bournemouth University on Thursday, says: "I’m still known by many people as a Purbeck painter and certainly when I moved here to Swanage I was so seduced by the place that I just had to paint it.”
But he points out that he has long been interested in the pre-historic past and that – after a flurry of activity centred almost entirely on his immediate environment – that passion returned, sending him to Bronze Age and Neolithic sites exploring further and further back in time.
His more recent research has taken him not only to Boxgrove but to many other digs including Swanscombe in Kent and a project in Norfolk that has unearthed relics from a staggering 700,000 years ago – the oldest evidence of human activity ever found north of the Alps.
"These incredibly ancient things that were coming out of quarries really fired my imagination," says Graham. "I gradually became fascinated by these pieces of evidence of past habitation. There was something about the terrain and the places where these things were found that felt so un-English, it almost related to Africa. Most importantly though it gave me material and made me want to paint. When you’re digging away and going down through the layers the colour changes are so exhilarating."
He says he’s particularly fascinated by relics of a pre-Neanderthal race who it is believed inhabited the earth up to three-quarters of a million years ago.
"I love the idea of our connection to these people and – even if they were actually a different species – our shared humanity. Textraordinary it is that, as a people, we have survived so much and evolved in some way from that."
Graham says simply that his motivation as an artist is driven by "a fundamental desire to know who we are, where we have come from and what we are all about."
He admits he uses his background in advertising and marketing to promote his career and design his exhibitions, saying: "When I first made the break I didn’t want to have anything to do with my former life in graphics and advertising but why throw away a lifetime’s learning? I soon realised that my background could be very useful. It taught me how to organise my time and how to get the balance right between the discipline of the business side of things and the freedom of being a painter."
But make no mistake, the two are inextricably linked in Brian Graham’s world. He takes the business of being a painter very seriously indeed. Showing me some remarkable new works he is painting for a planned exhibition at the Hart Gallery next year, he told me: "I’m dealing with a very important issue here. It is in no way flippant, frivolous or decorative. It’s core stuff."