Robert Hesketh meets Somerset artist Peter Brown at his Bath home.

PUBLISHED: 15:20 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:26 20 February 2013

'Evening, Old Bond Street, Bath'

'Evening, Old Bond Street, Bath'

Capturing the changing light of English skies, Peter Brown's paintings convey the atmosphere of place, with people amidst traffic and shopping bags, bicycles and lamp-posts, scaffolding and signs, the clutter of everyday life but in settings of ar...

Robert Hesketh meets Somerset artist Peter Brown at his Bath home.

"Cities are my main subjects, because I love people and life," explains Peter Brown when we met at his airy, high-ceilinged house in Bath, where he lives with his wife, Lisa, and their four (soon to be five) children. "That's where my inspiration comes from, where I get most excited. I like being in the centre of the action. Streets and people going about their daily rounds, that's where my heart is.

"I grew up in rural Berkshire and love the countryside, so I'm a bit of a country bumpkin and find cities exciting places to visit. Cities also offer me structure as a painter with their roads and buildings. Whilst I have great admiration for landscape painters such as Constable, Cotman and Bright, and the landscape tradition is the source of my art, I'd find all that formless green in the English countryside intimidating to paint."

Peter is a 'plein air' painter through and through. "Painting in situ is more spontaneous and gives me the spirit of the place. I love rain-washed streets and the English climate. We're obsessed with the weather in England - where better to paint it?"

Peter's paintings have complete veracity because he paints almost everything outdoors. They depict the changing tones and hues of day from dawn to dusk; from winter to summer and under every vagary of the English climate.

"I keep my studio for storing paintings and materials and go where my painting instincts lead me. My gear goes in the back of the van with my outdoor togs. The essential stuff's all portable: a box easel with various canvases inside, and a toolbox of paints, brushes and glaze media. I walk around until I find the scene I want."

A familiar sight with his easel and brushes on the pavements of Bath, where he's earned the nickname 'Pete the Street', Peter likes meeting people and talking to them as he paints. "I don't like painting in solitude and I've had a very positive experience of the public," he says. "Most people are generous-spirited and will make encouraging comments. They also feel complimented that someone has chosen their city or street to paint and will often tell me a lot about a place and its history."

Peter first came to Bath for a year in 1986 to study an art foundation course. He went on to graduate from Manchester Polytechnic but by then the city had got into his consciousness.

"Cities are my main subjects, because I love people and life"

"Bath is my choice, it's the reason I paint. I was first attracted to the city by its beautiful stone, its architectural spaces and light. I did my art foundation course here with a marvellous tutor, David Cobb. He was quick to send his students out of the studio to draw and paint what they saw. I constantly refer back to what I learnt then, rather than at Manchester, where I took my degree: the course there was heavily influenced by Modernism and I spent five years painting coloured squares!

"Lisa and I moved here in '94. The city inspired me to draw again. I worked on charcoal studies for three years and that developed my tonal skills, forming the basis of my painting when I moved on to oils.

"Oils suit my approach. I love their translucence and richness, fluidity and spontaneity. I use hog hair brushes, as big as I dare for the body of the painting and finer brushes for detail."

Whilst Bath remains the centre of Peter's universe, he does sometimes venture further afield in pursuit of his art.

"For years I rarely went beyond Bath - there's so much here," he tells me. "I often return to my favourite places in the city, but I also visit London, partly to refresh my appreciation of Bath, to stop it becoming over familiar. It's only too easy to forget just how beautiful the city is.

"I've had two solo exhibitions at Oxford and Cambridge, then one based on the course of the Thames, which naturally led me to London. I keep returning to the capital. I've had three exhibitions in London and am currently working on another scheduled for next May. I'm also planning a solo show in Edinburgh for next August, with paintings of that city - the closest I've been to painting abroad!

"I love London because it's not my home, but new and exciting, busy and bustling. I'm constantly in wonder. Every district has its special life and character. Notting Hill and Holland Park may be next door to each other for instance, but they're quite different, whilst Hammersmith and Islington have their own flavours, too."

Painting seascapes is a fairly new development for Peter. As in the city, he paints in situ, capturing a variety of weather and people in movement. Somerset and Devon have given Peter subjects for several recent paintings. 'Storm Approaching, Weston-super-Mare', for instance, shows a crowded summer beach under a louring sky, whilst 'January Afternoon, Minehead' is very different in tone and depicts a few strollers by the waves under the calm but subdued light of winter.

"I fell in love with Porlock Weir," explains Peter, "painting it in late autumn and early winter. It's got such character and beauty. Although it certainly doesn't have the hustle and bustle that usually draws me to a place, it really caught my imagination.

"You never stop learning and developing your skills as a painter. To assume that objective painting's already been done and there's nothing to add to the genre is the height of arrogance. There's so much more to do.

"My work's driven by observation, by trying to develop my hand and eye skills to give more reality to my painting, bring it closer to life as it's lived today." BY ROBERT HESKETH

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