Updated: Mar 25, 2020
It would be fair to say that the vast majority of my painting represents strong directional light. At sunrise and sunset there is often a strong contrast between warm highlights and cool deep shadows, helping to reveal form and texture in the landscape, lending it a dynamic quality. Not this time though!
A wet and windy October afternoon is rarely the most auspicious set of circumstances in which to sketch outdoors, but sometimes you just have to push yourself. We were staying at a lovely cottage, just out of view on the left-hand edge of the picture, for what was turning out to be a rather wet and wild Autumn half-term holiday. We love Rockleigh Cottage, and in some ways it's almost nicer being there when the weather takes a turn for the worse. Built in 1839 as a gardener's cottage for the Grove Estate, you can't help but notice its solidity, and the thickness of the walls on the coast-side are a robust buttress to a stiff, south-easterly wind. With a few logs on the fire it is impossible not to feel cozy.
The cottage has a history of defiance; back in the 1980s the owner, Miss Sophie Tatchell, resisted the various compulsions to sell the property to a local developer, following the acquisition and redevelopment of the old Grosvenor Hotel site. In spite of the obdurate Miss Tatchell the project went ahead, and you can see the continental-style apartments to the left of the painting that have grown up around it......like a thicket of thorns and brambles? Some think so, ('Eldorado' apparently) and I was among them when they appeared, creating the look of a rather naff film-set in this part of the town. It could have been much worse - a marina was proposed as part of the initial development, but thankfully refused by the town's planners. However, as the years have passed the Haven development has become an integral part of the landscape and now it would seem rather unsettling to not see it there. Eventually Rockleigh Cottage fell into a state of disrepair, and when Miss Tacthell passed away it was bought by a very kind friend of mine in 2015. Following a thorough and sensitive renovation it is now a beautiful place to stay, affording a wonderful view across Swanage bay, and is well placed for a quick stroll into town or up onto the Downs.
The temptation to stay put that October afternoon, drinking more tea and consuming inordinate quantities of Dorset apple cake, was difficult to ignore but I could see a strong swell in the bay and so decided to head down to the front. The light was flat, the sky like slate, and it was almost impossible to find a shadow. The waves were breaking nicely, driven on by the wind which was just beginning to hint at gale force. It was cold too, but an inevitably deserted picnic table outside the lifeboat station was the perfect location to sit and sketch the view. I love this old part of the bay edging round to its southern extremity at Peveril Point. Home to old fishermen's cottages, the RNLI and coastguard, small fishing boats and lobster pots, it has proper character. It smells, as you would expect, but you'd be disappointed if it didn't. It's all about context; rancid shellfish in an old boat on the seafront is not the same as finding a month-old prawn in your child's school bag. I could taste the spray from the waves on my lips, and I wondered if sketching in a saline shower-of-sorts would compromise the study. It didn't, and I've included it below. It lacks the detail of the larger studio painting which introduces a little more warmth to the sky, a suggestion that despite the conditions the sun is trying its very best to put in an appearance. I'll happily sell the larger painting, but I'm keeping the sketch! As an immediate response to the landscape in front of me it's irreplaceable.
Strong tonal contrasts from highlights and shadows are not alway needed to create a meaningful landscape painting, and finding drama and atmosphere without the presence of sunshine is no bad thing for a British artist. As a landscape, this view has tremendous authenticity. Some of it is natural, much of it is influenced by our need to live and to work. The familiar structures, organic components, and human activity all combine to offer a very compelling subject.
It was a great way to spend the afternoon, despite the numb fingers. And you'll be pleased to know that when I had finished I decided to wander into town for a thawing hot chocolate and more cake. Hold onto your hat!