Words: Jeremy Miles
Stephen Bishop holds up his palette knife and gazes intently at the distant horizon. “I love the colours you get, the light shining off the sea,” he murmurs before returning to his painting.
This Poole-based artist who featured recently on the BBC2 TV programme Show Me The Monet is in impressionistic heaven. With his easel anchored firmly into a sand-dune at Studland Bay he is doing what he loves best - enjoying an idyllic slice of coastal scenery and painting his beloved Dorset.
Bishop fell in love with the county when he was a child and his parents brought him on annual camping holidays to Langton Matravers. He moved here permanently a dozen years ago with a passion for painting landscape from nature.
Working in all weathers, he doggedly continues painting whatever the elements contrive to throw at him. In high winds he ties his easel and canvas in place with guy-ropes. In torrential rain he carries on until the oil paint no longer sticks to the canvas.
“I rather like the idea of suffering for my art.” he admits. I feel I’m paying my dues.”
Being baked by the sun and whipped by rain, wind and sand can also add some intriguing effects to his paintings.
He also calls on the rhythms of the Flamenco music he loves so much. A keen dancer who performs regularly with his girlfriend, Julie, he tells me: “It’s a really strong living art form and its rhythmical qualities and sense of composition definitely overlap with my painting. It’s all part of what I do.”
Catching the Sandbanks Ferry to work Bishop, can regularly be found painting in remote coastal locations. Sometimes it’s the Purbecks, sometimes it’s the further reaches of West Dorset.
He tells me there’s a lifetime’s work in the Dorset landscape. “It’s perhaps my one regret. I would like to explore other places but there is so much here and it is so important to me.”
He speaks of distant memories that come alive when he’s painting. “As an artist you keep a kind of childlike inquisitiveness about you and having that link of having been here as a child is all part of the process.”
Bishop says he also finds inspiration in Dorset’s association with two of his favourite novelists - Thomas Hardy and John Fowles. The overarching influences though remain his painterly heroes - masters of landscape, colour and imagination like Constable, Turner, Monet, Matisse and, perhaps above all, Van Gogh.
“Van Gogh has always been incredibly important to me. His attack, his emotion, the way he worked from nature was incredible. In fact he feels almost like a brother to me. I’ve looked at his work and read his words so many times that I feel I have a real connection with him. It certainly doesn’t seem like it’s more than 100 years since he was around.”
Bishop says he loves going to work on the ferry leaving the albeit upmarket urban sprawl of Poole and pitching up in a land that time seems to have forgotten.
“Every day I feel that I’m going into a slightly different world and of course that’s what my work is driving at - the link with nature, the link with the past.”
Bishop says he knew he wanted to be an artist from an early age. His mother it seems knew even better and apparently insisted that her son should be called Stephen with a ph rather than a v because it would look better as a signature on a canvas.
After training at the Berkshire College of Art, he worked for years as an architectural illustrator but being a slave to the demands of clients always rankled and four years ago he finally broke free and became a full-time artist.
“I wanted to be as creative as possible. I wanted the freedom to work without anyone anyone else sticking their oar in. I don’t believe in compromising and in that way I haven’t made things easy for myself but frankly I’ve never been looking for a comfy ride and I absolutely love what I’m doing now.”
He has mixed feelings about appearing on Show Me the Monet which offered the chance to submit his work to the scrutiny of three major art critics and then exhibit it at the Royal College of Art.
His obvious pride in beating 1,200 artists from across the UK to make it to the final shortlist of 90 is tempered by the fact that his work didn’t make it to the RCA.
“That was really disappointing because to be honest I approached the whole thing with the idea that if I was going to enter the competition I wanted to get through to the final. It would have been a brilliant platform for my work.
“At the end of the day though the judges were looking at my painting for a matter of minutes and having to make a decision. I think my work takes a little while to have a conversation with people.”
Stephen is convinced that the exercise was good business strategy: “I’m quite a solitary figure. I work on my own. I think the programme was extremely valuable for someone like me in learning how you handle press and Tv. To actually have critics giving an opinion on your work, having several cameras trained on you and having to respond instantly was a very useful experience.It will put me in a good place to deal with this kind of thing in the future.”
*Paintings by Stephen Bishop can be seen in exhibition at Eype Centre for the Arts near Bridport from June 4th to June 19. Annual solo exhibition.