In Conversation with Adrian Parnell
Good coffee mends all. Adrian Parnell and his partner Anka arrived on Saturday with an electric blue car full of new paintings, looking slightly harassed from the confusing one-way system in Bath. Having driven around in ever tightening circles for over half an hour, they were pointed east heading out on the London Road before I caught up with them and led them back to the house, where we de-stressed over an Aeropress coffee. Eventually conversation started to flow:
BS: Adrian you said you went to a military boarding school at 10 years old. Could you tell me about it?
AP: My brother went to a very expensive public school, I went to something more like a military boot camp public school on Dartmoor. In those days it was the last of the colonial Governor’s sons who were going to go into the service or military, it was very much a military regime. It was in a big Elizabethan house that was built for Sir Richard Grenville with enormous grounds and lakes. That side of it was lovely but I didn’t fit in at all because I knew from about 12 what I wanted to do, and it certainly wasn’t to march around a square. I had an art master called Mr Ross, I was never going to go into the military, I spent all my time in the art room. I took all my O levels and passed them a year earlier than everyone else, so I was allowed to go to Bideford Art School two days a week and still be at school. I spent two days a week, in my school uniform… this was, don’t forget , about 1967 – peace and love man… [holds up two fingered peace gesture]… with all these people in purple velvet trousers and hair down to here… and there was me drawing naked ladies at 15. At the end of that, I hitchhiked up to London with a great big portfolio and banged on the door of St Martins and said, this is what I do… so I went.
BS: And they took you with both hands?
AP: Yeah… And I did a year at the Slade after that.
AP: It was wild times…
BS: It does sound a bit wild… with free love and all that going on in the background…
AP: It was… ‘cause I’d come from a boarding school with 285 boys, with a load of sheep on Dartmoor. I’d never seen a girl.
BS: So did you go a bit wild?
AP: No… I’d only just got there… and there’s always one girl in any university that age… the stunner… isn’t there? Well, within three weeks she and I had somehow clicked. She was a model for Vogue… and all those Paris magazines. So we were together for a long, long time. And her brothers played in Velvet Underground, which you may have heard of… with Andy Warhol and Lou Reed and John Cale… this was a mega band, it still is. It was the coolest thing on the planet…
St Martins was Old London… and when you think you had Ian Drury, Brian Ferry, Sade, Jeff Beck, Sex Pistols… they all went to St Martins. They were all there when we were there. It’s history now… Those are the names that people remember but we also had all the best artists there teaching. Anthony Caro was head of sculpture. We had Patrick Heron, Gillian Ayres, Henry Mundy… Patrick Heron gave some amazing lectures…
AP: I came out of St Martins with one painting after seven years.
BS: Did you…! Explain more?
AP: Well, I just continued what I had been doing at Bideford School, which was life drawing. I wasn’t interested in painting really. I was just interested in learning to draw. Not your academic, take six months to do it, but something you can do in a minute. I used to sit in Piccadilly and just draw, or Speakers Corner on a Sunday in Hyde Park… it was a brilliant place… crowds of people…
BS: …this sounds like you’re drawing people now…
AP: Yeah, it was all people. And then after I left I was artist in residence for The Royal Ballet. Because by that time I think I could do a person leaping across the room in a minute and get it down. And then I got asked to be artist in residence at Plymouth Argyle Football Club.
BS: So when did you decide to change the focus of your practice to flower studies and still life studies and landscape…
AP: Well, I was living on Dartmoor and there was a really fantastic gallery called Gordon Hepworth Gallery. He dealt in all the St Ives people, Peter Lanyon, Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, Tony O’Malley… all those. They were either still alive or just beginning to peg it. And I went and saw him and took all these drawings, and he said, yeah, really nice but they’re not going to sell. He said, go and sit on Dartmoor for a couple of years and learn to paint, which is what I did. And for seventeen years he was my dealer…. I think he retired about 15 years ago now. He was brilliant. You were having exhibitions with all these big names, and there was your little stuff beside Ben Nicholson or Terry Frost or Peter Lanyon. You got seen a lot more because people didn’t come to see you, they came to see them. But they were really into landscapes.
BS: There’s a wonderful warmth and optimism in your work…
AP: I think I got to a stage where landscapes were all brown and green and I wanted colour. Even the leaf paintings that you’ve seen… last winter we were just walking, and the leaves were so beautiful to look at before they’d gone rotten. They’d fallen off the tree and there were yellows and reds. They were just so beautiful. I just picked a whole bunch and... hey-ho… that’s it. Nothing serendipitous really.
BS: So they ended up being colour studies really, not still life studies?
AP: Yeah, absolutely. They were just such beautiful tints.
BS: And I suppose it’s the same with your seashells?
AP: Well Anka was painting shells so we went down the Beach at Newhaven, along the tide-line, picked up a whole load of shells, came and home and I just put them in… you know, I thought that would make a change.
BS: When I look closely at your wildflower studies, I’m intrigued with how you go into the negative spaces between the flowers with colour. And I understand how it takes two or three months… each painting.
AP: Sometimes I may paint the whole board, I might just give it a wash of a colour… and sometimes I don’t.
BS: But it also gives it an incredible sense of movement and depth.
AP: [pointing at his painting Buttercups] That yellow and that yellow should be roughly the same but one’s on a dark background and one’s on a light background. So you’re playing with all sorts of other things as well.
BS: And you have this incredibly beautiful line… really delicate, which I’m assuming you can only achieve because once you’ve put the line in… you leave it… and you paint the negative around it.
AP: It has to [a gesture with his hand], which comes from quick drawing. You’ve only got one chance, if it’s no good you just [another gesture with his hand] and you start again until you’ve got it right.
BS: But in my experience, when you’re trying to get that quality of line, if you don’t get it the first time… it just gets heavier and worse every time.
AP: You just have to be very brave and literally [gesture again]. You get your coffee sticks from [coffee shop] and also their paper tissues… they’re very useful…
BS: They’re supporting your artistic practice…!?
AP: Motor way service stations are good for that as well [laughing].
AP: When we were living in Devon, I worked… [at] a place that makes aircraft engines… you had all these very thin strips of metal that… [measured gaps]. Well I kept all those…they’re wonderful… as a tiny palette knife. Or bits of stick, anything really. Fingers, whatever. That way you get a lot more variety and accidents. You know, a brush… the marks can become too predictable… the unexpectedness of a mark… you don’t know what it’s going to make, whereas a brush, you know what it’s going to make.
BS: And there’s that barely held onto control… you are trying to manipulate the paint…
AP: Yeah… otherwise it gets boring. You know, I’ve been doing this for 45 years, it gets bloody boring… you’ve got to find way to keep yourself awake [laughing].
AP: You asked me once who my hero is or influences… it’s always been Keith Vaughan… ever since I was about 14. My dad used to know him… they used to come home when I was in the school holidays and I used to meet them. My dad was the big man and I was allowed to sit on the top of the stairs and listen sometimes.
BS: What is it about Keith Vaughan’s work that completely fascinates you?
AP: ...It’s the brush marks and the texture. …almost every day I am looking at his books. I’ve got hundreds of books on Keith Vaughan. It’s been a very strange [journey]… but very lucky really. It was not planned at all, none of this has been planned. It’s just… you’ve got an obsession… just go with it.
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