When the Great Western Railway was extended to reach West Cornwall in 1877, the fishing towns of St Ives and Newlyn began to attract artists who made this part of the world their home. The particular draw for the Newlyn School of Painters, as they became known, was the dramatic beauty of the scenery – both inland and out to sea – and the quality of the light. Often the subject matter of their impressionist style was taken from the simple life of farmers and fishermen.
The legacy of these Newlyn painters has continued to ripple through the ages: today the Newlyn School of Art is based in the former artists’ colony and counts among its tutors some of the most respected artists working in Cornwall today. Cornwall remains a place of pilgrimage for artists – and John Robson is one such pilgrim who returns again and again.
John Robson was born in Newcastle and studied civil engineering at Newcastle University. His first job took him to London and then he spent three years in Kenya working on a water supply scheme for Nairobi. When he returned to the UK he settled in Kent where he now feels at home.
“Using watercolour successfully is
the key to doing anything else”
Even though his mother had been a talented hobby painter, John was convinced that he had no talent for drawing. So for many years, photography became his creative outlet. But then he retired in 2000 and somehow found his way into a local art class – and to his surprise and joy realised that he could draw and paint. He took it step by step, starting with watercolour and sketching, gradually becoming more confident and happy to experiment with other mediums such as acrylics and oil. John feels strongly that he does not want to limit himself to a particular style, he is keen to improve his technique and try new things. When pressed to choose a favourite medium, he says he likes painting in oil but also tries to keep up his watercolour skills. In John’s book using watercolour successfully is the key to doing anything else.
THE PULL OF CORNWALL
As far as motifs are concerned, there are no favourite subjects really – John likes to move about. Yet it has to be said that the landscape of Cornwall and coastal vistas hold a special fascination for him. He picks two of his paintings that exemplify this attraction: ‘Cornish coast’ and ‘Porthleven wave’.
“Paint what you feel”
The latter was painted in 2019 when John joined a study group run by Ashley Hanson in Cornwall. Hanson encourages his students to look beyond the subject matter in front of them, to be free with their emotions and paint what they feel – nothing is right or wrong in this ‘freedom in painting’. John admits he found the very abstract, different way of working challenging at first but then he really enjoyed it. In John’s Porthleven oil painting the top of the clock tower is discernable rising above the pastel-coloured wave – alluding to the true historical event when the Porthleven clock tower was almost demolished by waves in a storm.
“Cornwall means dramatic scenery
and quality of light”
Yes, Cornwall and its dramatic scenery call John back year after year for more inspired en plein air painting, just as the artists of the Newlyn school did before him. Speaking to John, you can just picture him sitting atop a boulder looking out to sea, sketchbook in hand and his watercolour set by his side. It comes as no surprise that the artists John feels inspired by are the impressionist painters of the Newlyn School and the French impressionists.
ACTIVE AT WOKAS
John has exhibited regularly at Weald of Kent Art Society exhibitions and the Rotary exhibition in Sutton Valence. He likes to show his paintings to allow people to see what he has been doing and he feels it is useful to measure oneself against one’s fellow painters which helps to put one’s own work in perspective.
WOKAS (or rather WOKAG, as it was then called) entered John’s life many years ago. He used to help with the projector at the fortnightly meetings and when he eventually joined the committee became involved in organising the programme of events for a while. John feels belonging to a society such as WOKAS is extremely valuable: you learn so much from other artists, the demos and workshops are extremely useful, and above all, it’s enjoyable to be with people who have similar interests.
NOT STANDING STILL
So what part does art play in his life? John is quick to point out that he mainly paints for the enjoyment it gives him – it is a leisure activity for him. But, he emphasises, you have to treat it seriously if you want to improve. And try new things, experiment. He has stayed loyal to his local art class which continues to challenge him, so he is not standing still by any means. In his designated art space – a light, airy room overlooking the garden – he feels happy to have a go at most things. Even though he does not feel the urge to paint every day, when he does that miraculous transformation occurs: everything else falls away, all your other pre-occupations vanish for a while. And painting also generates lovely memories: John recalls the moment when he was painting outdoors in Constable country, near Flatford Mill, and a group of Japanese tourists asked to have their photo taken with him. Needless to say, he overcame his shyness and obliged.
“Painting generates lovely memories”
John tends to do most of his sketches and preparatory compositions when he is away travelling. Of course, that source of inspiration has been lacking during lockdown and John is longing to get back into landscape painting.
PUTTING YOUR MIND TO IT
When you ask John whether he has any advice to pass on to fellow painters he modestly says that he does not feel qualified to give hints and tips. But perhaps one thing: ‘If you think you can’t do something, just give it a go anyway. It’s surprising what you can turn your hand to when you put your mind to it.’
Tempted by the Painting Fairy to tell her any art-related wishes he might secretly harbour, John says he is content as he is. As long as he can go back to Cornwall every now and then, all is well in John Robson’s world.
John Robson is based in Headcorn.
Gunda Cannon was in conversation with him in May 2021.
Click on images to enlarge
John Robson at work