When he died in July 2015 Hexham-based painter, printmaker and illustrator Brian Waters was working towards a retrospective of his work. Characteristically, many of the works exhibited were to be new, some of these continuing his 35 year documentation of a decaying pier in a Scottish sea-loch which had originally been used for the export of cannonballs from Bonawe furnace during the Napoleonic War. This website is a documentation and continuation of the far larger exhibition, organized to celebrate Brian’s life, which was curated in place of his more modestly planned retrospective. This exhibition, 'The Pattern of Things', which ran from 27 February - 9 April 2016 included both new and old works based on Kelly’s Pier, along with drawings and paintings reflecting his love of the work of Samuel Palmer, Eric Ravilious, Graham Sutherland, and his mentor and occasional teacher John Nash.
A native of Leeds, Brian Waters initially trained as an illustrator at Leeds College of Art in the early 1950s. In 1964 he moved north with his family to lecture in art, having expanded his visual and technical vocabulary to take in painting, photography and printmaking, and he lived and worked in Tynedale for over fifty years. Of his early years, Brian has written:
I became an art student when, as an un-focused school boy, having just achieved a moderate school certificate and having been labelled ‘Not Wanted in the Sixth Form’, my uncle, Frank Lisle, a pre-WW2 Royal College of Art graduate suggested I should take a folio of work to Leeds College of Art. He went on to tutor David Hockney at Bradford. My more modest career led me to teach Class 3E in Leeds - a scarring experience - and subsequently to lecture in the Art Department at Northumberland College of Higher Education.
'The Pattern of Things' was Brian’s second one-man show to be hosted by the Queen’s Hall Arts Centre in Hexham, Northumberland, a building he had been instrumental in guiding in its change to become a cultural centre for the Tynedale region. The previous exhibition, in 2010, celebrated his 80th birthday, and consisted primarily of recent work, mixing painting and photography, included a number of works based on the theme of Kelly’s Pier, a decaying eighteenth-century structure on Loch Etive near the village of Taynuilt in Argyll. The later show had a deliberately broader reach, extending back to pieces from 1952 which, in Waters’s words:
reflect the early fifties gloom of Leeds during my student years - years when students in the School of Painting, at the end of the day's work, would mix any remaining paint on the palette into a non-colour which became known as ‘palette drab’, and was used to start the next day’s inevitable painting of Leeds Market Buildings. Those of us in the Design School training to be book illustrators had a little more freedom and perhaps took more liberties with colour.
Waters continued painting until well into 2015, extending the Kelly’s Pier series of paintings, and beginning another mammoth project, 'Northumberland in Winter', which drew on an earlier sequence of 249 minute monochrome sketches made in planning an audio-visual presentation - 'A Winter Landscape', selecting some of these for development in gouache, his favourite medium. The sketches, which he wished, poetically but impractically, to be exhibited in a continuous narrow band around the gallery, will I hope (once I work out how to do so) be presented here in a continuous carousel, viewable as he had always hoped they might be. They will be juxtaposed with the completed first twelve of the projected 'Winter' series, which stemmed from them. For now, here's an image of the Winter sketches in situ in the exhibition.
There were paintings in the show which made explicit Brian's interests in, and fascinations for the work of other artists. With characteristic self-deprecation he has written:
Looking back now I marvel at how little I knew and learned as a student. How, for example, did I manage to spend five years without having heard of Atkinson Grimshaw, a wonderful Victorian painter of the moon- and lamp-lit wet streets in Leeds, and who also actually lived there not so many years before me.
It is difficult to identify exactly which artists have influenced one’s work but I readily acknowledge an early passion for Samuel Palmer which has stayed with me, and subsequently for the early Pembrokeshire work of Graham Sutherland. Cotman and the English watercolour school were important too, of course, and a recent discovery, for me, has been Thomas Jones - the strangely modern eighteenth-century Welsh painter of Neapolitan back yards. A visit to the V&A must include a visit to the miniatures of Nicholas Hillyard and Isaac Oliver. Whatever my influences are, it is obvious that I am somewhere rooted in the English Romantic tradition.
His earlier drawings, some of which were used as illustrations for The Dalesman magazine, show his interest in the illustrative work of Leonard Rosoman (who taught Hockney at the RCA). The two ink drawings in the show, probably from the late 1950s, are examples of this style. Aspects of this style resurfaced when Waters, having retired early from lecturing, worked for the National Parks office on book design and illustration.
One surprise when curating the exhibition was the discovery of a letter recounting Waters’ experiences studying botanical illustration with war artist John Nash at Flatford Mill in 1957. The letter recounts that they went to visit Sir Cedric Morris’s Hadleigh garden, where Morris gave Waters a red Sempervivum plant which is still growing in Hexham. The painting which provoked the gift of the plant, and another of a Marsh Marigold which provoked comments from Nash remembered as sharp and relevant, are both shown here for the first time, as is the text, in Waters’ highly characteristic italic hand, in which he remembers the incident.
Sheer volume precluded the inclusion in the exhibition of the printmaking phase of his work - predominantly from the mid 60s and 1970s - which also coincided with his decision (aided by antique dealer Roger Freer) to persuade Hexham Council to allow him to convert the Moot Hall (arguably Hexham’s most iconic secular building) into an art gallery. Many exhibitions were held there, and the gallery also became an important centre for contemporary poetry, attracting figures such as Norman MacCaig and Basil Bunting to present their work. Writing to the Hexham Courant on 15 July 1966 Waters points out to a less-than-enthusiastic councillor that:
the first five exhibitions which have been held have opened up the Moot Hall to nearly five thousand residents and visitors. Over one thousand five hundred people have visited the current show in its first eleven days, including visitors from Norway, New Zealand and California.
Insofar as the retrospective exhibition had themes, these were broadly determined by Waters’ recent work, or by his recurrent interests. Paintings of plants and foliage were juxtaposed irrespective of period; a series of early works in various media were presented together, the aforementioned Winter series was exhibited as a group; and likewise some of the Kelly’s Pier project, including unexhibited recent paintings, was presented as a coherent group. The other paintings shown visited familiar landscapes or rock formations, but were less closely linked. A representation of a small selection of the Kelly's Pier work is visible in the slideshow (see menu above).
The tension between illustration and painting is a useful one, and the paradoxical freedoms it brings (alluded to above) have allowed many to transcend the supposedly lower status of the former, the Nash brothers, Eric Ravilious, Leonard Rosoman, and Clifford and Rosemary Ellis being but some examples of this. Brian Waters was always aware of his initial training as an illustrator. Despite the implicit disclaimer in this final quote, his work was at its best when he allowed it to simultaneously celebrate both illustration and painterliness. We hope you find examples of this on the website:
Although I refer to my work here as painting, it is, I should probably acknowledge, more likely to be considered illustration. An illustrator is what I trained to be and, it seems, I have been unable to escape.
Brian wrote a few paragraphs about the object which preoccupied him in preparation for the exhibition he had been planning to stage at the time of his death:
I first saw the pier in 1970 and have recorded photographically the slow decay of the wooden section up until the present day. There is no trace now of the horizontal decking still just discernable when I first visited. Now the vertical posts are linked only by the stray rope, seaweed and reflection. The Kelly’s Pier studies and paintings record both the bridging of physical space and the passage of time. There is a sense of lost history here, and, in my recording of the place over forty years, a sense of personal journey.
The series of paintings exhibited here begin in the spring of 2008 and continue the documentation of the pier until 2015. The earlier paintings were made for an exhibition in Brisbane on the theme of ‘bridging’, conceived and curated by Jenny Mather and also exhibited in Kirkharle and Hexham.
Since being an art student in Leeds I have been interested by the way in which the structures and marks of man decay and are erased through time and the action of the elements, and eventually are returned to nature, becoming visually exciting as they do so.
Half a mile away from the pier stands Bonawe Furnace - a building dating from 1753 and restored by Scottish Heritage. The pier is privately owned and falling into decay and it was only later that I realised that the two structures were connected by the remains of a road. Research led to the discovery that the furnace had been managed by Mr Kelly. Later I learned that it manufactured cannonballs which were carted to the pier, loaded on to boats able to access the sea at the tricky-to-navigate Falls of Lora, at Connel Bridge, and from there transported south to supply Lord Nelson’s fleet.