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Views of a Northern painter by Warren Storey

Posted on Tue 14 May 2019

Views of a Northern painter

In describing more of his landscape paintings, Warren Storey urges us to see ourselves in relation to our visual surroundings instead of only seeking “beautiful” subjects.

Regular travel in my youth meant using public transport and this produced a set pattern, calling at as many towns and villages as possible so that the landscape made little impression until one reached one’s destination. But once the freedom afforded by a car was achieved, choice of route made one aware of the great variety of the landscape. Travelling from the South West made it necessary to cross the Pennines, but the choice of crossing place is very wide, each offering a very different visual experience, partly because of the geology and partly because of the marks of man, whether farming or industry.  Even between the neighbouring dales of Wensleydale and Swaledale there are marked differences, the latter being far more rugged and self-contained. Swaledale gradually opens up from wild moorland on the western side as the river grows wider but it still passes through steep wooded hills that close in dramatically between Reeth and Richmond so that visual surprises are around almost every corner. Thus this is the route that I prefer.

Muker. Oil 10" x 10"

Muker is spread along the road and is dominated by a somewhat odd Baroque building set into the hillside. Its façade somehow seems to characterise a kind of assertive strength that one finds in the farmers who need to be tough to cope with conditions in a hard winter and the position of this building offers several compositional possibilities, one of which is here illustrated. Not only is the architecture of this building strange but the paintwork was deep orange when I made my sketches; a colour that at first seemed out of keeping but which had a quality of audacity which grew on me.

Several studies were made in the village as I am conscious that it is mostly the part of the village nearest the main road which people look at, often missing the true inhabitants’ view, related to work or the home. The street scenes with chickens is perhaps at one and the same time more ordinary and more true than the passing traveller experiences.

Sturdy Barns

Hope Moor No. 2, Oil 30" x 26"

Despite the isolation of each community there is a hospitable warmth which communicates clearly, possibly because of the miles of dry-stone walling that snakes all over the area reminding us of the way land was apportioned in the 18th century and also because of those sturdy barns like Roman mile forts, punctuating these ribbons of stone. If one moves north at Reeth and enters Arkengarthdale the stoniness of the land makes for a harsher effect and as one makes way into Durham county, a bleak darkness takes over. On Hope Moor as one looks back towards Arkengarthdale, the brown-green earth rolls on seemingly devoid of signs of life save for one small farm crouching low to the hollow in which it lies as if to try to avoid the force of the elements. Two paintings were developed from a drawing and a watercolour sketch, the first, cutting down the sky area to a mere slit of light in order to emphasise the awe-inspiring effect of this seemingly endless view. I thought of earlier travellers on foot, and imagined these feelings of isolation so that the resulting work might convey my ideas in a poetic way.

Later a second, larger version was made specially for this series of articles and I chose a coarse canvas to add to the meaning, the detail of which shows the grain quite clearly. In this version it was the undulation of the earth which gained precedence creating a problem of colour variety which the lack of hedge or wall made all the harder. It was the ochre road to the black farm that gave the touch of warmth and the sky, the bright parts of the roofs and the little stream that meanders through the foreground that provided the sparks of light, essential to avoid monotony.  Perhaps its truth to my feelings accounts for it having been returned by more than one would-be purchaser.

Awesome quality

Downholme in Winter No. 3 (January). Oil 20" x 24"

Travelling West from Richmond, through Hudswell, the road suddenly enters unfenced moorland, bald and relatively barren populated by the sort of sheep that accentuate the poverty of the soil; then as suddenly as it had begun the moor ends with a descent into rich farmland and the village of Downholme. This village inspired me to make an extended series of drawings and paintings, the best of which is a group of paintings based on a very powerful experience in late January when travelling to my mother’s funeral. The bald hill behind Downholme was lit by fitful sunshine and it stood out vividly against the very dark sky. It seemed symbolic and was quite uplifting despite its awesome quality.  Dwarfed by the setting, the string of buildings that are the village main street, have a comforting warmth adding a touch of humanity to a wild scene. I have even, in imagination, made a painting of it as it might appear under snow even though I have never visited the area in such conditions. The desire to do this was motivated when looking at a pen and ink drawing made in preparation for the first of the paintings because the blank paper suddenly took on the character of snow. This time I made the sky copper-colour to balance the warm colour of the buildings. Unfortunately, this work has not yielded very good colour photographs, so I leave it to your own imagination.

Late Harvest near Alwinton, Northumberland. Oil 30" x 24"

The other two paintings illustrated here are to demonstrate the very different kind of landscape which one encounters in Northumberland. The first is of a late (October) harvest near Alwinton, with the lengthening shadows almost turquoise against the stubble and the roll bales that add movement to the switchback humpiness of the earth. I spent two long summers in 1940 and 1941 working on forestry at Kidland Lee just beyond the distant hills. This period, more than any other, inculcated a deep love of and respect for the open country and made me aware of the sheer scale of the old County of Northumberland. Anyone wishing to get a real insight to this, could do no better than to view the county from Hartside to the west of Alston.

Unspoiled land

It is hard to believe that one can travel, even today, for an hour or more and meet no more than two or three cars between Corbridge and Rothbury. Those who only know the three main routes to Scotland through Northumberland cannot guess at the unspoiled feel of such huge tracts of land. Much of the Cheviot Hill area is, fortunately, accessible only on foot but it has a mountainous feel about it. Even if it may not appeal much to the climbers it offers a fine backdrop for painters.  The only road that crosses really exposed bleak moors is the one from Alnwick to Rothbury and is best seen under lowering cloud. But though it may be what Northumberland suggests to those who do not know the county it is little more than a fragment of what is available. Some of the hottest weather that I have known in Britain occurred in this mostly northerly area.

Towards Kyloe from Mount Hooley, Northumberland. Oil 6" x 6"

In the early Eighties I had to make some paintings of the county and arrived at Mount Hooley, near Belford, in the late afternoon. After settling in at the farm where we were to stay we went over to Bamburgh for an evening meal, after which we sat on that vast beach while I painted the incredibly blue sea and sky with the Farne islands seeming close enough to reach out and touch. Later, one evening I sat in the car and drew as a combine harvester worked the prairie-like land to the horizon where Kyloe lies hidden by a copse and it struck me that a tall sky would convey this scale while at the same time giving scope to show the idyllic weather. A funny plume of cloud drifting into the already darkening sky completed the motif for this tiny painting which, using totally opposite colour and design from the Hope Moor picture, seeks to express vast space.

Steady destruction

From Mount Hooley, Evening. Oil 6" x 6"

A little later the same evening, when the sun had gone down, I looked at this view from a lower point so that the cow parsley grew to the apparent size of trees and the escaped ears of corn waved against the cool sky where the new moon was presenting but a slender crescent, like an echo of the grasses below. When I came to paint these subjects, they made a natural pair and it seemed to suit my idea that these should be quite tiny in keeping with their intimate nature. They encapsulate very personal reactions to the modern farming methods but from these works it is doubtful that anyone would guess at my profound dislike of such vast tracts of land which, nor far away, reveal tall silos that mar the aspect and turn it into something like Canada or North America. All over the border there are fine farm buildings allowed to deteriorate in the interests of intensive farming; it steadily destroys what has existed for centuries and while I have made use of its more attractive face, I am not happy about the long term effect.

Painting is about colour and form and these may convey mood or perhaps atmosphere; the landscape painter will also record the way the land is used but painting is not the best way of discouraging those whose interests are short-term commercial, since such people are rarely sensitive to art of any kind. For my part I do not seek to paint only  that which is beautiful, rather do I try to see myself in relation to my visual surroundings and I would happily commend this attitude to anyone who goes to nature for the motifs of painting.

This article was originally published in the August 1989 issue of Leisure Painter

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Views of a Northern painter by Warren Storey


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