FOXTROT ON TOADSMOOR
An Interview between Pete Hoida and Jon Benington to accompany an exhibition at Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, April - June 1995
JB The title of the exhibition indicates that the landscape around your home in the
Toadsmoor valley near Stroud inspires your work. To some people this may not be immediately
apparent because of the abstract imagery you use. Can you clarify the way in which nature
intervenes in your work? Does it mean more to you than just a motif, a point of departure?
It is essential. To give you an example. I went to Mull a couple of years ago, it was early spring
and everything about he place was red – bracken from the year before, and the whole colouration of
the light was completely different from the Cotswolds. I drove overnight coming back and got here at
dawn, and I suddenly realised just how white everything was: not just the may blossom, the whole of
the light in the Cotswolds is very white. That certainly influenced the paintings I was working on at
the time. One of them was called Conference Blossom Arrest, a title which was not arbitrarily chosen.
I did not set out to paint a Conference pear tree outside the studio, but when I had done the painting
I realised that the colours corresponded in some way that was not directly representational, in that
they contained something of the startling rich creamy colour of this Conference blossom. And I would
like to think that the same force and positive energy that is in nature is radiating from the painting.
It is a general rather than a specific allusion I am making to what is out there.
JB Which is reinforced by the elongated, horizontal canvases you like to use?
I do not consciously prefer them. In fact I have tried to do square paintings but I find them more difficult,
perhaps because they are not as appropriate to my way of looking at the landscape.
JB Apart from the sizes of your paintings, the other features which I find most
striking are your use of bold colours and broad, gestural brushstrokes. Are these the primary vehicles
for conveying feelings in your art, and would I be right in thinking that those feelings are primarily
positive and celebratory?
JB Does that mean you have to wait for inspiration, hold back until you are in the
right frame of mind?
No, there is no waiting. The inspiration comes through the work. You have to work through to it.
JB The new series of paintings in the exhibition seem a bit different from the
ones I saw a couple of years ago. The colours are not quite as intense, if anything I would say they
are darker in tonality and more fluid, more mixed together. One could almost liken it to a change from
a Mediterranean mood to one which is more English. Would you agree with this analysis?
Yes. But I can give you no explanation for this. Nor was I aware of this change of emphasis at the time
I was working on the paintings. It was only with hindsight, at the end of the year’s work, that this
JB I thought the earlier ones had a very instant, seductive appeal which I
responded to immediately, whereas the new ones have grown on me over a period of time. And the longer
I look at them the more I can see in them. Another analogy would be to compare it with moving from a
painting by Matisse to one by Constable or Ivon Hitchens.
That is very interesting. I do not know if they are slightly richer paintings or not, slightly more
complex, and as you say, not “so immediately appealing”.
JB I find them richer, even in the way the paint is quite often applied using these
broad, layered brushstrokes which introduce a feeling of movement to the picture surface, as distinct from
the more static and flatter areas of colour you used before.
Yes, so that your eye runs across the canvas more easily without jumping from point to point. There was
probably something subconsciously deliberate about it. They are also the product of a different light, a
different state of mind, different circumstances and a different year. Exactly what is different technically
about these paintings would require a deeper analysis.
JB The titles too seem to convey a more elegiac mood. Can you tell me how important
the titles are, and to what extent we should be guided by them?
The titles are important, although I should say that the paintings are not titled until after I have done
them; so I do not have anything in mind when I am doing the painting. Sometimes the title arrives sooner,
JB They seem to be sort of poetic adjunct to the paintings, and a throwback to your
other career as a published poet. Of course the paintings stand on their own merits, but I think the titles
give them an added dimension.
Yes, I am not against that view. I wonder if I could talk about any of the titles? This one, Lunar Harvest,
was done in September. It just struck me as having the richness or peacefulness of a harvest scene by moonlight.
There are little images in there that might be like certain shapes you get in the landscape, but I am certainly
not concerned that anyone identifies them. I am just as happy if people put their own interpretation on it.
This one, Severn Garth and Gear – I should explain that a garth is a stacking yard for timber or tools, the kind
of thing you find around a farm. It is all very subjective and personal, but I was brought up on Merseyside and I
lived near the Cammel Laird shipyard, so I had the Mersey on one side and on the other side of the peninsula was
the river Dee. I have always been fond of rivers. I have lived here for twenty years and got to really know and
like this side of the Severn, partly through cycling up and down the country lanes. I think the painting has something
of the romance of a particular kind of light and a particular kind of stacking yard near the Severn.
Similarly, Venus and Lighterman – a lighterman is someone who unloads larger ships which cannot come in to dock.
It’s the sort of thing somebody like Rimbaud might have written about. There is a story behind the painting to do
with a person I met at a particular time, but is nor really relevant to anything else. If the title gives a poetic
intensity I would be quite happy. They are just hints to help the viewer come to grips with the work.
JB Could we talk for a moment about other artists who have influenced you? I am very
interested by the fact that you can admire painters as different as Matthew Smith and Kenneth Noland, the one a
figurative and the other a completely abstract painter. How do you reconcile two such different ways of working?
The figurative-abstract thing is no big deal to me. I look at a Titian in the same way that I look at a Picasso.
The point is not whether a painting is representational or not, but whether the artist’s manipulation of line and
colour, space and light, texture and rhythm does anything. And the only way to find this out is to spend time looking
at paintings. This is how I learnt to paint.
JB Who were you looking at then? Was it the abstract expressionists?
Yes, certainly Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Matisse, Braque and Picasso have been a greater influence, mediated by
Hilton, Heron and others.
JB It is important I think for our young painters to be aware of continuity in art and not
to be sidetracked by the demand for originality and innovation. Too much change in art can be a bad thing, not
least because the public becomes increasingly alienated from what is happening. I am glad you are going to address
some of these issues in the talk you are giving at the gallery during the exhibition.
Yes, there has to be continuity in my estimation. However, the degree of change the public may be ready to accept
is hardly a valid consideration. Discontinuity of meaning can be a bad thing. Sabotaging the whole language of art
can only be disastrous.
JB Have you ever worked in a figurative manner?
About ten years ago I did some life drawing for three months or so, just for my own amusement. I never really did any
at art school, and I discovered that I could do it, in case anyone wonders. I wondered!
JB Do you still draw, either independently, or in preparation for painting?
I have been dabbling a little with water colours recently, partly because the studio is so cold in winter, but
they are not studies for larger works. I always paint straight onto a blank canvas, and there is an element of drawing
in the way I apply the colours sometimes.
JB Do you start painting, without any preconceived idea as to how the picture might turn out?
Yes. You have chosen a shape of canvas, of a certain size and proportion. You have probably got in your mind the last
painting you did. Whatever the kind of concerns that are floating around in your mind they are subconscious, and you
are just chucking down a colour really. And the next move is a slightly more decided one because you are putting another
colour with it, and the third colour is more difficult because that is affecting two colours already. So the further
you go, the more you have to take into consideration. The decisions and processes are technical, so that anything else
that comes into the painting comes in through work. Then there is a chance that an unmediated impression of nature is
getting through to the canvas.
JB By unmediated do you mean that it almost happens by chance, or intuition?
No. it is knowledge that is not at the forefront of your brain. The simple analogy is riding a bike. If you think about
it you would fall off, but you get on it and you go. The problem is: how to get up and go? You only get to the point of
going by working, and a lot of the time you are working it is not happening; conversely, when it is happening you are not
necessarily aware of the fact that it is. After the event when you look at the work you think yes, I’ll leave that because
it looks convincing, or I will cover it over because its not convincing at all.
JB Does the way you choose the colours you put down have anything to do with Matisse’s use of colour?
I’m thinking of the way he used colour resonances and harmonies to create a sense of light and space in his pictures, without
having to resort to conventional linear perspective.
Yes, Matisse is crucial for the colour-based painter. There are colours that recede and others that push forward. Without
those kind of technical judgements that you are making all the time, the end product would purely be of decorative value.
JB How long does it take you to do a painting? I suppose it depends a lot on the size of the canvas?
No, it is not the size. I have done a very large painting in a couple of days flat, and yet sometimes they have taken a
couple of years. Sometimes the mark is right straight away, sometimes the mark may be essential as a means of getting to
the mark that you finally leave there. But you have to carry on until you are satisfied.
JB When I first saw your paintings I made the mistake of thinking they were oil paintings, but they
are actually acrylic. Do acrylic paints lend themselves to your way of working better than oils?
They answer the timescale of the painting because oil paint dries very slowly. Also, when you are overpainting in oils the
paint has to get thicker and thicker. You do not have this with acrylic because it dries very quickly, so that within a couple
of hours you can overpaint it. This makes the whole process more rapid. Generally speaking, acrylic paint is quite inferior,
so often it has a linoleum quality about it. At the risk of being immodest, I think there are no more than a few people who
have found out how to do something with it. This is why I am always very flattered when someone – and you are not the first
person to do so – mistakes my pictures for oil paintings.
JB Do you ever solicit a second opinion before a piece of work is completed?
No, it is purely a personal decision, but very occasionally someone gets to see the work in process, and sometimes they say
something quite illuminating about it. There are a handful of people whose eye I value.
JB Someone once said (was it Rothko?) that a painting is not complete until it finds a sympathetic home,
and you have just given a good example of this. He went on to say, however, that it was a much more frightening experience to
put work into a public exhibition where the responses of viewers would be completely unpredictable. This is your seventh solo
exhibition, and your second one in Cheltenham, but I wonder if you would identify with this attitude? Or perhaps it is a more
pleasurable experience to have work going out into the public arena?
I agree that a painting does not really exist without a viewer. However, my feelings about exhibiting are somewhat neutral.
The painting is finally for a public. It is a job of work. The unplaced paintings are simply awaiting the person who has the
eye and mind to see them.
Reproduced from the original document published by Cheltenham art Gallery and Museum, 1995