Brian Lewis' Brighter Outlook
Original Article featured on greenpebble.co.uk, written by Michael Charles.
When Brian Lewis first started out as a professional painter, his work did not sell sufficiently for him to live off his work. Michael Charles reports on how a series of changes has enabled this artist to turn his fortunes around.
Most people who visit Cromer or Sheringham will see Brian Lewis’s bright happy paintings of seals in boats smiling fondly at the little humans on their beach, or bus loads of seals sightseeing on the front. But few know this 62 year old, happy, financially successful artist has the heavy weight credentials of a serious prize-winning graduate of the Royal Academy; an advanced student of printing who once produced complex works based on the arcane arts of alchemists.
Brian is an artist who, in some important aspects, defies the stereotype. He enjoys using his art to make people smile, he is financially successful, he sells the vast majority of his work within a 20 mile radius of Cromer (and half of that area has no people in it). His sales not only provide him with a comfortable income, but also a pension. ‘My earlier work was a bit of an
indulgence,' he says in his enormous studio-cum -living room. ‘I wasn’t bothered with communicating, just expressing what is inside me. Now I am involved in communicating.’
More in keeping with the stereotypical artist, he lives in a bright yellow, converted chapel house called, and emblazoned in royal blue, Bees Hall. He wears brightly-coloured African leggings under a Bob Marley sarong. His hair – once long and unruly - defiantly holds on strongly to its wild nature. He expresses disapproval of the clichéd bohemian artists but admits to having fun down on the south coast near Swanage whilst working at the Grosvenor Hotel. ‘I played the harmonica and muddled in with my musician friends. Christine Perfect, who married McVee of the Chicken Shack, was a chamber maid and I went on drawing holidays to Northumberland with Top Topham of the Yard Birds.’
From a very early age, this ‘visual gannet’ as he calls himself, knew he wanted to pursue his artistic talent. At the age of 13 he started at a Hollyfield Road Secondary Modern school, unique of its time to have an ‘art’ stream, and by the time he was 18 he had started at the Guildford School of Art. Being a rural Surrey boy, he was happy to commute each day to the Royal Academy where he won a place in 1967. But at the impressionable age of 20 his work rapidly started to reflect the billboards that shouted at him on his daily commute into the big city, as well as the more aesthetic influences of the Academy (pop art and expressionistic abstract movements of the late 60s) and his own embryonic sense of the ridiculous.
In the few years after graduating from the Royal Academy with the bronze prize for painting, he exhibited with the Bircham Gallery and James Coleman Gallery and was offered a show at the Redfern Gallery. However, despite his graphic paintings being very much of the time, beautifully crafted with handmade paints on gesso boards and redolent with imagery informed by the Arts of the Alchemist by CA Burland, his paintings flopped.
‘I lost my way at the Academy,’ he tells. ‘As I travelled up from Guildford on the train, my painting became heavily influenced by all the advertising. I painted pictures such as Presenting Veritas depicting a seamless copper brooder lamp, and another picture I painted was of Black and Decker versus Crazy Foam – A Well-Known Battle of the Gods.’
To fund his dream he earned a living by organising parties, including Private Views for a leading London gallery. Gradually it dawned on him that he couldn’t get out of the Catch 22 trap he had fallen into. To start to exhibit in the top galleries he had to have exhibited in them before and, what is more, demonstrate successful sales.
Time was passing and artistic progress was non-existent, maybe even backward if one includes a short spat where he naively was abused by a crooked dealer who sold Edwardian images of great sporting events. He got married to a lady who drove a lorry to provide the much needed regular income whilst he undertook a printing course, sensing a living may lie in that direction, and taking on a derelict house for top to bottom renovation. His art bombed but the renovation of the country cottage was a complete success. His artistic eye, his capacity for work, and his country sense of practicality collaborated to help him create a sought-after residence and a spare plot with planning permission.
Debt-free, at last, he planned his next step.
In the early 1990s Brian changed his artistic style, having moved to Norfolk. Now his work started to look very similar to his current paintings, except they were not bright happy paintings but hung with impending suspense. The skies were grey or such a dark blue they foretold an imminent thunder storm. The figures were quirky but lonely rather than quirky and sociable. The buildings were jumbled but with dark cavernous windows rather than sparkling with inner warmth. His marriage blew up, ending on Christmas Eve with his wife chasing him away in her lorry.
These more intense images of Brian’s sold, but not frequently enough to constitute a comfortable living. As original paintings, they courted critical interest and respect but not the money from the critic’s pockets. Brian worked with the better local galleries in the North Norfolk area in a traditional way and again started to realise that he was in a Catch 22 bind where he received critical respect but not critical cash.
As his work on the renovation of his home had shown, he is a man who works at a problem until it is solved. Much to the amusement of professional builders, he bought second-hand floor boards to give a ‘lived in’ effect; he even used yogurt to introduce an aged, moulded look to walls and timber. Using the same careful attention to detail, he discovered that his paintings of lighter blue skies and whiter and more fluffy clouds were more appreciated than the heavier-skied versions.
About that time, some 14 years ago, Brian met his partner, Alison, a fellow artist and a keen gardener. During the time they have been together, maybe even because of it, Brian’s career has flourished into a business. He has appointed agents and fired agents, sometimes even paying them off. ‘I spend £10,000pa on advertising, have a big room to show my work from and now only sell in a few galleries’. He’s finished with doing the Birmingham card fair even though he is sure it would increase his business massively.
So he stopped applying the many glazed layers that gave the antiqued and ponderous effects to his earlier paintings; lightened and brightened his pallet; uses giclee printers to produce a few prints at a time of a series of 800, and has, as they say, never looked back. Well, with one exception; instead of following the well-trodden artist’s path of getting older and looser, his work is becoming more detailed and tighter. People so love his work, they commission him to paint famous buildings where every brick has its place.
His plans are for a series on Norwich; he feels the palette can be little less vivid for the good burghers of that city. In which case, he may find he has described a career circle and come back to the more painterly versions he did in the early 1990