Norman Sayle: Artist devoted to the Isle of Man


Norman Alexander Sayle, artist and teacher: born Douglas 13 December 1926; married 1955 Rosemary Creswick (one son deceased); died Douglas 17 September 2007.

Norman Sayle was the most celebrated Manx artist of recent times. The week before his death, the President of Tynwald presented him in hospital with the first ever Tynwald Medal of Honour; it was awarded for Sayle's outstanding contribution to Manx life. Earlier in the year the Courtyard Gallery in Tynwald Mills, the largest commercial gallery on the Isle of Man, was renamed the Sayle Gallery as a tribute to its "friendly, helpful and long-suffering patron".

Sayle was born in Douglas. His father was a car mechanic but sold his firm in the mistaken belief that there was no future in the car trade (this became a family joke); later he worked for a bus company. After attending Douglas High School for Boys and the Douglas School of Art, from 1948 to 1952 Sayle studied graphic design in the School of Art at Goldsmith's College, London University.

For a short time he taught at Orpington in Kent but in 1954 returned to the Isle of Man as an assistant lecturer at the School of Technology, Arts and Crafts in Douglas. He stayed for 35 years, the rest of his professional life, until his retirement in 1989. By this time the school was known as the Isle of Man College and Sayle had served as both head of its art department and, finally, its development officer. A gifted, charismatic and humorous teacher "nothing is ever as bad as it's painted to be" was a favourite saying he cared deeply about the college to the extent that when a local politician once made a slighting comment about his students, the man was threatened with legal action. Sayle also sat on both the Isle of Man Arts Society and the island's Arts Council.

Eventual retirement liberated Sayle's true creative capacities. Although he also painted in oils and acrylics, watercolour was his favoured medium. He said that he made more from the sale of his first painting after his retirement than he had in total from two evenings of teaching overtime every week during his final year at the college. Sayle's love of Man was reflected in his work and he described his paintings as a homage to the Manx landscape: "My aim is to express my devotion to the Manx countryside its grey churches, stone circles, slate walls by reconciling three components: the subject matter, the structure and the medium. In the end I want it to look as if the watercolour was speaking of itself."

His main artistic influences, he said, included John Sell Cotman, Samuel Palmer, Paul Klee and Graham Sutherland (who had also been a former student at Goldsmith's College). Sayle's main debt, however, was to his fellow Manx artist Archibald Knox (1864-1933), an Arts and Crafts painter best known for his interest in Celtic design and his work for Liberty's. Sayle found Knox's watercolours in the Manx Museum although they are little known elsewhere a constant source of inspiration.

In 1996 the museum gave Sayle a one-man show called "A Sense of Place". In the exhibition catalogue he wrote: "Since my youth I have been afflicted (or blessed) by intense nostalgia, an anxiety and sadness about the passing of time. This Celtic foreboding makes places Manx places even more haunted and precious." Churches and chapels were a frequent subject matter for his painting, and his spiritual seeking led him in later life to take an Open University course in philosophy.

In 1993 Sayle won the Royal Institute of Painters in Water Colours medal for the best painting by a non-member, and the following year he was elected a member of the institute, a matter of some pride. He was also four times a prize-winner in the Singer and Friedlander/Sunday Times Watercolour competition, and in 1997 he won the 15,000 first prize. In the same year he was a winner at the "Discerning Eye Exhibition".

He exhibited at the Mall Galleries in London and the Richard Hagen Gallery at Broadway in Worcestershire, as well as in galleries on the Isle of Man. Sayle's work can be found in the collections of the Prince of Wales and of collectors worldwide. The Isle of Man Arts Council also purchased work for their loan collection. He illustrated several books and his paintings were frequently used by the Isle of Man Post Office for their stamps. In April this year the Post Office issued a set of eight stamps to mark the year of Sayle's 80th birthday.

Simon Fenwick

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