A love of landscape

Ashley Franklin meets Derbyshire artist Rex Preston
Reproduced with permission from Derbyshire Life magazine, October 2009

To appreciate fully the beauty, breadth and seasonal sweep of this island’s landscapes – especially of our own Peak District – visit an exhibition by Rex Preston. You will also see some of the finest oils to have graced a landscape canvas.

As Rex’s artist son Mark declares: ‘His work reflects a genuine love and understanding of the landscape, an understanding that can only be gained by many years of observation.’ For Rex, it’s been four decades of observation, application and artistic endeavour: his exhibition this month at Bakewell’s Ridgeway Gallery celebrates his 40 years as a professional painter.

Rex has been reflecting on a career that began at the age of 21 in 1969 when he left a commercial design job at the Derby printing firm of Bemrose behind him – ‘my only proper job and it lasted just three years,’ he smiles – to pursue painting full time. The wisdom of that decision can be encapsulated in the words of Sarah Ridgeway who will be hosting Rex’s exhibition: ‘I can’t quite believe I am going to be surrounded by Rex’s paintings for a whole fortnight. It will remind me just how much I love my job!’

40 years on, his ardour is undimmed. ‘I feel privileged to have made a living from painting’, Rex declares. ‘I still love every minute of it’

What is also significant about Rex Preston’s success is that in a world where so much media attention is grabbed by conceptual contemporary art, there is a healthy demand for his traditional landscape paintings. Not just traditional but exceptional, according to fellow painter Andrew Macara: ‘When we look at a painting by Rex Preston, our spirits are lifted. It’s not just through his choice selection of subject matter but his combination of brushstrokes with just the right amount of paint. It is in the texture and love of the paint and the way it is applied.’

Asking Rex to reflect on the last 40 years, he remarks: ‘I’ve proved them all wrong, haven’t I? Even at Derby Art College, the tutors would tell you that you couldn’t make a living at art.’
As son Mark points out, we are living at a time when painting isn’t even encouraged on some fine art degree courses, and his father ‘has been the best teacher I could have wished for.’

Considering Rex’s latest work: in ‘Autumn Leaves, Monsal Dale’ the superlative quality of the colour and the shimmering light is such that you find yourself wishing to be there. Likewise, ‘Hot Summer Day on Trevelgan Hill, St Ives’ compellingly oozes warmth and vibrant colour. Rex’s abiding passion for painting is reflected in pictures like ‘Scafell Pike from the banks of the River Esk’ and ‘Cornish Flowers’, where you can almost feel the relish with which he’s dabbed and stroked in the oils. A further quality, evident in ‘Autumn in Dovedale’, is again lauded by Andrew Macara: ‘One outstanding skill Rex has is in his depiction of water. Whether the water is still or running or cascading down a waterfall, it appears wet!’

‘Autumn in Dovedale’, together with ‘Cornish Flowers’, also illustrates a different direction Rex’s work has taken in the last decade – to great acclaim. His ‘abstracted landscapes’, like ‘Misty Sunset, Derwent Moor’ and ‘Padley Gorge’, concentrate simply and superbly on mood and play of light. ‘Rhododendrons in the Park’ and ‘Bluebells, Allestree Woods’ delve even further into abstraction as pure studies in colour, tone and texture.

Rex’s depictions of Dovedale in autumn are not only gorgeous studies in tranquillity but also show how a true artist can bring out all the colourful subtleties and sensations of a place that others would struggle to spot. As Rex confirms, ‘The more you paint, the more you see.’ Couple this observational faculty with his compositional eye, both allied to supreme artistic technique developed and honed over a lifetime, and you have an artist at the peak of his powers.

Not only is Rex’s son a fine painter but so is his brother James, evidence of artistic genes that came from their father, Norman. In a family tree of builders and decorators, Norman Preston was the first to attend art school, becoming a skilled copper engraver. ‘The art we’ve found of his is wonderful,’ remarks Rex. ‘He did superb copper-engraved landscapes but could draw and paint anything.’

‘-when we look at a painting by Rex Preston, our spirits are lifted. It’s not just through his choice selection of subject matter but his combination of brushstrokes with just the right amount of paint. It is in the texture and love of the paint and the way it is applied’

Norman had all but given up art by the time Rex was born and was busy running a succession of pubs, but it was a move to the Bridge Inn in Duffield that proved the catalyst for Rex’s artistic career. He had been through art school – ‘a proper one where they taught you all the basics like perspective which have been so valuable to me’ – then Derby Art College, before joining Bemrose where he had ‘a secure job with a pension.’ Rex continues, ‘I didn’t know any full-time artists making a living from their paintings, but I had started to sell a few of my works and was consumed with a desire to paint all the time.’ The family move to the Bridge Inn provided both free gallery space and determined Rex’s decision to concentrate on landscapes. ‘My bedroom at the pub looked out onto the River Derwent. It was wonderful to sit there and experience nature’s changing moods. It was very inspirational. I think that if l had lived in a less beautiful area, I might have painted quite differently.’

From the early proceeds of his canvas sales, 17-year-old Rex moved into his first studio: an old caravan parked by the river bank. Aged 20, he acquired his first car, and his forays into the Peak District began. As well as the beauty and diversity of the Peak, Rex discovered a love of walking and he will sometimes trek for miles to seek out the wild, unspoilt and less accessible places.

Rex also makes regular trips to Scotland, the Lakes, Cornwall and Norfolk. Wherever he goes, he prefers to paint in situ or, at the very least, sketch a scene which he will turn into a canvas in his Derby studio. Rex never works from a photograph. ‘That would hinder rather than help,’ he believes. ‘It can actually stifle you because a lot of imagination goes into the work.’

If you see Rex on location sitting in the sun with easel and brush, it might strike you that an artist’s life is idyllic but try joining him in the teeth of a winter blizzard. ‘Obviously the ideal winter’s day is sunshine and snow showers, but I can often get caught in a storm. When I was doing a sketch on White Edge Moor, the wind was so strong that it blew my sketchbook straight out of my hands, landing ten feet away. Experiencing those conditions helps me to paint the subject back in the studio.’

For many years and over thousands of miles, Rex walked with fellow artist, the late Wilfred Ball, who kept aflame Rex’s enthusiasm for landscapes. ‘The way he could describe a mountain would make you want to paint it before you had even seen it,’ recalls Rex. ‘He also made an excellent critic.’

These days, Rex enjoys the company of his son Mark, and other fellow artists Colin Halliday, Julian Mason and Peter Wigley. ‘Art can be a solitary process so it’s good to get together,’ he remarks. However, his fondest walking partner and critic is his wife of 35 years, Sue, who worked in accountancy for 21 years but now devotes herself full time to managing Rex’s paperwork, dealing with galleries, photographing his paintings, helping with framing, updating his website and answering emails. ‘It’s satisfying to know that dealing with Rex’s admin allows him to do what he wants, which is paint,’ she says. It’s obvious her work is vital because, as she points out, ‘Rex sometimes forgets his own phone number.’ She’s quick to stress that this is not a sign of age but an indication of his absorption in his work. ‘He’ll struggle to retain people’s names,’ continues Sue, ‘but once he starts painting a landscape, he remembers exactly what was there. He has amazing recall.’

Sometimes Rex will alter a painting on Sue’s advice. ‘I am not at all artistic and have no idea how to paint,’ admits Sue, ‘but I see Rex’s paintings every day and have become very adept at picking out which will be the most admired. My favourite paintings are usually the ones everyone wants. After 35 years, I think I must have become a reasonable critic!’

‘I always value her honest opinion – good or bad,’ declares Rex. ‘In fact, after a day out painting on location, I look forward to her comments when I get back. She’s vitally important to me and makes me stronger as an artist and a person.’

Sue is also on hand to remind her husband that he has a living to make. ‘You have come across the least commercial artist ever,’ admits Rex.
‘What sells well or what galleries want is never part of the consideration of what to paint. I don’t accept commissions either. It’s important to stay a free spirit and keep alive the enthusiasm which made you want to paint in the first place. I’m inspired by the landscape, not sales.’

However, Rex does concede that the positive response to his abstracted landscapes did encourage him to produce more of these works. ‘What tends to happen now is that I will paint the more “literal” landscapes but get an abstracted painting from within that landscape and concentrate on the feeling. It means that the colours on the canvas don’t have to fall into the shape of a tree anymore -they can simply be colours.’

Rex’s abstracted work has made him a saleable artist at Phil Tregoning’s contemporary gallery in Derby and Sarah Ridgeway believes that the two sides to Rex’s landscapes have considerably broadened his appeal. She loves both aspects for particular reasons: ‘I have always loved Rex’s “traditional” landscapes. They have the power to draw in the viewer who will evidently see the work of someone highly attuned to the nature that surrounds him, and the weather that envelops him. I adore the way light plays such a strong role. Just look at “After The Rain, Beresford Dale” for the way the light picks out the leaves of a tree and then reflects them in the shallow waters of a flooded path. There is also the way the light breaks through distant clouds. My eyes can’t help but wander around the landscape discovering new details.

‘The importance of light is continued in his abstracted landscapes where the mood, colour and atmosphere can be so strong. It’s as if Rex is considering what is absolutely necessary in the painting and has concentrated all the emotion within the painting on that. Some of the larger abstract canvases are breath-taking.’

When asked about his ambitions, Rex replied simply: ‘To produce better paintings.’ 40 years on, his ardour is undimmed. ‘I feel privileged to have made a living from painting’, Rex declares. ‘I still love every minute of it.’