Words: Jeremy Miles
It is now more than 20 years since painter and printmaker Martyn Brewster first arrived in Bournemouth as a visiting lecturer at the old Arts Institute.
He says he knew very quickly that Dorset with its mix of coast, country and urban vitality was the place for him. It was at once both ancient and modern and, best all, often bathed in beautiful light.
Based in London at the time, he set about trying to find a house with a suitable studio space and, in 1990, found the perfect location. Tucked away in Southbourne, it was close to town but just a ten minute stroll to the cliff-top. The real-selling point though was the very thing that had deterred a number of other potential buyers.
The place had once been part of an undertakers business and at the bottom of the garden stood a two storey brick-built coffin-maker’s workshop.
“It was exactly what I was looking for. The perfect working space,” says Brewster, as he shows me the stained-glass windows that still give a clue to his studio’s curious history.”
In fact it proved such a perfect space that 20 years after he moved to this Bournemouth suburb, he says he really can’t imagine working anywhere else.
We are talking in advance of this year’s Dorset Art Weeks, an event that will showcase the work of artists from all over the county from May 29 until June 13.
For though he routinely exhibits internationally, Brewster also enjoys showing his work locally. During Dorset Art Weeks 2010 he will be exhibiting at The Art House Gallery in Bournemouth Square in a group exhibition with fellow painters Teresa Lawton , Brian Bishop and Bonnie Brown and also showing alongside contemporary furniture designer Simon Thomas Pirie at The Courtyard Workshop at Rogers Hill Farm, Briantspuddle.
Meanwhile a current exhibition featuring Brewster’s work is running at the Walford Mill Craft Centre in Wimborne until May 16.
Martyn Brewster maintains that living in Dorset has been crucial to the development of the colourful and atmospheric abstracts and landscape studies. These can be found in private and public collections across the globe with his bigger paintings frequently changing hands for more than £8,000 a time.
On home ground however he tends to concentrate on slightly more affordable fare.
“Dorset has been very important to me,” he says. “I consciously moved out of London and I consciously moved to somewhere that was very close to the sea. I wanted a place where I could paint and make prints but also go for walks and absorb the atmosphere of the countryside and all the subtleties you get in nature.”
Dorset he says provides everything he requires. Although most of his works, whether dazzling oil paintings or the highly sought-after silkscreen mono-prints he is becoming increasingly well-known for, are produced in the studio, he spends many days walking the coast path with a sketchbook.
“I’ve drawn all along the Dorset coast. It’s something I do just because I enjoy it but an awful lot of that stuff has fed into my work.”
For a number of years Brewster concentrated almost entirely on landscape-based work and it is an area he returns to constantly.
But he stresses that labels like ‘landscape painter’ or ‘abstract painter’ are unimportant. “My work is about developing ideas and being true to what I want to do.”
In pursuit of that truth Brewster, now 58, has often found himself at odds with prevailing artistic fashions. At art college in Brighton in the early 1970s he concentrated on painting when all around him were exploring conceptualism and installation-based work.
“ I have always been interested in what is happening in contemporary art but the only skills I have ever really been interested in practicing have been painting, print-making and drawing.”
Inevitably perhaps at the point where he decided to make purely abstract works everyone else suddenly started getting excited by the notion of a figurative revival.”
Brewster shrugs. These things don’t concern him. “I’m more interested in scale, colour and lyrical and evocative qualities.”
Some of his work, particularly the drawings, are fairly representational. Others contain inferences of things like the sea or the sky but many have no obvious figurative reference points at all.
“All you can do is explore ideas and for me most ideas come through the act of actually applying paint to canvas or whatever. They come through skills that develop. For intance the feeling for colour comes through using colour, not from a theory or using a paint chart.”
Brewster admits that, even though he has long sold regularly through his London gallery, exhibited widely across the UK and at art fairs in places like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, it took him years to accept that he really was a serious professional painter.
“The notion that you’ can be a serious artist when you’re still at art college or have only just left seems ridiculous to me but of course that’s what’s happened
“In the past 30 or 40 years the whole notion of fine art has changed dramatically. Being a painter like me - and there are thousands of good painters who just quietly get on with their work - is completely different from being an artist in the contemporary art world which is all about marketing and personality.
“We never had that at art school. No one talked about marketing. We just tried to learn a craft knowing that we would have to go on learning it for many, many years in order to get good at it.”
Having said that he has no problem with the rising stars who get lucky. “The contemporary market has opened up to such a degree now that with the right dealer you can be like a pop star with incredible fame and riches. Good luck to them, but that isn’t the tradition I come from, the tradition of the serious painter who spends a lifetime developing their art. It’s a different world.”
*During Dorset Art Weeks 2010 (May 29 to June 13) Martyn Brewster will be exhibiting at The Art House Gallery in Bourne Avenue, The Square, Bournemouth BH2 6DP. Contact 01202 555131 or www.thearthousegallery.org and also at Simon Thomas Pirie’s Courtyard Workshop, Rogers Hill Farm, Briantspuddle, Bere Regis BH16 6HT.
Words: Jeremy Miles
MARTYN Brewster stands in his Bournemouth studio, bathed in a shaft of winter sunshine that is streaming through the window. Around him are paintings and prints; their vibrant, saturated colours glowing with compelling luminosity in this natural spotlight.
It's perhaps the perfect setting to talk about his work. The studio, at the bottom of Brewster's garden, is where he has produced a stunning body of work for the best part of two decades.
It was the presence of this workspace, just yards from the back door of the property he was viewing, that convinced Brewster to buy his house in the back-streets of Southbourne back in the late 1980s.
Not only was it exactly what he'd been looking for but, by a stroke of luck, it proved remarkably easy to snap up. Other prospective buyers had been put off by its one-time use as a chapel of rest and coffin-making workshop.
For Brewster, who was moving from London to the coast, it would prove the perfect base from which to work on his instantly recognisable paintings and silkscreen mono-prints.
He's quite proud of his studio's rather interesting history. "Look, there's still some stained glass in the windows," he says. Beneath those windows lies his print-making space. Up a flight of wooden steps is his painting studio. Both, though battered, scuffed and paint-spattered, are painstakingly organised. Such preparation has helped pay dividends.
Praised both nationally and internationally, his works are, with occasional exceptions, brilliantly colourful abstracts. Despite a primary palette in which red, yellow and blue (especially blue) feature again and again, they show extraordinary subtlety and maturity.
For Brewster's art may utilise what for many are the colours of the playroom, but make no mistake, they are seriously grown-up works. They're exhibited worldwide, lauded by critics and prized by collectors. Many of his larger paintings sell for five-figure sums.
Whether big and bold, or on a smaller scale, Brewster's works invariably show an intuitive painterly intelligence which has been honed by years of study, practice and application into something extraordinary and unique.
A loner at art college, he started this journey, which has ignored fashion and trend, when still in his early 20s. Now in his mid 50s, he is regarded as one of the most extraordinary talents of his generation.
Although inspired by landscape and nature - it is the English tradition of Constable and Turner that lies at the root of Brewster's artistic quest - his paintings tend to have more obvious visual links with abstract expressionism.
As a printmaker, however, he has moved into another realm. Analysing Brewster's work is no easy task. It really does speak for itself.
This point is made far more eloquently than I could put it in an exceptional new book called simply Martyn Brewster Prints 1975 - 2007. Apart from stunning reproductions, this high-quality publication contains insightful essays by artist, musician and writer Vivienne Light, and the former director of Bournemouth's Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum, Simon Olding.
Light believes Brewster's works to be "irreducible" saying: "They stand for themselves they possess a rhythmic, physical life of their own."
Olding likens them to the mood and sound of improvised jazz, and speaks of their "material warmth" and "deep romantic sensibility". They are both spot on. Martyn Brewster's art is poetic, evocative and, though utterly unique, seems instantly recognisable.
Brewster himself is delighted with the book, designed by his brother Simon. After months of painstaking work alongside specialist publishers Canterton Books, he says he couldn't be more pleased with the quality of reproduction, and feels the publication provides a telling overview of the development of his printmaking over the past three decades.
"It's interesting to see the things you didn't necessarily notice at the time. The twists, the turns, where things have moved on, the good decisions and some of the experiments that didn't work."
Examining the colour plates, he reminds me once again of where his work has come from. "Landscape, nature and living by the sea," he says decisively. "The coastline and places like the New Forest provoke a strong emotional response."
He gestured towards his paintings and prints. "In a very subtle way it's all there”