The Light in Suburbia

By Ian Beck

A collection of paintings made in lockdown by one of the UK’s best-loved author-illustrators.

The Light in Suburbia 

My Locked-down Year of Painting

Months before the pandemic hit I was asked by Iris Weaver of the Fry Gallery in Saffron Walden to select a piece of work from their collection. The gallery specializes in various East Anglian artists, including Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and many others. Iris suggested that I might make a work of my own to echo, reflect or celebrate the chosen piece. The resulting painting was to be published in a special edition of the journal Random Spectacular, which is curated by St Jude’s (Simon and Angie Lewin).

I chose a painting by John Aldridge called February Afternoon, and described the painting as follows for inclusion in the final publication:

An unprepossessing outbuilding with a corrugated tin roof. A glass roof and a fruit tree espaliered against a brick wall. In the mid-distance a line of trees catching the last of the sun and, beyond them, a cream-coloured house. These day-to-day things and places are entirely transfigured by the sense of winter light. It is late afternoon and long shadows are starting to encroach, like fingers across the bare soil in the foreground. The sense of looming darkness is visible in the deep shadow on the right, cast perhaps by a house. The sky is a pale, cold blue with a range of creamy clouds. It will soon be dark, but spring is not far off.’

I work in a garden studio facing the back of my house. I noticed one January afternoon, shortly after the commission, that the light was hitting the house in a similar way to that shown in the John Aldridge painting.

I had found my own subject, a way to echo the Aldridge work.

I painted a watercolour from the point of view of my studio. It was in proportion to the large page size of the Random Spectacular publication. Making the painting (titled: January Afternoon) proved to be a kind of turning point for me. I had spent most of that month and the previous year working on a large and delightfully arcane project with and for the author Philip Pullman. Simply making a painting of my house in the late afternoon light with no narrative element proved both refreshing and salutary. It really was possible after all to make a satisfying picture of something for its own sake.

Spurred on by Iris’s commission I had, as it were, rediscovered a practice I had abandoned many years before.

Most of my work during the previous fifty years had been concerned with narrative in some form or other. I had worked with authors, editors, publishers and so on. I had been lucky enough to publish over a hundred or more illustrated books, mostly for children. Now it had been proved possible to me that I might just paint for myself, something I had done very little of since the heady days of art college in the 1960s. I was happy with the resulting painting and the making of it, and I looked forward to making more in that vein.

Then the pandemic struck.

Lockdown followed and we were all suddenly confined to barracks. Movements were restricted. To be honest, it meant not much change for me as I have spent most of my time since the 1970s working at home.

The spring of 2020 proved to be a particularly spectacular one. As usual I took my dog, a greyhound called Gracie, out at the crack of dawn every morning. In the summer months she would be restless at 5.30 a.m., and more than ready to go down to the Thames at Richmond lock, close to where we live.

One bright day in early February I took her out and she pulled me in the opposite direction to that usual route. She led me across a footbridge over the river Crane in Isleworth. I noticed at once the effect of the morning light. It struck a group of mature trees planted at the corner of a junction of two crossing streets. The trees had been planted by the enlightened local authority at the same time that the houses were built, sometime in the 1920s. I was struck by the warm colour that the light gave to the trunks and branches. There was a haze effect made by the fresh leaf buds and there was an almost golden light beyond in the distance.

I made a painting of the trees and of the houses grouped nearby, which I enjoyed making as much as the previous watercolour.

After that I just kept going.

The lockdown had temporarily stopped much of the aircraft traffic. Not since the Icelandic volcano had we experienced such an eerie silence in the sky. The flight paths to Heathrow pass over the area, and I had lived with the noise for over thirty years and grown entirely used to it. Its sudden absence had its own effect. The total quiet meant that birdsong was suddenly the soundtrack to our walks. The absence of aircraft noise and the now amplified birds reminded me, albeit at first unconsciously, of my childhood. Something stirred - a remembrance of that kind of light and those far-off times - as I painted.

I grew up by the sea in Hove, Sussex. The clarity of the light in the spring of 2020 had, at times, a real sense of the clear dazzling quality of seaside light. One morning I noticed a house at the end of our street. Unlike the other houses, which were mainly built of London stock, this one was stuccoed and painted white. The sunlight bisected the house with vivid shadows. It had been transfigured by sunlight and become a seaside house, white against an intense spring sky.

The 1920s houses over the footbridge in Isleworth reminded me of the estates I walked through on my way to and from school. I now walked the dog on the Isleworth route every morning. There was a growing, sentimental effect of homecoming about it all.

I carried on making the paintings for myself. I painted the back of my house in various lights and times of day throughout the year. These paintings echoed the piece I had made for the Fry Gallery and Random Spectacular. I also painted parts of the surrounding areas of Isleworth too. The dog liked going to a rather ragged park beside the river Crane. When we first moved to the area in the late 1980s the children used to play football there. It was known as ‘the Rec’. It had recently been officially named Pitt Park and was in the process of becoming a nature reserve. An alley ran beside the little park, bordered by a patchwork of varied semi-distressed fences. The gardens of the parallel street backed onto the alley with their sheds and outbuildings. Wild roses climbed over the fencing and great shrubs of Buddleia sprouted and mingled with the mature trees. There was an almost green tunnel effect in summer and I noticed shafts of light that would catch on individual blooms and leaves.

I painted and drew the alleyway more than once. In spring, there were glimpses of apple blossom over the fences. At night the blossom was lit by open windows or street lights. In the early summer there were spectacular early-morning lozenges of light on the creosoted fences. In the autumn, a Virginia creeper which grew up through a tree spilled and cascaded down onto the pathway.

There was an added factor. The smells of childhood were suddenly present. In the summer, they lurked in the unchecked and neglected vegetation sprouting around the fences, and the heat released other smells locked up in the treated wood and shed coverings. It became emotional in some deep buried way.

This was due to that renewed sense of remembered childhood. Dawdling while the birds sang. Memories of scuffing about with friends among the weeds of similar alleyways (called ‘twittens’ in Sussex), behind a garage or between houses.

When I was a child, my family lived in a rented house in a working-class area. Most of our neighbours lived in rented houses too with most of the houses being owned by the same landlord. There was a Maynards sweet factory at the bottom of the street, and on winter afternoons the smells of mint and toffee drifted about in the sea mist.

With the lights on in the Isleworth houses on my evening dog walks there were more reminders of childhood. Of walking southwards through the evening light down to the sea. Of coming home from school and hearing the cheerful budgerigar singing in its cage, and my mother making tea in the kitchen. Further back in the really early days of the late 1940s, my nan would be there helping, scrubbing down the wooden kitchen table.

The whole safe-seeming, enclosed and cosy lost world that my parents had made.

It brought Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town to mind, when the character of Emily, recently dead but still able to see the living and especially her own family, realizes how little the people around her appreciated the simple joys of life. That quiet locked-down spring and summer had a similar effect on me. I noticed clearly and tried to record the beauty around me in the unprepossessing everyday.

I painted interiors. Assemblies of things I liked on a mantel or individual pieces of china, or the china on the kitchen dresser. I painted some views from my bedroom of the moon seen through the bare branches of the next-door neighbour’s sycamore tree, or the light suffusing up from the windows at the backs of the houses.

The more paintings I made the more I realized I was touching a similar nerve in others. When I first put some of the finished paintings up on social media platforms I had very positive responses, something I hadn’t expected. Messages were sent after I posted some of the paintings made during the early chill mists and fogs in November of how it reminded some of waiting for the bus to school on a winter morning. It seemed that there were echoes, a hidden series of narratives after all in what I was doing.

By the end of 2020 I had sixty or more finished works. Most were in watercolour on paper heightened with body colour. There were several monochrome drawings on fine Ingres paper, either on a buff or grey/blue coloured stock. The monochrome drawings were made with black crayon and white body colour.

The gloom of the winter fogs on night walks, the sudden recorded flashes of a car’s headlights on the trees, suggested to some that these particular images might form a series and illustrate some other kind of narrative. A ghost story, or murder mystery, was suggested by several.

The original intention had been to exhibit the pictures, or at least a selection of them. However, with subsequent lockdowns and the unlikely prospect of any physical exhibition being likely or even possible at the time of writing, it was decided, with the encouragement of many, to publish them in book form. Most of the paintings are available to buy through Jennings Fine Art (neiljennings20@gmail.com), thus the book also doubles as a catalogue.

Although a year has passed since I made the first painting I am continuing to paint and record my surroundings. All in all this collection of paintings are more of a starting point than a finish.

In conclusion, I need to thank my son Laurence for his patience and hard work in designing this book. The text is set in Janet, a typeface designed by my late father-in-law Reynolds Stone.

Ian Beck, January 2021

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