Bryan Pearce

St Ives primitive painter
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The Independent Online

Walter Bryan Pearce, painter: born St Ives, Cornwall 25 July 1929; died St Ives 11 January 2007.

The unaffected and child-like paintings of Bryan Pearce, who lived and worked in the famous artist's colony of St Ives in Cornwall his entire life, had a simple and colourful charm that brought the legacy of Alfred Wallis into the modern era and kept alive the cult of the primitive or self-taught artist.

Suffering since childhood with the rare congenital disease phenylketonuria that causes damage to the brain, Pearce was unable in his work to convey perspective or assimilate other accepted structural canons of Western academic art. The result was an enhanced feeling for surface design and an immediately recognisable style based on bright, vivid colour and a Matisse-like decorative intensity.

Walter Bryan Pearce was born in St Ives in 1929. His father, Walter, a long-established family butcher, was one of seven brothers and played rugby for Cornwall. Walter's father had been a mayor of St Ives. Bryan's mother, Mary Warmington, a talented painter, came from a musical family in nearby Carbis Bay. After marrying, Walter and Mary Pearce moved to "Chylowen", a solid granite house in Market Place close to the Parish Church of St Io that Bryan would later depict in his work.

Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Bryan was away at a special needs school. This was followed by the auspicious years between 1953 and 1957 when he studied at the St Ives School of Painting situated in the heart of the artist's quarter at Back Road West near to the Porthmeor Studios.

Founded in 1938 by the portrait painter Leonard Fuller and his wife Marjorie Mostyn, the still extant School of Painting provided Bryan Pearce with the ideal introduction to his painting career. An inclusive ambience welcomed novice, amateur, professional and established artist alike. Pearce's years under Fuller were marked by the production of many watercolour paintings which have an unbelievable stiffness but a touching naivety of interpretation, using characteristic motifs like boats moored in St Ives harbour.

In common with the modern Cornish school in general, landscape became Pearce's main idiom. From this early stage, however, Pearce also diversified into still-life and the occasional portrait appeared. The colour-infused motifs of striped table-cloths or of baskets of fruit provided ideal material. Portraits of his mother, of Leonard Fuller or later of the well-known local painter Misome Piele posed more difficult problems that pointed up Pearce's technical limitations.

Shortly after leaving Fuller's school, Pearce was sponsored by the sculptor Denis Mitchell for membership of the modernist Penwith Society of Arts, where he exhibited regularly for the rest of his life, enjoying a retrospective there in 1966. A first solo exhibition was mounted as early as 1959 at the Newlyn Gallery, whose director, the painter Michael Canney, shared with his friend and fellow Cornishman Peter Lanyon an appreciation for Pearce's status as part of a select band of Cornish-born painters.

Solo exhibitions followed in rapid succession, first at Elena Gaputyte's Sail Loft Gallery in St Ives in 1961, then in London at the St Martin's Gallery in 1962 and 1964, and at the New Arts Centre in 1966, 1968, 1971 and 1973. Lanyon wrote the catalogue for the St Martin's exhibition. Applauding Pearce's contribution at a time when Lanyon felt that "sophistication is disintegrating St Ives painting" and a "boutique primitivism" threatened artistic authenticity in his home town. "It is necessary to accept these works," Lanyon wrote "as the labour of a man who has to communicate this way because there is no other."

Pearce's imperative and idiosyncratic style was accompanied by a blissful detachment from the kind of art-world politics that inflamed Lanyon and others. His quiet and perfunctory manner of working - the result of an orderly and disciplined workaday studio routine - ensured that enough work was produced to satisfy a steadily growing market for his work.

Sir Alan Bowness, the art historian and director of the Tate 1980-88, became a trustee and guided the management of Pearce's career. Together with Pearce's devoted mother Mary, who relinquished her own painting to support that of her son, Bowness provided the security and with it the clout to ensure Pearce became a widely acknowledged and collected painter. Writing Pearce's catalogue for the 1975 retrospective at MOMA, Oxford, Bowness explained how "a therapy has become a profession . . . This has given his work particular innocence that, in the nature of things, can't be corrupted by self-consciousness."

The landmark "St Ives 1939-64" exhibition during Bowness's Tate directorship in 1985 included a pair of Pearces, St Ives Church and Portreath Harbour. Never fazed by a mass of visual information, Pearce used his patient methodology to striking effect. Thin, tentative pencil lines were overlaid with ochre and then filled in with what Bowness described as the artist's "preferred" colour. What this palette lost in terms of naturalistic credence it more than made up for in terms of a bright, clear and unmodulated colour that captured the pure and unpolluted environment of west Penwith.

Alongside that of his co-exhibitors in the Tate show Pearce's reputation grew in stature during the next 20 years. A sign of that esteem was the appearance of books - Ruth Jones's pioneering biography The Path of the Son (1976) followed by Marion Whybrow's Bryan Pearce: a private view (1985) and Janet Axten's The Artist and His Work (2004). A large exhibition at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro in 2000 was followed by a retrospective at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath in 2004, the year Pearce celebrated his 75th birthday.

After Mary Pearce's death in 1997 Bryan was cared for by full-time assistants in the beachfront flat where he had lived since moving there with his parents in 1967. The settled and supportive atmosphere at home and the sense of a wider artistic community nearby were factors immediately reflected in the reassuring continuity of an art that has grown in esteem and popularity throughout an age of cultural upheaval.

The retrospective exhibition "St Ives All Round: the paintings of Bryan Pearce" will open at Tate St Ives on 3 February.

Peter Davies

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