The late William Bowyer, interviewed by Jen Wood
I’ve been painting for a long time, and still love to spend every day in the studio! I like to work at different scales, and started out doing watercolours which are more free, before moving onto oils for my portraiture work. This one (pointing at a work in progress for the RA Summer Exhibition, depicting a landscape of Hammersmith Bridge) is very big but I still have the energy and can manage to create bigger pieces, I do it all the time. To start off I visit the scene to take some photographs and make the drawings that I want, but I also have a good memory which comes in useful! I just remember what things look like, it’s easy. I don’t keep track of how long a piece takes, I just start painting and then keep on going. If I get stuck I just keep going, keep painting until something comes – and drink lots of tea and coffee!
Once it’s framed, which tends to always be in gold moulding, I keep on working as I can see every mark and really see it properly then. I’m not always totally satisfied once I see the finished painting in an exhibition, you can often see something that you should have done differently. Sometimes it’s tempting to go in to the gallery and touch up with a little paintbrush, but I’m not Turner (referring to JMW Turner who turned up on varnishing day at an exhibition in 1835, to work on an unfinished painting submitted weeks earlier)!
I like to get to know the people I am painting. When a sitter comes in to have their portrait done, I chat to them about their life to make them feel at ease. I get inspired by their stories, and it makes the difference between just doing a friendly portrait, and doing something that I feel is a contribution towards them. I used to do a lot of portraits for people, but now that I haven’t been so well since suffering a stroke 16 years ago, I haven’t done as many.
I used to paint the whole of the Royal Institute of Psychiatry, all charming men, they came to the studio and I used to paint them one after another – all these professors of Psychiatry, who could tell everything about you. For about five or six years, it was alright – I’m not bad at portrait painting, I can do it easily. Usually people come and sit here in the studio, for a couple of days to start off with, and come back for as long as I need them. The head of Psychology was a marvellous man, and enjoyed the experience so much he came back with his wife to have a portrait of her done too! I ended up painting the whole family. I still hear from him every year, painting people is a rather nice way to make friends.
Alongside painting, I played cricket in Leek and down here in London, with a marvellous lot of blokes, before I became a bit one-sided after suffering a stroke. Now I’m a bit slower I find it difficult to walk, but I enjoy coming here to my studio every day to paint. I like doing things you see, I like being on my own in the studio so I can solve problems. I’ve got a cottage and studio up in Walberswick too where I like to go and paint a mixture of portraiture and landscape. I don’t think there is much difference between painting landscapes and portraiture; it’s all the same to me – a mix of colour, light, and marks.
I have a lot of work in storage here in my studio, some might go into an exhibition if I think that they’re good enough, but it’s nice to be making new stuff. I tend to save my portraiture work for the RP, and I create new landscape work every year for the RA Summer Exhibition. I think my paintings do attract some attention, it’s nice to get feedback and I get all sorts of letters about my work. I had a letter the other day from a lady asking me to send something signed for her grandparents, so I will do that. It’s not just painting that happens here in my studio, I also have to reply to fan mail! I come into this place and I’m alright, it’s as though it’s got my soul in here. My wife comes in sometimes, tidies the studio up – she’s marvellous. She’ll come in at 4pm today to pick me up – I will have had enough by then!