May 06 Devon Life
Peter Stiles paints landscapes, which are based on the countryside around a small coastal village on the border of North Devon and Cornwall, called Welcombe. He studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London before leaving in 1980 to settle in Welcombe where, in those far off days, he was able to rent a cottage by the sea for £10 and to support the erratic income generated by sales with a variety of labouring jobs. Since then he has shown widely, chiefly in London and Devon, but also in Salford, Glasgow and Bristol. Despite moving inland some ten years ago, he still makes the half-hour drive to Welcombe in order to begin his paintings – which are now finished in the studio.
We arrange to meet on Welcombe beach, which provides the setting for many of Peter’s compositions – with the intention of walking up the coast towards Hartland Quay. Peter’s pictures of this beach are generally painted in the summer and show blue skies, sunbathers and swimmers. Today a fluorescent tube of white surf hangs from the horizon and shines against the slate grey sea and darker sky. The low clouds promise rain and after nipping back to the car to put on my waterproofs, we begin the gruelling ascent up the steep sides of the valley that runs down to the beach.
The children playing on the sands exposed by the low tide trigger a discussion around the similarities between painting and football. In both you have to make rapid spatial calculations instinctively and to integrate different kinds of intelligence. This integration of different layers of consciousness is part of what distinguishes a work of art from an idea.
After we have finished climbing, we come across some of his painting places – pools of trampled mud among the gorse (spattered with small globules of dry oil paint) from which we turn to view the stacks of crumbling mudstone, stained with iron ore and splashed with lichen, that ascend to heights of over 150 metres. These are some of the tallest cliffs in England and render millions of years, concrete and visible.
One challenge of painting cliff scenes is to give the sense of looking down as well as into the distance, to let the space within the picture curve up from the waves beneath you, up to the furthest point on the horizon. Today the furthest headlands are barely visible but I am assured that on clear days Penwith can be seen as a faint blue smear on the horizon. He says that the sight of such huge distances reminds him of the things that used to keep him awake as a kid; the thought of time without beginning or end or the fact that anything exists -instead of nothing at all.
It’s easy to lose your sense of the scale if you are transferring these vast distances onto the small flat surface of a picture. Sometimes Peter watches the birds, drawing imaginary lines through the great bowl of space created by the cliffs. He will watch a bird heading for the cliffs and wait to see how long it takes the bird to reach its destination.
Every now and again someone makes their way down to the beach and comparing the tiny figure on the beach to the height of the cliffs is always slightly shocking.
It is easy to see why anyone would wish to paint pictures of this dramatic stretch of coastline but I ask Peter why he still continues to paint all his pictures here, when there must be possible subjects closer to home.
The kind of painting that he does is not concerned with recording features of the landscape accurately. He uses elements taken from the landscape in order to make a composition, allowing the eye to find patterns of repeated shapes and colours that relate to the landscape but do not describe it. Like a jazz musician, he has to know the theme around which he is improvising and twenty five years of looking at this landscape helps a lot.
The familiarity is not only physical. The places that he paints act as a store of memories and anecdotes from which he can draw the threads of emotion and sensation that he needs in order to weave the fabric of his work
He remembers a woman once telling him that she was watching her children swimming in the sea from this vantage point and saw three basking sharks moving towards them through the translucent water. Despite her knowledge that the basking sharks were completely harmless, she found it difficult to repress a mounting hysteria.
The cliffs are full of stories; the boys who were sent out to collect gulls eggs during the war, the farmers who carried wardrobes from wrecked ships up the treacherous slopes and the fallen sheep rescued in the moonlight. It is a notorious coast for shipwrecks and as we continue our walk we can see the remains of ships scattered amongst the rocks below us.
The wind and the rain are getting stronger. The changeability of the light on this coast is partly what attracts painters but there is a downside to such variety. Peter remembers taking a large canvas to the edge of the cliff in a morning of light winds and blue skies and returning in the afternoon, pushing the canvas along the ground inch by inch, on his hands and knees in torrential rain and a wind that ripped the picture out of his hands every time he tried to stand up with it.
We can see the white walls of the pub at Hartland Quay in the distance but decide to turn back, through the now horizontal rain, to the safety of our cars.
He knows that landscape painting is sometimes seen as a rather conservative option for artists. However he thinks that the urge to paint landscapes, whether as a professional or amateur, can often stem from radical non-conformist traditions – the individual’s desire to find meaning in the world or communicate with God without mediation from Church or State. He thinks that a focus on the natural world, choosing landscapes on which man’s impact has been minimal, is part of people’s desire to place themselves outside their position in society’s hierarchy. Mind you, a walk in the driving rain along the cliff tops goes some way to rediscovering our basic nature – as does the blessed relief of the rain hammering against the windshield of your car.