Stephen Wade reveals his admiration for Yorkshire artist Peter Brook in July’s Yorkshire delight…
Thirty years ago I was in Hebden Bridge. I was a student on a writing course at the celebrated Arvon Centre at Heptonstall, and I needed to buy a birthday present for my wife.
Fate stepped in and made it a very special day because I walked along a line of little shops and came across a small art establishment, run by a very friendly old lady.
In the window, I had seen a row of prints and paintings by Peter Brook, now one of Yorkshire’s foremost artists.
We chatted, and I told the owner that I would like to buy a Brook painting.
It turned out that she knew him, and she told me about him being a runner across his beloved Pennine country; in return, I told her that the painter taught my wife, at Sowerby Bridge Grammar School, some years back.
Brook and his powerful paintings of the hills and moors had always been important in our family.
One time, my wife was in Brook’s art class at school and she gained top marks.
This was a rare event and everyone was staggered.
Brook said it was because she drew what she saw, and in that case it was Brook’s cluttered desk, crammed with bottles, jars, pens, brushes and all the paraphernalia of a dedicated painter.
He was, she recalled, a truly inspiring teacher.
He took his Sowerby Bridge students to Leeds City Art Gallery and to other venues to broaden their knowledge.
In that little shop, I bought the picture in this feature: A Pennine Winter.
It is unusual in that his name is not in large, dark letters along the bottom, but it is tucked away at the corner, as is the title, at another corner.
But whatever this picture is to collectors and experts, to myself and my family it is a valued item, proudly placed on a study wall so that one of our favourite Yorkshire scenes is always there for us.
Peter Brook was inspirational.
He was born in Scholes in 1927, and died in 2009.
His teaching career included some time at Rastrick before going to Sowerby Bridge.
He was trained at Goldsmiths in London.
He was painting all the time, of course, in between studying for his Advanced Teacher’s Diploma.
The first landmarks in his long and impressive career were arguably his exhibitions at the Queen’s Square gallery in Leeds, and then at the University of York.
Where is the special delight his paintings and drawings had to offer?
For me it is the sense that he dwelt lovingly on what he saw around him, and he gave his representations a marked interpretation of distinctive identity.
In other words, he conveyed the soul of the topography around him.
Many Yorkshire folk would probably select his Chapel Street as the image that most represents the county they know.
It shows lines of washing strung across a winding cobbled street, and far behind is a hill, crossed by lines of drystone walls.
For myself, as I was brought up in a fold with farmland behind, and my uncle’s pigs and hens to feed in the scrubby, muddy allotment he ran, the Brook I love most is the man who gave us the back yards, snow-drifted walls and dustbins, which were the opposite of the more typical landscapes on the postcards.
In A Little Gossip, for instance, we have to look hard to find the two women chatting in a dark doorway by a high wall, which probably encloses a midden and toilet.
More often, though, Brook gives the apparent isolation and windswept grandeur of the Pennines, as in paintings such as Swinging along a Pennine Road in which we see a long house, probably covering both people and animals, by a roadside, with telegraph posts jabbed at the grey sky, and the loud washing strung along a long line.
In this mood, Brook is the poet of time’s long stories, as told in what remains after weather and hard times have eaten away at buildings, but the homes and barns have a nobility.
They stand with pride, testaments to Yorkshire’s past.
Every time I drive from Halifax, across the moors to Denholme, for instance, I feel that I am a character in a Peter Brook picture.
Another perspective on the unique quality of Brook’s world could be summed up in the words “Man, dog and sheep.”
In a fascinating book called Peter Brook in the Pennines, which has a text by Mary Sara, we have a picture of Peter with George Mitchell at Meltham, and the artist looks entirely content and relaxed with four sheepdogs around him, standing against a high stone wall, apparently on a rough weather day – the kind he loved best.
His dogs feature in many of the paintings, and they are named. Shep is often there, and he is not always to be complimented for his behaviour.
One painting, called Bad Boy, has Shep on the road, while Peter stands with another dog in an enclosed field.
Yet there is always humour.
In Meeting we see an image from Lancashire: the dog staring at a cow, who is looking back through a gap in the wall.
Brook himself is often part of the humour. Somehow, he seems to dramatise the scene, and the favourite scenes for him are very often ones of deserted or part-demolished houses out in the wild, at the mercy of the wind and rain.
If we look for the special quality in Peter Brook’s work – the stamp he has that does for the Pennines what Lowry did for Manchester – it is arguably this dignity he gives to desolation.
For me, this is summed up in one of the paintings that typifies how the viewer is led to reflect on what is there: this is Ruins with a Man Thinking.
The picture shows two homes huddled up, with a shell of a third on the end, the house now rotted into no more than a wall and an arch.
Standing by the ruined high wall is the Man Thinking and I have to say that the man is myself, along with all of us, when we see that there have been people, with their busy lives, rearing families, doing hard work, and striving for a future, inside that space which is now open to the elements.
That old wall and the arch is something that Peter Brook makes into a provocation for everyone.
Peter Brook’s reputation will grow and grow, and collectors of his work eagerly search for both original works and prints.
What we must never do is call him “Yorkshire’s Lowry”.
No, he is Yorkshire’s Peter Brook.
* Special thanks for the use of these images to Mike Baggs of AC Gallery in Huddersfield.
See more of Peter Brook’s work at: www.acgallery.co.uk