Despite his great notoriety as an illustrator and painter, famous artist David Armitage is endearingly down to earth, and keen to discuss his work rather than expecting to be understood.
He is also enormously excited about starring in The Jam Factory’s first ever solo show to celebrate their reopening.
Well known for its numerous and varied exhibitions, The Jam Factory has always exhibited several artists concurrently, until now. But with David on board, his ‘collection’ of amassed illustrations, books, paintings, his new series ‘Earth Watch’ and his huge canvases collated over five decades, will all be evidenced, taking up the whole space, albeit in different rooms.
“We are very excited about our new exhibition featuring the work of acclaimed abstract painter David Armitage,” Claire Gaskell, Jam Factory co-owner and current arts manager confirms. “This is the first whole venue show for us and we can’t wait.”
“WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THE JAM FACTORY IS THAT IT’S NOT A BIG INTIMIDATING, STERILE CUBE OF A GALLERY BUT SOMEWHERE THAT PEOPLE COME TO HAVE A CUP OF COFFEE, WORK, EAT, MEET. I LOVE THAT KIND OF COMMUNAL ENVIRONMENT”
It is indeed a coup. David Armitage is one of the UK’s leading abstract artists and colourists.
“Whether it is from an inkpot applied to paper, or from a bucket tipped onto canvas, there is nothing that gives me greater pleasure than colour,” David explains.
His larger canvases resonate with deep rich colours, inspired by his native Australia, world travels, classical music which plays in the studio as he paints, and the abstract expressionists such as Helen Frankenthaler. He often gives his paintings musical titles.
Originally from Tasmania, Armitage is a well-respected artist sold around the world and a best-selling children’s illustrator with over 35 books to his name.
Now living in East Hoathly, a village near Eastbourne, in East Sussex, he is looking forward to bringing his work into the “more urban environment” of Oxford.
“What I love about The Jam Factory is that it’s not a big intimidating, sterile cube of a gallery but somewhere that people come to have a cup of coffee, work, eat, meet. I love that kind of communal environment, so that was massively appealing, that my work would surround all of that,” David says.
“Plus, it’s got different spaces where my larger pieces can be seen while the next room it will be a different scene altogether. Some of my paintings are two to three meters in size and it was crucial that they could be shown.
“So no this isn’t a routine show. It has a common purpose and I have been made to feel so welcome at The Jam Factory. It’s very flattering really, but it does mean you can see the full collection in one place featuring the whole spectrum of what I do. So come hell or high wind I’m giving it everything I’ve got.”
David’s personal story is as varied and different as his art. Falling in love with Ronda on a ferry bound for Europe, the pair travelled all over the world before settling in East Sussex and starting a family.
Very successful early on in his career, once they had settled in England and had children, David lost his artistic mojo. Instead he took up illustrating and he and his wife wrote and produced the Lighthouse books still in print today, the most recent coming out around the time of the exhibition.
I’M CONFIDENT IN THE WORK ITSELF AND IF NOT… WELL, IT WILL BBQ WELL.”
“I couldn’t straddle both worlds – those of painter and illustrator,” David says simply, so he concentrated on illustration which paid the bills and shelved his painting aspirations.
“Ronda was a teacher so I was a stay-at-home dad, rather ahead of my time,” he chuckles.
He and Ronda also worked a lot in schools, but when his children grew up and left home, David returned to his studio, took up a paint brush and began again.
Unsure what he was concocting and yet unable to resist the painting compulsion taking hold, his new, music inspired, abstract, geometric and expressionist ideas and forms slowly took shape.
Now unmistakably his, David said he had found some of his earlier works recently and described them as “quite desperate”.
Still it must have been a relief to have found painting again? “I never gave up on it but I think before then I’d been trying to push it too hard. When I began working with much thinner paint overworked with washes of colour it was like letting the paintings breath.
“That’s what worked for me. I just listened to my mood and there we are.”
Guided by the music he plays in his studio (usually Schubert) to demonstrate infinite space, the colour on top provides a counterpoint, resulting in the symbiosis of the two floating together on the canvas.
Even talking it about it now, his relief is palpable.
David’s work started selling and he began making a name for himself. Collectors began sniffing around. “I think people began to understand my paintings’ language. Some of my collectors can now read my paintings better than I can,” he laughs.
He knows Oxford well, his books being adapted for the stage at the Oxford Playhouse, and he once debated about conceptual art at The Oxford Union.
Not everything is for sale though – some collectors who bought his recent work want to be included in the exhibition for posterity’s sake – but the majority can be bought over the next few months at The Jam Factory.
His beautiful illustrations, which will also be on view, combine watercolour, monoprint and ink drawing. The original illustrations for the latest book The Lighthouse Keepers Mystery can be seen (written by his wife Ronda), along with David’s own project; a set of three illustrated books inspired by the Schubert song cycles, Die Schone Mullerin, Winterreise, and Schwanengesang. Books and prints will also available.
So does David still get nervous before a big event, self conscious even? “No, I’m confident in the work itself and if not it will BBQ well,” he laughs.
“I’m not going to apologise for it and I hope its well received. But don’t take my word for it – have a look for yourself.”
The Jam Factory won’t be disappointed, or as David himself puts it: “To use golf parlance, this show is at the top of my swing. If this work doesn’t do it nothing will.”
DAVID ARMITAGE: A SURVEY EXHIBITION runs from July 31 – October 18.
To find out more go to www.thejamfactoryoxford.com
For details on David Armitage go to http://www.davidarmitage.com/index.html