Peter Brown didn’t earn his nickname from staying indoors. The New English Art Club president is affectionately known as “Pete the Street”, a name that he earned thanks to his insatiable love for painting en plein air, whatever the weather. It is a practice that, even just in recent years, has taken him from the bustling banks of the River Ganges, via the towering skyscrapers of Midtown Manhattan and back to the mean streets of Bath – a city he has called home since 1993.
Yet while his previous exhibition titles have often celebrated this itinerant painting lifestyle – On the Road, At Home and Abroad, World Travels – his current show is called simply A Big Year. It’s seemingly both a wry joke that the restrictions have in fact curtailed much of 2020 and also an acknowledgement that this has been an experience for which the worldly artist is still struggling to process. “It could have been called anything really, but it has been a remarkable year,” says Pete. “The places I painted have been dictated by worldly events somewhat.”
With a planned trip to Nepal first postponed and then cancelled altogether, and the initial lockdown restricting opportunities to paint on the street, the artist turned his attention to his home studio instead. He laughs at the suggestion that he was like a lion in captivity, robbed of his natural habitat. “It’s funny, isn’t it? I think what really drives me to paint is recording and then what goes along with that is the desire to get better and better at painting. Hopefully each time I do it, I get better… Although I probably don’t.”
He chuckles again. “Painting in the studio was just about observation and trying to really nail the light and space, I suppose. It wasn’t so much about the location or a sense of place as much. It became a sort of exercise in painting, really. I had done studio interiors before, but only one-offs. I do love the space, all the clutter and the nonsense. It’s all bits of your life.”
A Big Year features a number of these studio paintings, focused around the mid-morning light as it passes through the east-facing window of an upstairs room in the Edwardian semi that Pete shares with his wife and five kids. It’s fascinating to see these works together, to chart the subtle changes in the light and colour temperature; it’s an exercise akin to Monet’s paintings of haystacks or Rouen cathedral, albeit a Covid-appropriate series set in suburban south-west England.
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