Artist with popular touch heads for California to escape southern snobs

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Mackenzie Thorpe, the artist whose dramatic and vividly-coloured landscapes have turned him into one of the most popular painters in Britain, is leaving his home in Yorkshire for a new life in California, where his work is massively popular.

A former steelworker, Mr Thorpe first came to wide attention when William Hague, the Tory leader, and his wife, Ffion, chose one of his brooding Yorkshire scenes for their Christmas card and another for the walls of Conservative Central Office.

But Mr Thorpe says he has had to fight against the snobbery of the art world and the bias in cultural circles in favour of the South, the centre of the British art market. Mr Thorpe has a studio and gallery in Richmond, Mr Hague's North Yorkshire constituency.

It is this feeling of isolation, as well as the commercial opportunities, which have prompted his decision to leave Britain for a new life with his wife and two children in the United States, where he is accorded star status and is a frequent guest on chat shows.

"Demand is growing and if I don't get out there I won't be able to do the job," Mr Thorpe told The Independent. "I'm excited because it's going to be new ground ... I think it will change my work and my mind view."

Fifteen American gallery owners visited his last show, held in Birmingham in February, where all the works sold for a total of £1m in the first 20 minutes of the private view. He visited the US seven times last year and recently completed a seven-day, nine-flight tour.

"In San Francisco, there's a banner out on the street when I exhibit. In Seattle, they make announcements on the radio. But here there's still this north-south snobbishness," he once said. "I used to think it's my accent or the way I look. I used to cry and get upset about it. But it doesn't bother me anymore."

The artist is to say farewell to friends at an exhibition in his studio this week before heading to San Francisco in September. He will be exhibiting in Japan and Australia next year, but will be making frequent return visits to the UK where there are expansion plans for the Richmond gallery. Halcyon Gallery, his UK dealers, are also hoping to put on a show in London, where Mr Thorpe had never exhibited until two years ago.

Mackenzie Thorpe was born in Middlesbrough but, because he was dyslexic, he struggled at school. He left at 15 and began work in the steel foundries in Teesside before signing up for art college and discovering a talent for painting and sculpture.