Tim Sainsbury by Tim Sainsbury

Painting, is a highly personal activity. A unique impulsive statement or record about an experience, felt, observed, or imagined. Concepts and experiences are common ground, its how the individual translates and personalizes an idea that takes it into the region of an art form. Therefore the most mundane can take on significance, becoming sometimes exciting, sometimes profound, and at the very least always interesting.

An aspect I find suspect about art and artists is the frequently pretentious talk which, when examined, frequently turns out to be “hot air” and its that commodity that baffled brains. To my mind having to talk about a picture is a certain “turn off” and a way of killing the painting – dead! Much better to allow the viewer to ask questions. Each viewer will then approach the painting on his/her own terms without preconceptions – questions will then be individualistic and will draw the artist out making him more aware of his work – I have known viewers to mention aspects of my paintings that I was totally unaware of.

Perhaps an artist task may be to explain the objective, leaving the subjective open to interpretation. The problem with all of this is that often viewers do not like to think, they would frequently prefer to be told.

Coming as I do from an agricultural, non-conformist rural background some paintings are of figures in landscapes, people at work or at rural functions. The Chapels, those small isolated buildings that drew congregations from large areas I find interesting. They hold in their cold stones the memories of burials and baptisms, of joy and sorrow and sometimes feature in my paintings. These places have strong association for me. The years of boyhood in South Wales come back clearly across the time span. In particular I remember Sundays. Solemn and darkly dressed people attending Chapel, the sermons were sometimes “hell fire” with the local preacher thundering at his “flock”. I remember those, not that they did me any good – but mainly I remember the sombreness heightened in winter by the stark trees and dismal low skies. On weekdays these same people, including the preacher, would be seen at their work, hedging, feeding stock, ploughing, killing chickens etc. all the myriad tasks of wresting a living from the land. Both my Grandfathers had small holdings of ground, maybe five or six acres, with mixed stock so there was always something of interest going on. Haymaking was a family event – the small fields were cut, gathered and stacked entirely by hand.

In those days Chepstow had a military hospital peopled by the permanently wounded and shell shocked survivors of The First World War. Groups of these men in their blue suits, white shirts, and red ties would be out and about the town. Some of these ex-soldiers still suffered, and in their mental conflict would frequently fall down in violent fits, terrible, but full of interest to small children such as myself.

Sometime during my early teens I read Ray Bradbury’s “The Illustrated Man” which has been and still is a starting point for some of my more literal paintings.

Therefore the paintings run in series - 1/Figures in landscapes 2/Landscapes - 3/Men in blue suits - 4/The Illustrated men. Of course there are paintings that lie entirely outside of these confines, “The Hermaphrodite” being an example.

Tim Sainsbury – July 2003 – The Illustrated Gallery

Tim Sainsbury by John H Clifford

Tim Sainsbury, born on the English/Welsh border, has a “foot in both camps” and draws on this dual personality . He paints, nowadays, almost exclusively from memory and imagination. Memory is paramount, for as he says “when a memory has been distilled over maybe 50 years it has to be significant”.

 His method of working may seem to the casual observer to be at first careless and arbitrary, he says, “I apply the paint in a casual manner, not attempting to capture the image I have in mind but rather waiting for it to appear, then the serious business begins”. The paintings, therefore are sometimes like journeys into the sub conscious especially at the commencement. 

He says “Images in the memory are rather like pages in a book, when turned rapidly, you only get glimpses, but one of them will be the starting point for a painting. How the work develops from that point is down to the imagination and pictorial relationships”.

Here is a painter who works in the style of the British painters who were active pre and post war, figurative and imaginative, many styled by Herbert Read to be “Neo-Romantics”. Read says, “By nature the genius of our painters, architects and poets was always romantic”. 

To sum up Sainsbury’s paintings can be seen as a true continuity in the British Tradition, which is deep-rooted and substantial, paintings that evoke and reflect our grey skies and undulating landscape and the idiosyncratic people of these islands.

John H Clifford - Wiltshire - March 2004

Tim Sainsbury by Elizabeth Williams

It is tempting to think of a memory as something containable, a completed artefact which can be placed carefully in an appropriate glass case in the mind and preserved intact for those occasions when you might need to consult it, for reassurance about what once happened and who you were then. Disturbingly, though a memory may be framed or contained, it will not be stilled. Behind the glass, the process of growth continues with the head that contains it. The recording in paint of this organic development of things from the past is one of the factors which makes the work of Tim Sainsbury so absorbing. Memory, and his own memories, are central to his work. His grandfather, for example, surfaces as 'The Bird Maker', a man who clipped hedges into shapes which made of their creator something more than a mere hedge trimmer. When one considers that birds for Sainsbury can be an emblem of freedom, and of man's aspirations or need to escape, this Bird Maker becomes at once the real Welsh farmer and also a symbol of the potency of the artistic imagination. A person located in a specific past can be transformed by both memory and imagination into an almost mythical being who can create out of vegetation a variety of new life - life which gives its maker, perhaps, the chance to escape the constraints of whatever might contain him or bind him
to the earth.

The Birdmaker Size: H97cm X W86cm
Media: Oil and enamel on board

The same grandfather appears again in the haunting painting 'Little Farm'. This time, the green-blue melancholy of the colouring, the chiseled awkwardness of the characters, even those standing close, separated in the direction of their gaze, counters the optimistic notion of the remembered grandfather in 'The Bird Maker'. In the painting 'Little Farm'. Sainsbury recalled his father who had worked on his grandfather's farm for no payment (apart from money for cigarettes obtained from his sister who was a schoolteacher) until he married at the age of twenty-seven. However, the painting is not simply autobiographical - he has described it as being about youth and age, and the quality of distance between them. The way in which the figures and the farm are encompassed in the landscape, the surfaces of the house almost a dream and the features of the characters like things carved or growing, also suggests that what may separate human beings is, in the context of the remembered landscape, less significant than that which binds them together. The remembered person is
therefore in the artwork, as in memory itself, many people at once.

The Farm

Sainsbury's paintings and sketchbooks are peopled by figures from his childhood, and set in the Welsh landscapes of his memory. 'Strange Meeting' introduces the old man who used to spend his days sitting in a hedge watching people go by in the bus; a slow lichen seems to have overspread his face in the time spent waiting, but whatever fire it is which animates him is present in the earth and the sky, as well as his waistcoat and half seen aims. He seems to represent a watchfulness in the land itself - something more than human. Then there is the veteran in the blue suit, whose red tie looks like blood and whose face has been stripped to a bare scream and skull - a real person in a real uniform, who nonetheless encapsulates an all too graphic experience of universal horror. Asked to discuss how he can paint so successfully from memory, he replies that it involves a lot of cheating: "you start buggering about on canvas until you get something you recognise". What he is referring to is an emotional response in himself to a landscape or person which could have been dormant in his memory for years, and the truth of the emotion he recognises communicates itself to us. What he paints is recognisable, though strange;
at times it is our own past viewed through the filtered, fractured light of a stained glass window.

Strange Meeting

Stories he has heard as a child, fragments of gossip, are retold in paintings and sketches. In 'The Two Fires', a man (with a wife and a mistress?) stands hulking in the foreground of a painting in which the smoke of two fires can be seen spiralling into the sky, and two figures stand in the doorways of two different buildings on either side of his head. Sainsbury is chary of telling the exact story ("If I knew, I wouldn't have painted the picture, would I) and his attitude is a reminder not only of
the danger of fixing his characters too specifically, but also of the essentially narrative quality of his art.

The Two Fires Size: H98cm x W103cm
Media: Oil on Hardboard

These narratives, however, though they may have come from words, and will inevitably be returned to words as people communicate what they have seen, are located in pictures. It is interesting that one of the works of fiction which has had an abiding fascination for Tim Sainsbury has been Ray Bradbury's 'The Illustrated Man' - here the body tattoos of a man wholly covered in pictures come to life for his companion (not the illustrated man himself) to relate. The telling involves a heavy price for the narrator who sees at the end of the sequence his own murder at the hands of the man whose stories he has told. Sainsbury's own painting 'The Illustrated Man' is perhaps a reminder that his pictures must tell their own stories, and if we try to fix a meaning onto them, we destroy the possibilities of other readings in ourselves. Their multiple relevance give his
paintings the quality of pictorial myths.

The Illustrated Man No 5

That the kind of religious experience behind mythology is important to Sainsbury can be seen from glancing through his sketchbooks which are full of mythical figures such as the Moonraker (who tries to catch the moon from a pond) and the bird men, wearing the skulls of birds on their heads. Sinister though these men appear, they are men with dreams, who cannot go anywhere because they are confounded by their ideas - and by their human weakness. The skulls of creatures who can fly, can escape, offer them the possibilities of a new persona, if they believe in them. Talking of his painting 'New Song in an Ancient Setting', Sainsbury recalled a childhood of being taken to chapel to worship a God in whom he did not believe - worth it, he said, for the thrice annual chapel teas. Eventually, his mother gave up insisting on his attendance. His work, however, reveals a profoundly spiritual awareness only superficially at odds with the dismissive earthiness of his own voice. In 'New Song in an Ancient Setting', dark hunched figures labor up an increasingly bright pathway towards a chapel lit with the brightness of the golden, fire-coloured hills. The sky behind them is dark, like the heaving foreground, suggestive perhaps of the turbulence of human existence, which can often appear to have no coherent meaning. The light of the 'New Song' is Christianity, a hope, in a setting which has seen many different expressions of human longing and spirituality through the ages. However, as the connection between the hills and the chapel makes clear, this form of Christianity is not a final answer, but the latest expression of an abiding truth which has to do with the relationship between man and the land from which he comes

New Song in an Ancient Setting

The continuity of human presence in the landscape, in a religious context, is signalled in some paintings by the silhouetted tumuli - put in his work, says Sainsbury, to establish a time span - from time immemorial to the present day. These burial mounds also remind us of human mortality, and the human need to make an impression which will last long beyond the departure of the individual body. Sainsbury's work is no more reassuring about death than the landscape he paints. It is not a conscious theme of his paintings, but the watchful eyes in the clumsy, battered faces show an experience of suffering which gives his characters a kind of beauty. It is all there in 'The Old Man and the Sea' - layer upon layer of life on a face which is itself a landscape. The dribbled lines, which he has said were an accident of technique, arose out of frustration with a painting he did not think was working - but these very lines succeed in conveying both a sense of the multiple whip marks of age, and, ironically, because of the structure they provide, a kind of timeless quality to the face of the old man who has returned to the sea to contemplate his origins. Ultimately, then, the success of Sainsbury's work can be said to lie in a harmony between theme and technique, between the specific and the universal, seen in the close relationship of man in his landscape, both remembered and imagined. His work challenges the notion of memory as a kind of museum. Experience is subject to change even after it is complete. But look at the world through his paintings and you realise that though this may involve an acknowledgement of suffering, it is part of the essence of life itself

Tim Sainsbury CV

Art Education:
Newport (Gwent) College of Art
West England College of Art, Bristol
Artist in residence Sussex University
One Man Exhibitions: Sussex University(x2)
Exeter University
London University
Portsmouth City Gallery
Third Age Education Centre - Southampton
Portsmouth Grammar School
Two Man Exhibitions:
Art College – Southampton
Guild Hall Gallery – Winchester
Ashcroft Arts Centre – Fareham
The Red Gallery – Southsea
Group Shows, incl:
Past Artists in Residence – Sussex University
Seven Bristol Painters – Bristol University
Free Painters and Sculptors – London
The Islington Group – London
Sussex Artists – Brighton City Gallery
Wessex Artists – Southampton City Gallery
Arts Council Exhibitions:
Southampton City Gallery
Folkstone Town Gallery
Bristol City Gallery
Reading Town Gallery
Oxford Museum of Modern Art
With “Group South” Exhibited in:
Portsmouth, Southampton, Reading, Basingstoke, Salisbury,
Bournemouth, Winchester, Worthing, and Eastbourne.
Various Private and Public Collections