Derbyshire artist John Waterhouse
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 July 2016
Derbyshire Life meets the highly acclaimed local artist John Waterhouse whose work has earned an international reputation
The mesmeric landscape paintings of John Waterhouse are some of the most popular and most collectable of all the works on show at Gallery Three, a splendid Staffordshire gallery that is a source of original paintings and limited editions by some of the country’s leading artists. Many people who view the Waterhouse landscapes on display in the gallery are drawn so deeply into the scenes before their eyes that they are left with a distinct feeling of déjà vu, even if the locations which are depicted in the paintings are places that they have never visited.
By his own admission, the creator of these dreamlike images has always been a daydreamer. He says, ‘When I was a schoolboy, I spent so much time staring out of the classroom window or being lost in my own thoughts that the content of most lessons simply passed me by. As a result, I left school at the age of sixteen with almost no worthwhile qualifications, other than a grade A pass in Art, which was the one subject I felt passionate about.’
The story of how John managed to become a highly accomplished painter without the benefit of any type of formal training is an inspiring tale of self-education, perseverance and faith in his innate talent. After leaving school, he worked for a time as a builder and then found employment in a warehouse, where he drove a fork-lift truck. Throughout these years, he continued to paint in his spare time, gradually improving his technique by painstakingly copying the methods used by the great masters.
John says, ‘I would visit art galleries and stand in front of pictures and mentally peel back the paint to discover how the artists had built up their images layer by layer. I have a particular memory of standing for hours before a painting by Vermeer until I felt able to employ methods that were similar to the ones he had used. After following this routine for seven years in what was essentially a form of apprenticeship, I knew that I had developed enough skill to allow me to create the kind of paintings that I had always wanted to produce. By my mid-twenties, I even had the confidence to apply for a part-time job teaching art to 16 to 21 year-olds in an institute for young offenders.’
The work with young offenders was very satisfying, not least because it confirmed John’s belief that ‘art has the power to enable people to dig deep inside themselves and release their emotions’. However, the money he was making from this job was less than the payments he was now receiving from selling his paintings. As his wife, Mel, was pregnant with their first child, John knew that he would need to discover if he could make enough money as a full-time artist to support a family.
Recalling the morning when he resolved to take the first steps to live entirely by his art, he said, ‘I selected five of my still-life compositions and some landscape paintings and put them into two portfolio cases, including one I had borrowed from a neighbour, and set off for London on the train. I had not made any appointments but, feeling I had nothing to lose, I was determined to show my pictures to the Cork Street galleries in the hope that they would be interested in putting them on display.’
Two days after this speculative visit, one of the galleries telephoned to say that they were interested in exhibiting and marketing his work. They also asked about the remuneration he would expect to receive. John replied that he was hoping to make enough money to allow him to paint full-time and to look after his family. For the last 16 years, with Mel’s total support and encouragement, he has been able to realise both aims.
In the early stages of his career as a full-time artist, much of John’s output consisted of figurative and still-life pictures that demonstrate his mastery of the art of depicting a variety of textures, from the reflective surfaces of shiny metal objects to the folds and creases in clothing. His paintings of bowls of fruit even have a trompe-l’oeil effect, whilst some of his other pictures are studies of subjects who are captured as they daydream or anticipate a meeting with a loved one. A figure in one portrait is shown absent-mindedly fingering one of her pearl earrings while she is obviously lost in thought.
In much of his recent work, including that currently on show at Gallery Three, John has concentrated on landscape compositions, largely based on his observations of the Staffordshire countryside close to his home in Barton-under-Needwood. Although these are not intended to be accurate depictions of a particular landscape, many of the people who have viewed the pictures have said that they have the power to bring to mind places that have a special meaning for them. Conceding that he will often change the position of a tree for compositional effect, John says: ‘Trees are an important element in my pictures because I believe that every tree has its own character and its own history.’
When composing most of his landscape studies, John uses diluted colours, ‘not only because they are easier on the eye, but also because they give the scene a moody or mysterious feel.’ Commenting on his tendency to depict landscapes where early morning mist is slowly rising from the land and any sunlight is very diffused, John says: ‘When I am painting, I concentrate on light as much as, if not more than, the physical objects in the landscape. As well as showing how light falls on grasses in the foreground, I will often include a pool of light in the distance to help take the eye through the composition.’
In some pictures, the patch of land that is illuminated by that distant pool of light is empty, but in others it is occupied by a very small, almost always silhouetted, depiction of an animal or a person. These figures often add an air of mystery or perhaps conjure up a memory of a walk or an encounter in the countryside. Occasionally, John will include a well-known building, such as Lichfield Cathedral or Chatsworth House, but this will always be shown as a faint outline in the background, as though it were no more real than a mirage.
These wonderful effects can only be achieved by an artist who has thoroughly mastered his craft and is prepared to tackle every painting with care and precision. Given that John is now willing to devote long hours on five and a half days of every week to his art, does he have any regrets about the schooldays when he neglected his studies and spent much of his time daydreaming? ‘Not at all,’ he says. ‘Daydreaming was the best possible education I could have had in preparing for a career as a creative artist.’
Gallery Three is located in the delightful setting of Barton Marina, near Barton-under-Needwood. It was established in 2007 by Robin Whitehouse, a former structural and civil engineer, and his wife Louise as a UK-wide distributor of original paintings and limited editions by some of our best contemporary artists. Just two years after opening it was named as Art Retailer of The Year by the Fine Art Trade Guild. Prices range from £100 to £100,000.
Gallery Three, Barton Marina, Barton-under-Needwood, Burton-upon-Trent, Staffordshire, DE13 8AS (01283 712900),