The following interview with Ron Atkin was taken by John Lane an artist, a worldwide art lecturer and author of 10 books on art. They have been constructed from tape recordings. At the time John Lane was a trustee at the.Dartington Hall in South Devon England.

"We can exist without art, but we cannot live without it."

JL Can you tell me when you started painting? - At what age?

RA. Yes, when I was twelve, the person that really inspired me to paint, was my father. My mother had been shopping and had brought back some oranges in a paper bag. On this particular evening I was painting in a sketch book at the table, he picked up the empty paper bag and said "come and look at this paper bag", he pointed out the colours in the white of the bag and it was such a revelation - like a cave full of jewels, then from that day I was hooked on painting.

My Cave

JL. You painted a lot after that?

RA. After that it was non - stop.

JL. You were twelve when you started (the earliest drawing reproduced 1949 aged twelve called "Camp Fire in the Wood") of trees. Do you know why it was of trees?

Pencil drawing age 12.

RA Yes - I was born in the country and yet lived most of my life in the town.

JL. How rural was it?

RA. Not too far way from the house where I was born was Charnwood Forest which is an ancient granite outcrop. Geologically there is nothing like it anywhere in England. It is less a forest than a range of rugged granite hills, and has been described as a piece of Wales, which has been taken up and set down in the green heart of Leicestershire. Certainly this is not a bad description, for though none of its summits reach a thousand feet it has all the characteristics of a mountain range in miniature; here you will find rocky gorges, hills crowned by spectacular crags, dark lakes and woods. Also a few miles away from where I was born was Coleorton Hall, whose owners are one of the few English families who can really trace their family history back to the Norman Conquest. The present building is a handsome nineteenth-century house in the classical style. It is rich in literary and artistic associations, for Sir George Beaumont (who was one of the founders of the National Gallery) delighted in the society of writers and artists. There came Byron, Constable, Scott, and Southey while to Wordsworth it was almost a second home.

D.H. Lawrence, was born not far from my roots of Charnwood, in the coal mining town of Eastwood, Nottinghamshire. (My grandfather was in his youth a 'coal face miner).The house in which he was born, in Eastwood, 8a Victoria Street, is now the D.H. Lawrence Birthplace Museum. His working class background and the tensions between his parents provided the raw material for a number of his early works. Lawrence would return to this locality, which he was to call "the country of my heart," as a setting for much of his fiction. (See his death bed experience later.)

The rocks that help form the craggy landscape of Charnwood Forest, much of them volcanic in origin, have given up many important archeological specimens. There’s even a fossilised species called Charnia masoni. The prehistoric plant is named after the forest where it was found and the schoolboy Roger Mason who discovered it in a quarry there in 1957.

Charnwood.

JL. Did you go walking on this ancient granite outcrop?

RA. Yes.

JL. Did you observe any specific visual influences at that time, like comics?

RA. Yes - comics I enjoyed reading. As a child I was very much impressed by a book of Fairy Tales, published by Hutchinson's and illustrated in colour by W.H. Cobb, and "The Old Fairy Tales" illustrated by Lillian A.Govey, published by Nelson.

W.H. Cobb

JL. What was the teaching like at school?

RA At Loughborough College of Art?

JL. No I meant before that, prior to that you left school at sixteen. Up to the age of sixteen what was the art teaching like, was that significant?

RA. No. Except for the forsight of one teacher Jumbo Dennis. Who arranged for me to attend the L.C. of Art, part time.

JL. You were really self-taught?

RA. I was more taught by my father than the actual schools. He went to the Leicester College of Art in the twenties and did mainly watercolours.

JL. But I thought he was a grainer.

RA No not at that time - later he went to the commercial side of art and became a brilliant grainer, marbler, signwriter and glass guilder. Which may sound rather prosaic - but if one remembers that artists like Hogarth and Sir John Millais P.R.A.also painted signs: This gives it a new ambiance.

JL. He was serious, but what you might call an amateur painter.

RA. Not amateur - simply not recognised at the right time, the 1920/30s were not the best time for anyone in the arts; dole queues do not exactly inspire a career in art.

JL. What sort of pictures?

RA. Landscapes and still-life. (See his Watercolour 'Prince' ).

Prince.

JL. Landscapes in a sort of twenties style. How interesting. So that was probably the prominent influence.

RA. Indeed it was - though his vision was more academic he considered becoming an R.A. The ultimate accolade - that is the Royal Academy of the thirties - not today. Since this interview a number of artists like Damien Hirst and David Hockney have entered the RA.

JL. And did he encourage you or discourage you?

RA. I wouldn't say he encouraged me at all. My mother did the encouraging. He inspired me to see and paint but not to take it up as a career.

JL. Do you feel that at that time you had anything that could be described as a personal vision? Or do you think you were influenced by the prevailing ideas at the time?

RA. Probably the first and strongest influence in my early years at Loughborough College of Art was Samuel Palmers "Bright Cloud" (a reproduction was hanging in the studio at Loughborough) also Renoir, Cézanne, Degas and Ben Nicholson's father, Sir William Nicholson. This Nicholson influence is evident in my still-life painting "Mushrooms, Onion and Knife". I think by the late fifties an early personal vision was forming.

Age about 17. Oil on my own prepared canvas 14"x18".

JL. What was that then - can you put it into words?

RA. Yes as regard line - graining and the lettering side of my fathers influence was gradually coming through.

JL. Could you show me one of these? Would it be on this page?

RA. Yes its in "Garden Allotments".

JL. Oh I see.

RA. That's the beginning of line, you see the grasses forming. Almost like graining.

JL. It might be helpful RA. Can we go right back to something - you were born in the countryside, what age were you when you left?

RA. Two years of age.

RA. At two I went to Loughborough to actually live in the town for most of the year, but for the summer holidays I returned for six weeks to the country.

JL. So those six weeks were very important.

RA. Vital, yes absolutely, like a root.

JL. Why was it so important?

RA. It's difficult to explain - I think the peace of the country compared with the town was so refreshing that I came back filled with a sense of wonder, after living for nine months in the town.

JL. So you had a spiritual affinity with the countryside which you never had with the town.

RA. No I wouldn't say that, in the town one experienced the people. In the country I experienced the growth of the trees and the wind, sun and air which were like two points of the same energy but seen from two different directions.

JL. Do you think that your appreciation of the country was all the keener because you lived in town?

RA. Yes definitely, there is no doubt about it.

JL. Because your work is predominately pastoral isn't it lyrical and pastoral?

I used to drive this old Fordson tractor when I was a kid! Helping to get the harvest in.Great days!

RA. Yes.

This oil on board 14"x 18"was painted when I was eighteen too. I think you will agree it has a 'wholenss' similar to the 30"x 25" oil on canvas of my grandfather. I show this as he was a friend of my brother in the 1950s. Perhaps you will also agree it shows 'LOVE' for paint and painting. NOT directly love for a grandson for his grandfather! It went on tour of the UK in 1960.

Geof Ellis Oil on board, 14"x 18"

JL. In a way you went from - how long were you at Loughborough?

RA. Three years at Loughborough College of Art.

JL. And then you did the National Diploma.

RA. That's right.

JL. And from there you went on a scholarship to The Royal Academy Schools for four years in London. So what was the London experience, as an experience like - before we talk about the art school?

RA. The actual experience of living in London.

JL. You had digs in London?

RA. Yes - initially London had no direct influence except that after the first term my Grandmother thought I was starving myself to death, so she paid my train fare, so that I could return at weekends. This kept me in touch with my roots. I think these regular weekend journeys on steam trains were later to influence my paintings - particularly the structure of them. The images that flashed on to the retina as the train sped on, acted like the shutter of a camera. Six or seven of these views would later appear in one painting.

JL. Were you unhappy there?

RA. No I wasn't unhappy at all. I wasn't eating properly and so I was beginning to waste away or the family thought I was.

JL. If you had your life again would you do this. Would you go back to London?

RA. Yes.

JL. You would - you don't regret that?

RA. No regrets.

JL. You don't think you were contaminated by false visual influences and all that?

RA. No.

JL. When did you paint the plate of mushrooms?

RA. That was painted in 1956 and at Loughborough. At the time I remember there was a small earthquake which travelled down the Pennines and shook the mushrooms on the table.

JL. So these are all Loughborough pictures?

JL. "Harvest by a river", the pen and ink drawing of the house where you were born. "Loughborough Public Library". Portraits of your grandparents, mushrooms, windmill and begonias. These were pre Royal Academy? And these are Academy pictures are they? - "Garden Allotments", "Hollyhocks and Honesty" and "Chrysanthemums"?

Honesty

RA. "Chrysanthemums" was exhibited at the R.A. Summer Exhibition 1960.

JL. So there is a considerable stylistic shift here isn't there?

RA. It's changing.

JL. I mean these look like art school pictures in one sense.

RA. In one sense, but there's a new kind of seeing taking place - there's more poetry.

JL. They remind me of two things, one the Hop Paintings of Townsend - are you familiar with them?

RA. No.

JL. Oh yes, he did paintings of Hop Pickers in Kent.

RA. If there were any influence I would say it came from Alan Reynolds.

Garden Allotments Oil on canvas 1959

 

"To create a work of art is to create a world - to approach nature from
within - not without. "Art" is mute only for those who are not prepared to
listen to the form. This is true not only of abstract art, but of all art, even the
most realistic" - Kandinsky.

 

 

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