Arts & Culture
Colin Self paints his Picture Of Norfolk
Colin Self: A Picture Of Norfolk
Norfolk is the spiritual and visual inspiration for Colin Self - his recent art works have been particularly drawn from that landscape. We take the artist on a journey through his native county, exploring the effect it has had on his work.
Generations of artists have been captivated by Britain's countryside and, in turn, their images and words have influenced our impressions and bolstered a love of where we live.
In the BBC ONE series A Picture Of Britain, David Dimbleby traveled across the country to explore the connections between landscape, art and identity. The programme also highlighted the work of local artists from around Britain.
Colin Self was one of a handful of artists in the 1960s that pioneered the Pop Art movement.
More than 30 years ago he turned his back on the London art world and returned to his home country of Norfolk, where he still lives and works today. His paintings are strongly rooted in the area's landscapes, and are heavily influenced by the changing nature of Norfolk's countryside.
Colin Self was born in Norwich in 1941 and went to Norwich School of Art before studying at the Slade in the early 1960s.
In his time at the Slade School, he met fellow artists David Hockney, and Peter Blake, who greatly admired Self's paintings.
His style was extremely influential when he and others such as Warhol, Lichtenstein and Segal, were at the forefront of the ‘Pop Art’ movement.
Colin visited the United States and Canada with David Hockney in 1962 and 1965, and was soon exhibiting widely on the international arts circuit.
By 1964 he was showing at the cutting edge Robert Fraser Gallery, and by 1968 Colin Self was producing technically groundbreaking prints with Editions Alecto.
Today he remains one of Britain's leading painters, with a distinctive style and strong opinions about the Norfolk environment he lives in.
East Anglian roots
Much of Colin Self's work is to do with his everyday experiences of nature and landscapes and he draws on his native Norfolk for inspiration in his paintings.
"Very much of my work is to do with common things and to do with nature - things from the everyday. And I get very, very much from what I call 'people's art'," he said.
"The landscape in some ways is my visual script.
"Hidden in there behind the lie of the land is not only my past but the past of everyone, my future and my energy," he added.
Self owns an album of some of the earliest aerial photographs of Norwich taken in 1917.
For him they are a sharp reminder of the fast disappearing Norfolk landscape, and provide a creative catalyst for his paintings. They have triggered his imagination and this is reflected in Self's paintings of the Norfolk countryside.
One of Self's biggest concerns is about what is happening to Norfolk's changing landscape, as forests are cut down and rural landscapes are altered beyond recognition.
He recalls the landscape of his youth when he would play for hours in the woods behind his parents' house, studying nature. Self is concerned that we're destroying the very nature that inspired him and others to paint.
"The countryside is needlessly violated," he said.
"I think if people were more conservationist-minded and I think if bureaucrats got out of offices more and actually got hands-on, they would see in a practical way how things could be run."
Self is worried that these dramatic changes have not been for the better.
"These forests… are being gnawed back by the year," he said of the woodlands near where he lives.
"I think the chainsaw, in my view, has done far more damage than the gun…
"Where's the aesthetic?, where's the balance? Where is the harmonising with nature in that?
"The destruction and loss of environment is something that hurts me deeply," he added.
Self's ancestors have lived in Norfolk for 1,500 years, although his roots also extend to London where his grandparents lived and worked.
"The name ‘Self’ appears in the Doomsday Book," he said.
"On my mother's side there are Marshall's and the Bellamy's who came over with the Normans and then on my mother’s mother’s side there are Olinsky's who were Jewish and fled Poland.
"Part of my folklore childhood was my London mother's mother telling me about Olinsky, my anarchist grandfather.
"I have just returned from the alley he died in, and it is nice to know that I have got more dimension to me than just the actually pop kind of 'Norfolkist'.
"I am a Norfolkist, but I am also an internationalist, and I am also a metropolitan but from anarchistic roots," he added.
This is certainly reflected in Self's paintings which manage to fuse together his Norfolk roots with a broader, international feel.
East Anglia, if not Norfolk itself has produced so many artistic geniuses, it is almost unbelievable.
The Norwich School of painters was phenomenal both in number and national and international impact. Was it the big skies and large, well lit, landscapes.
The main founder was John Crome, then Cotman who influenced Turner.
Mousehold Heath, Cotman (detail)
Colin Self believes that Cotman showed Turner the way, and in turn the School has influenced Colin.
"Cotman was an inventive master although Turner made it much more grandiose and far out and added noughts on, so to speak, but I think Cotman’s revolution in paint always influenced Turner," says Self.
Voyage of discovery
Self has often used natural materials found locally in his work.
"In the 80’s I was making Norfolk charcoal landscape drawings which were using the local material I was using local bonfire charcoal," recalls Self.
"It was literally lumps of wood that I got from bonfires.
"At that time my life was being absolutely persecuted by interfering so called professionals who tried to screw my life up… my house was raided by police and the front window crowbarred.
"I was being given a really miserable time, I had been double crossed."
Self searched the Norfolk landscape for ways of expressing his experiences and the betrayal he had faced.
"I was going to do a landscape and if I could find two rail crossing places in the same landscape, then the landscape was going to almost sort of symbolise something in my life that was actually going on at the time.
"So when I got down to just above the Trowse marshes I couldn't get the two level crossings in one view so I just had to do the one level crossing.
"When I got home after having completed that drawing the phone rang and my father said ‘Oh, your Aunt Eva died today’, so that became the actually double crossing. Her life's end became the second crossing of the crossings," he said.
The politics of painting
His engagement with Cold War politics and the nuclear threat has given Self's work a sinister mood and political edge that made it distinct from the mainstream of Pop Art.
Colin Self was horrified by the threat of nuclear war.
"It turned my guts and floored me, destroyed my sensibility and understanding of the world," he said.
"… And years later, I think after five years of inner thoughts which were quite dark, I saw a newsreel film, Kennedy and Khrushchev smiling at each other and exchanging the peace document and my cold war in nuclear art just poured out of me like a torrent that I could not stop."
At that time Norfolk would have been one of the prime targets for a nuclear attack, and this resonates in his art. In fact, Self was one of only a few British artists to look at the horrors of the Cold War and the nuclear threat.
Views on the landscape
Unlike Constable, Self sees Norfolk as a vibrant, mysterious but lively landscape rather than a 'pretty pretty' chocolate box location.
"The Norfolk landscape is not pretty, it is beyond that, it is much more cosmic, more powerful and mysterious," he said.
"My landscapes are almost dangerous, they are like a farmer in a tractor who doesn't socialise.
"I mean … money is put before community and then the farmer entertains dangerous thoughts.
"I think in some of my pictures there is that kind of edge, there is that kind of modernity that somehow transmitted through landscape.
"I went down to Neatishead where you get this quiet sugar beet land come Broadland come ancient churches and reeds. It was a real hybrid of religion and nuclear might and threats and terror!"
"I do a little series called ‘Gorn about’, sometimes done on scraps of paper or they are done on postcards and I literally stick stamps on them and post them home and in a sense that’s the kind of Norfolk person I am.
"They are rapid sketches, mementoes and then when you get back home from your break, the postcards drop through your letterbox and you just kind of get a moment when you can re-live these places all afresh."
Colin Self has recently completed a painting commissioned by the BBC - the artist was given just a few hours to create the work and the result is emotionally powerful and visceral.
A Picture Of Norfolk (detail)
This 6' x 4' oil painting is typical of Self's distinctive vision of the Norfolk landscape.
It's a very striking and haunting work which draws on his feelings about the Norfolk landscape as well as his own emotions.
"I think I got very near to the knuckle when I was painting this… it just welled up out of me. I now think all I've done is to have had some strong feelings - I think maybe it is to do with the death of my son, which I haven't resolved.
"I think it wasn't so much a landscape as using the canvas as a punch bag for emotions and feelings," he added.
The painting shows that Self remains a powerful painter who continues to carry the torch of Norfolk artists into the 21st century.
A Picture Of Norfolk was featured alongside the six-part series A Picture Of Britain, broadcast from 5 June, 2005 on BBC1.
last updated: 20/04/2008 at 17:23