Frank Gordon is an established English artist living and working in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Since he gave up art teaching in 1995 he has been able to concentrate fully on his painting and walking.
'Living as I do on the edge of the Three Peaks country, I am able to walk its hills in all weathers and experience the endless changeability and movement of landscape and sky. Yet behind this seeming transience there's a powerful feeling of permanence in the underlying rock and the bulk of the hills; this collision between the ephemeral and the eternal is a good subject for a painter.'
Art School and After
I was born in Westhoughton, near Bolton, in 1943. Because my birthday is in October I took the old 'eleven plus' exam aged ten (how absurd - I know) and took my 'O' Levels at fifteen, entering Bolton College of Art a few weeks before my sixteenth birthday. My first two years were spent working towards the Intermediate Examination in Arts and Crafts; this provided a broad-based foundation for later study and covered, amongst many other things, costume drawing, life drawing, still life, colour and pattern, art history, history of architecture, anatomy, perspective, pictorial composition, lettering, printmaking, modelling etc etc. How delightfully old-fashioned and quaint it sounds now . . . anatomy . . . perspective . . . drawing!
At the end of the two years I was only seventeen - one had to be eighteen to take the Intermediate exam so I had to repeat the final year. I didn't mind this at all as I was thoroughly enjoying myself. Although we weren't to know it, we were amongst the last art students actually to be taught how to draw and make pictures. I've been grateful ever since. While on Intermediate I discovered the joys and frustrations of oil painting; the oldest surviving evidence I have of this is the still life (1) I had accepted at Bolton Art Circle's Annual Exhibition at Bolton Art Gallery when I was aged sixteen. (There was also a portrait of my father which was rejected and has since disappeared; perhaps I painted over it.)
I duly got through the Exam and stayed on at Bolton to do my National Diploma in Design, specialising in book and magazine illustration; We spent one day a week etching and the rest of the time doing graphics-related things the details of which I'm ashamed to say I can scarcely remember now. I do remember adding photography to the list of skills we acquired, though. Most of my painting was now done at home in a tiny box room in my parents' house; the self-portrait and 'Table-Top' (2,3) date from this time. (A little later I had a studio on Churchbank, Bolton.) With a few like-minded friends I managed to exhibit quite frequently within the local area; not so easy in those days as hardly any of us could drive and just transporting paintings was a major problem.
After college I suddenly found I had become an art teacher - at a Secondary Boys' School in Tyldesley near Manchester. I met and married Sheila during this period and continued to paint, often in very different ways but always with a particular interest in composition and the qualities of paint. Having survived a lengthy period of influence by most of the major figures in twentieth century painting in turn, most of the work at this point was figurative - I had little interest in landscape at this stage. ('Wilton Arms'(4) was an earlier exception.)
One of my themes at this time was related to the last and fatal Antarctic Expedition of Captain Scott in 1912 (5,6); he was a figure I'd been obsessed with since childhood and I did a whole series of pictures related to his story over a period of years.
Wressle - Self Sufficiency and All That
After four years of marriage my wife Sheila and I moved to Yorkshire so that I could take up a teaching post at Thorne, near Doncaster. We bought an eighteenth century cottage with half an acre of garden in the quiet hamlet of Wressle, a dozen miles south of York. Our two children, Eleanor and Russell, were babies at this stage and Wressle was an ideal environment in which to bring them up. Most of my (and Sheila's) creative energies went into the garden - we made ourselves almost self-sufficient with our own fruit and vegetables - and there seemed little time for painting although I got the odd commission for pub murals and so on.
After ten years of our rural idyll it became obvious we were going to have to move somewhere more practical - Wressle had no shops and no bus service - and so bought a house at Brayton, near Selby. Eleanor and Russell could walk to school from the new house and we all spent much less of our lives in the car.
Brayton and Bretton
Released from the demands of a half-acre garden and a two hundred-year old cottage, I gradually began painting more and more. Subjects became increasingly centred on landscape now, mainly in the form of Brayton Barff, (12) a wooded hill a mile or so from our new home. The paintings were in acrylic on small pieces of hardboard; at this stage I didn't have a studio, just a corner of the living room, so large pictures were out of the question. (Size was important, after all!)
In 1986/87 I was lucky enough to get a year out of teaching to take an Advanced Diploma in Art Education at Bretton Hall, near Wakefield; this proved to be a turning point, not just in my teaching (although that was helped considerably) but because I was mixing again with like-minded people and my painting began to develop. I refined my ideas regarding the desirability of first-hand experience of all kinds, for which the experience of landscape was a handy metaphor. Hence the 'splash' paintings (13,14) which show the landscape bursting in through a window.
I Become A (Middle-Aged) Master
A couple of years later I took a part-time Master of Arts degree at Leeds Metropolitan University and was able to think my ideas through more rigorously; this culminated in a series of reliefs which I called Icons (17,18,19), under the general heading of the Mythology of Landscape. (Mythology in the sense used by Roland Barthes, ie anything that becomes institutionalised and seen as 'natural' is a mythology.) I was able to study the effect the classical tradition has had on landscape and landscape painting in this country and how these are viewed. I also became interested in other ways in which the landscape was viewed in the eighteenth century; for example, by means of the Claude Lorraine Mirror (20). Using this device, the spectator looked at the landscape through a mirror made of darkened glass so that it appeared in the sombre tones of a painting by Claude. Of course, the viewer would have to turn his back on the landscape itself in order to see its image in the glass - lots of scope for symbolism there!
While all this was going on I was continuing teaching and our children were working through school, college and university, leaving home and finding work - and partners. At the same time Sheila was developing her flower arranging talents as a sought-after demonstrator and we were both pursuing our joint hobby of walking. Apart from regular day walks in the Lake District, North Yorkshire Moors and Yorkshire Dales, we began backpacking Long Distance Paths. The Dales Way was our first, then the Pennine Way, the Coast to Coast Walk and others; we ventured abroad and walked the Tour of Mont Blanc and scaled our first Alp.
A New Start
In 1995 my school reorganised and I had the opportunity to take early retirement. After about a micro-second's consideration, I accepted. Now I had the chance to spend more time on my painting and to exhibit more widely. I arranged a one-man show 'Spirit of Place' at Lotherton Hall, near Leeds (21), for 1996 and also set up a two-person exhibition at the Manor House, Ilkley with sculptor Dionne Hood. This last was particularly useful as it enabled me to group together in one place the work I'd produced over many years; this was a rare opportunity to see a complete phase of my development as an entity. Looking back, it was both the culmination and the ending of that phase of my work which had started at Bretton Hall and developed through the MA at Leeds. (Later work was to be less self-consciously theoretically-based and more directly responsive to experience.)
My interest in architecture in its own right also found sources of inspiration on visits to Provence and Venice (22,23,24). I have plans to return to Venice one day in order to spend more time exploring its possibilities.
Two or three years later Sheila gave up her part-time job as a hotel florist in York so that we could realise our long-held ambition of walking from Land's End to John o'Groats; in 1997 we backpacked our way north, covering 1200 miles in 88 days and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.
Sheila discovered she had an aptitude for writing walking books and devised Lady Anne's Way, the now classic 100 mile walk from Skipton to Penrith which links together Lady Anne Clifford's castles and passes through some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. More recently Mini Treks in the North Pennines was published - a series of two-day walks in England's 'last wilderness' as it is often described. (Some of the original drawings I made to illustrate the books can be seen in the Black and White category of the Pictures section.) She is working on a third book even as you read this.
Soon after that we sold our Brayton home and moved here to Giggleswick in the Yorkshire Dales National Park where we overlook the old village and its churchyard. Once more we have a garden large enough to satisfy Sheila's needs as a flower arranger and plantswoman while also allowing us to grow our own vegetables again.
As we are on the edge of the Three Peaks country we naturally do most of our walking in the area. It goes without saying that we've both really fallen in love with it. The views from the summits of Ingleborough, Whernside and Penyghent are something to behold, while even the humbler tops a few minutes walk from the house can boast panoramas of superlative beauty.
Needless to say, this is influencing my work enormously. I do most of my painting in the autumn and winter (the summer months are spent doing practical jobs around the house and garden) although our walking expeditions provide opportunities for photographs and sketching throughout the year - gathering material, in fact. The result is painting which now concentrates on my personal day-to-day experience of this landscape.
At first it all seemed a bit overwhelming - there is so much here it's easy to be swept along by the intrinsic beauty of the place. Now, however, I find I'm beginning to focus on particular places and experiences and I return to them repeatedly - for example, the view from Giggleswick Scar down Ribblesdale to Pendle Hill (26), the prospect from any of the Three Peaks, and Ruskin's View at Kirkby Lonsdale (27); this last in particular echoes my interest in the historical base of our landscape perceptions. The very latest work is more concerned with the atmospheric and textural qualities of the scene - but enough of this! The paintings can speak for themselves.