WHEN the world is rushing by, Lesley Seeger stands alone in a field, paints in a bag, watching.
It is that moment, that creative new dawn each painting trip, that still excites the York artist after two decades, a landmark she is marking with a “mid-career retrospective” book, Coming Home, and an accompanying exhibition at Pyramid Gallery, in Stonegate, where a second show of new works will follow next month.
“The main reason for doing the book is that I’ve been painting for 20 years and it seemed a good time to pause and take stock of all my work so far and see where I want to go next,” says Lesley, sitting by the first-floor window at Terry Brett’s gallery.
Lesley Seeger at work in her studio. Picture: Joseph Thomas
“It was an interesting exercise bringing all the work together to see how I’ve developed as an artist, and there’s a clear pattern that emerges that shows how each year or each couple of years the work jumps in its development.
"Principally, my skill set has developed; it’s now more considered, though not necessarily better, but it’s more observed work, where I go out to draw and photograph and even if I don’t replicate it, the painting comes from the real world, whereas my early work was totally from my imagination.”
The biggest change, suggests Lesley, was moving into the countryside five years ago, setting up home with Michael Sessions, the Quacks Books publisher, at his Huttons Ambo cottage. “I met Michael seven years ago and he persuaded me to move out there, where he had this house, although it was a ruin, which we had to work on, though to be honest the builders did most of the work,” says Lesley, who previously had her studio in Broadway West, Fulford, for ten years and Priory Street, York, for five.
Pablo In The Arboretum, acrylic on board, by Lesley Seeger
The Huttons Ambo studio has been built from scratch in the “grounds”. “It’s not grand – it’s a cottage! – but it’s got amazing views of the Derwent Valley,” says Lesley, whose landscape paintings are suffused with colour.
“I love colour. I can’t imagine being an artist who just works in black and white, though my palette has become more subdued in the past five years, but I just find colour exciting.
“I’ve spent more time in England in recent years but I used to do a lot of travelling to Sri Lanka, India and Egypt and was very affected by the colours there.”
Lesley Seeger with her brushes
Lesley’s focus has changed from “doing floral things for years” to landscape painting, in acrylics rather than oils. “I started out with oils, but I’m very messy and I don’t like cleaning up, which takes hours with oils,” she says.
“There’s still a lot of snobbery about acrylics but I buy acrylics that aren’t available in shops, or certainly not around here, and the quality of their pigment is as good as in oils. It suits my way of working as I work in layers, and oil can take up to weeks or even months to dry, depending on how thickly you apply it, whereas acrylics can take only 20 minutes.”
Coming Home bears the subtitle “A contemporary colourist’s approach to English Landscape”. How come, Lesley? “I think my work is very contemporary in that I use contemporary materials and my approach is contemporary as I don’t make any reference to the Old Masters,” she says. “It’s a modern approach, free of constraint and the traditional ideas of painting.
The Beach House, acrylic on canvas, by Lesley Seeger, as featured on the book cover of Coming Home
“What I’m trying to do is get across how landscape ‘feels’, rather than just how it looks. Photographic representation doesn’t hold any interest for me; instead I’m interested in atmosphere, capturing the sense of place, and that’s reflected in some of my work being described as ‘narrative’ as there’s a story in there.”
Lesley’s paintings are uplifting too. “A lot of people say my work makes them feel happy, which may sound trite, but there are lots worse things than making people happy or having work on your walls that makes you feel better every time you look at it. That’s a good investment, surely. My work is decorative, but I don’t think it’s superficial; it has ‘content’ in it,” she says.
The Coming Home title has emerged from her idea to do a book coinciding with an exhibition being arranged for The Biscuit Factory in Newcastle in November in her native north east, where Lesley was born in Newcastle in 1958 and lived in the Northumberland village of Ponteland from age two to nine before moving to Ripon. “The Biscuit Factory contacted me about doing a show and I had the book ready to launch there to go with my new paintings of Northumberland,” she says.
Lesley Seeger amid her bright colours. Picture: Joseph Thomas
“The book was originally going to be called Mud And Chillies because of my early colours being influenced by Sri Lanka and then starting to do ‘plein air’ paintings in the English countryside with all that mud, but in the end I changed to Coming Home because of my Newcastle connections and because I’ve exhibited this year in the two cities that influenced my early life: Newcastle and Ripon from the age of nine.
"I had a very inspiring art teacher at Ripon Grammar School, who was only known as ‘Sas’ – we never knew his real name – and the school would give us essays where we were asked to ‘interpret this visually’. That was my idea of heaven, as well as the school putting an emphasis on creative writing, my other great love.”
Lesley’s present Pyramid exhibition of prints of such Yorkshire landmarks as Castle Howard, Burton Agnes Hall and the Yorkshire Arboretum will be followed by a new show at Terry Brett’s gallery. “After Coming Home, I’m thinking of calling it Going Out Again, or maybe Byzantium as it’s going to have a lot of gold in it and some of the work will be a return to the more abstract style of my earlier work: some nice jewels for the bleakest time of the year,” says Lesley.
Rites Of Spring, acrylic on board by Lesley Seeger
“How about Return To Byzantium?” suggests Terry. Lesley approves, so Return To Byzantium it will be, on display from January 27 to March 11.
Lesley Seeger’s Coming Home exhibition runs at Pyramid Gallery, Stonegate, York, until January 18.
Coming Home, A Contemporary Colourist’s Approach To English Landscape, published by Quacks Books, of York, is available from Pyramid Gallery; Quacks, Grape Lane; Ken Spelman Bookshop, Micklegate; Fossgate Books, Fossgate; Janette Ray Booksellers, Bootham, and Minster Gate Bookshop, Minster Gates, all in York
From April 2017, Lesley will have a residency at Burton Agnes Hall.