I first came across Simon Pierse through the Alpine Club. I had spoken to the late Peter Mallalieu - the then keeper of the paintings - who helped me identify the painter of a picture I had bought. We then got talking about contemporary alpine artists and before long Simon’s name was brought up.
Perhaps it was the Italian connection - Simon has spent a lot of time studying and painting in Italy - perhaps the lightness of touch in his alpine sketchbooks, certainly something drew me instantly to his work.
Simon became a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2014 and retired from Aberystwyth University to paint full time, in 2016. He is the author and contributor to a number of publications and his works are to be found in collections around the world.
This month he gave up his time to be interviewed by The Armchair Mountaineer, before he heads off to Australia for a six month residency.
AM: Through your art, you seem to have a particular affinity, or at least a very meaningful relationship with mountains. How did this come about?
SP: I’ve always been attracted to wilderness – I think there’s solace to be found in such places which comes from an emptying out of day-to-day concerns … and, consequently, a re-connection with one’s own self. As for mountains, I guess it goes back to my childhood when my father used to reminisce about his time in India at the end of WWII, especially the week’s leave he spent a week at Darjeeling when he saw the mountain Kangchenjunga. As a boy, I used to day-dream, sometimes imagining that clouds were great mountain ranges on the horizon. I went with my family on holidays to Wales and Scotland, of course, but the mountains there didn’t impress me greatly. My early adult years took me to Europe and later India, in search of much bigger mountains, but for a long while they remained elusive … in other words, I’d travel to these places and then see nothing, due to a white-out or something. Ladakh was a breakthrough, and then Sikkim – I led cultural tours to both places when I lectured on Tibetan Buddhism and art history. I learnt that you had to be patient and wait until the mountains were ready to show themselves to you.
AM: Having residence in Wales, do you often find inspiration in your local Welsh landscape and nature?
SP: Not really. I know that must sound rather odd. Where I live, the predominate feature of the landscape is the sea. We live within sight and sound of the sea, and the sea shapes the weather and therefore the light. I never get tired of looking at the sea, but I have never really wanted to paint it. The mountains (hills more accurately) are quite close by. And there are some wilderness places that I have enjoyed walking in and will return to: the Rhinogydd, for example; the hidden cwm below Cader Idris; and the tops of the Cambrian mountains (sometimes called the roof of Wales), which are very sparsely populated and a sort of wilderness area.
AM: What is your personal relationship with mountains like, beyond art? Have you always enjoyed getting out in the wilderness?
SP: Yes, I have always been a keen walker. I like to walk alone, I can’t bear the thought of walking in a group … that must make me sound like a dreadful misanthrope. But the solitude helps me to re-centre myself, and also makes me more appreciative of company when it is over. I remember once, when I was in my early twenties, taking the train to Garve in Scotland, which is just a tiny station on the main northeast line from Inverness, and then getting off onto a deserted platform and starting to walk, westwards, cross-country. I was heading for the Summer Isles, and it took me two days and nights before I got within reach of Ullapool. During the whole time, I neither saw nor spoke to another soul. On the third morning as I walked along the road into Ullapool town I met another walker and we got into conversation. I surprised myself at just how talkative I’d become!
AM: I am a huge admirer of your work and one reason is that I see a sort of ‘magical’ freedom and immediacy to them. For example, I see the paint allowed to run without the constraint of trying to reproduce the exactness what you see. This feels easy. But I imagine it is actually the result of intimate knowledge or understanding of the subject. How does this actually work - what is your process like? How much is in situ and in the studio?
SP: Well, I don’t think, when it comes to mountains, that I could claim to have any intimate knowledge or understanding beyond anyone else, really. But I would claim an understanding of the medium of watercolour, and of oil paint too, and a working knowledge of what each medium can achieve. A lot of art (all the arts, in fact, not just painting) is about the concealment of effort – that is to say, making the difficult look easy. If I paint a cloud passing over a mountain peak, this necessitates painting with a certain freedom and speed, because, what I am doing is trying to record something that is transient, and also because a cloud is, by its nature, something intangible and seemingly weightless – you can’t paint it in the same way as you might paint a rock. In the way that I work, there is also an element of using the medium of paint as an analogy to what I am painting. For example: in the painting La Grivola, I have painted a near-vertical face of the lower slopes of the mountain which is covered with scree slopes, with a few pine trees clinging on for dear life. It’s quite an awe-inspiring thing to behold in real life, and in order to emphasize the vertiginous qualities, I made the paint dribble down in vertical lines on that part of the painting. Normally, when using watercolour, I work flat, so this was a conscious decision for me to put the painting up on an easel. Obviously, therefore, La Grivola is a studio painting. When I work in situ, I often work in sketchbooks. Sketches generally take around 3-4 hours complete. There’s no point in carrying on after that as the light will be so different you would be painting another picture. I don’t generally use my sketches to make larger paintings. I’ve tried, but I find that the watercolours I do en plein air don’t generally have enough information in them for scaling up. They have their own validity, and sometimes I frame up the sketches for an exhibition. Possibly, working in situ gives me that sense of immediacy which can transfer itself to my studio pieces. I don’t know.
AM: Is there a particular medium you prefer or that lends itself to landscape and mountain pictures?
SP: I’ve worked both in oil and watercolour. Given what I said earlier about the ephemeral nature of mountains, their revealings and disappearances, clouds going over, etc. … I guess it’s watercolour that seems most suitable. The medium of oil can seem a little pompous sometimes … I don’t know, really. Also, with the medium of watercolour there is a strong precedence of mountain painters who have gone before and shown us the way, as it were.
AM: Would you say you take risks in your painting? And what is it you are trying to convey (beyond a representation of what you see in front of you)?
SP: Yes, I’m a risk taker. I hate safe painting of any kind … almost as a matter of principle. For myself, usually I’m trying convey the memory of an experience I have had in the landscape. It’s something felt and remembered … everything is down to that. In a single painting, I often have to make, disrupt and re-make the image many times over. What I am after is very personal, but I know when I have got it. And then I just have to hope that enough people see what I see and in the way that I see it. Of course, what the public get to see are only those paintings that, for me, have worked. All the others get torn up, or maybe put in a studio drawer for me to re-work another day. The thing about watercolour is that it is very risky – you can so easily over-work a painting or put something down that you can’t take out. The worst danger of all is of killing a painting, putting too any layers on, strangling the life out of it.
AM: How do you settle upon a mountain subject matter? What is the process of choosing which fragment of landscape you will interpret through your art, given the almost “never-ending” beauty of landscape?
SP: Well, if I am working in the landscape, there are simple practicalities. It has to be somewhere where there is a flat rock that I can rest the open sketchbook on, and hopefully, another rock that I can sit on as well. There has to be running water reasonably close. That bit is much like choosing a suitable spot for camping, as when I was hiking through Scotland all those years ago. Then there are other factors too, like trees … which, for various reasons, I generally try to avoid … but, by the time you are high enough to get a good view of a mountain, you are usually above the tree line, anyway. Thinking aloud, I would say that, with regard to mountains, what I am looking for is a mountain portrait, almost. I want to be looking directly at the shape and profile of a mountain … and I want it to be looking back at me, as it were. In the studio, it is more generally a memory of a moment in the landscape that I want to recapture, and this memory is usually tied up with light. It’s not so much the subject itself but the light that it is bathed in, which has the most power for me. To illustrate this point, I would describe a painting I did a few years ago of a part of Malta called Pretty Bay. A less picture-postcard-pretty-place you couldn’t imagine, with a massive container port dominating the skyline across the water. But when I drove past at about 7.00pm, there was this magical, just before sunset, golden light just making everything look wonderfully sharp and cinematic. More than that, I would admit to being, in general, somewhat perversely drawn to painting the overlooked and less obvious.
AM: We last saw each other at the Alpine Club in London, where the archives have an amazing wealth of historical mountain paintings. Who have you most admired from the mountain painters that have gone before you?
SP: That’s easy. John Ruskin, Howard T. Somervell, Albert Goodwin and Edward Lear (although those last two are not represented in the Alpine Club’s collection). And I have a particular admiration for Alfred Williams of Salisbury.
AM: Now, of course your art goes well beyond mountains as well, so what is next for Simon Pierse, the artist?
SP: I’m off to Melbourne, Australia in February this year to spend six months as artist in residence at Dunmoochin (home of Australian artist Clifton Pugh). Then, in September, I am joining a Friends of Scott Polar Research Institute expedition to West Greenland and Baffin Island.
AM: Which contemporary mountain painter would you love to see interviewed on The Armchair Mountaineer?
SP: I think Julian Cooper would be a good one.
You can see more of Simon Pierse's work; his paintings and sketchbooks, and keep up to date with news on his web site: www.simonpiersepaintings.co.uk