Obituaries in The Times, The Guardian and The Independent would suggest a life of distinction for any person, but are a unique achievement for a man with intellectual disabilities. But Bryan Pearce earned his fame more for what he did than for who he was. One of the leading naïve artists of the twentieth century, his oil paintings now hang in the Tate Gallery and at Kettle’s Yard, and he has been the subject of no less than three biographies.
So here’s a question to chew over. Does an artist have to be clever? For that matter, what do we mean by clever? Several times, I’ve arranged for artists to give talks, and then been disappointed when they have turned out to be incoherent, even tongue-tied. But it was of course me who was being stupid: the whole point is that many artists are folks who communicate through their work, not with words. Not all of course – I’ve encountered other visual artists who have spoken beautifully about what they are trying to do.
But what if the artist has an intellectual impairment, and cannot fully reflect on what they are doing? Does that make the work less meaningful, less good? How much does the creator’s intention matter? After all, the viewer always brings their own response, their own interpretation to a work of art. Once the image is out there, it takes on a life of its own, regardless of the artist’s intentions. Sometimes, the artist themselves, and I mean any artist, does not fully understand why their pieces work for others or what they might mean. But can you make great art by accident? Could a child make a masterpiece?
It was my psychiatrist friend Jane Bernal who first introduced me to the work of the painter Bryan Pearce. I was trying to locate famous people with learning disabilities for my blog about famous disabled people from history. She was working in Cornwall, and knew people who had known Pearce. She used his work in her teaching, to show what people with intellectual disabilities are capable of. In an age obsessed by knowledge and information and learning, it’s important to state that people with cognitive limitations still have value and can do work of value.
You’ve probably heard of autistic savant artists, like Stephen Wiltshire, who have an extraordinary facility to represent what they see. Wiltshire is taken on a helicopter flight over New York or Tokyo and then produces a five meter long drawing, exactly reproducing what he has seen. People queue up to buy his books or to watch television documentaries about him. He clearly has a great talent. But do we value this innate ability in the same way as the draughtsmanship of an artist whose natural skills are somehow mediated by their training? I am not sure.
This is the problem of Outsider Art. The term was invented in 1972, as a translation of the French “Art Brut”, a word coined by Jean Dubuffet, who wrote: “We understand by this term works produced by persons unscathed by artistic culture, where mimicry plays little or no part…”. Take someone like the American artist Judith Scott. She couldn’t hear, couldn’t speak and had Down syndrome. She spent years in an institution, until her twin sister rescued her. Yet today, her textile pieces are held in museums throughout the world and sell for tens of thousands of dollars. She made her artworks at the Creative Growth Art Center, which is a disability arts project in Oakland, California. She had started in the painting class, where she showed no particular talent. One day, she saw people working with textiles, and immediately gravitated to that medium. Her pieces consist of found objects, which she carefully wrapped in coloured fibre. People are fascinated by this profoundly disabled person who was at the same time a great artist, whose work has bought pleasure to so many.
People with intellectual disabilities very rarely achieve any prominence. Judith Scott, who has been the subject of many articles and books and films, is an exception. Another is the Cornish painter Bryan Pearce, who received obituaries in national newspapers when he died in 2007, and has been the subject of several biographies. Bryan Pearce was born in St Ives in 1929. His father was a butcher and a rugby player, and his mother was a keen amateur painter. Nature and nurture are a theme that runs through his life. Pearce had the condition Phenylketonuria or PKU, which mean that as a developing infant, he was unable to metabolize the amino acid phenylalanine. PKU arises from a random genetic mutation. Today, all children are tested at birth for PKU, and if they have the mutation, are placed on a diet free of phenylalanine, and so grow up unaffected. In 1929, the condition was unknown, and as a result, Bryan experienced intellectual impairment and other health problems, and so grew up with cognitive deficits and attended a school for children with special needs.
Environments matter, and if Bryan Pearce had been born somewhere else, his life may have turned out very differently. St Ives has a long tradition of fine painting, and was the home of Alfred Wallis, a former fisherman who became a self-taught artist, painting mainly seascapes on cardboard. A turning point was the arrival of Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo as refugees from London in 1939, when Bryan Pearce would have been 10. These modernist artists celebrated what they saw as the innocent primitivism of locals like Wallis. This was the context in which, as a teenager, Bryan was encouraged by his mother and other artists to paint. To begin with, he painted rather tentative watercolours. His obvious talent meant that he attended the St Ives School of Painting during his twenties. Importantly, this School welcomed both novice and professional artists, and had a commitment to inclusion. So unlike other Outsider Artists, Pearce was not a self-taught or untrained amateur.
The turning point in Bryan Pearce’s career came in 1957 when he started painting in oils. He began to exhibit soon after. Two years later he had his first solo exhibition at the local Newlyn Gallery. Although he painted slowly, producing perhaps one picture a month, he had a long and very successful career, exhibiting throughout England. Late in life, he made etchings and his work was also sold in the form of limited-edition screen prints. His work has been bought by both major public collections, such as the Tate Gallery and Kettle’s Yard in Cambridge, and private collectors.
Pearce has a very distinctive style. Although the work has a naivete, you would probably not guess, if you didn’t already know, that he was disabled. His work is not manic or fascinatingly odd, like some Outsider Artists, who obsessively draw pictures of cats or little girls. It’s not meticulous and photographic, like Stephen Wiltshire. It’s in the tradition of folk art like that of Alfred Wallis. If Lowry had left the rainy North West and come down to sunny Cornwall, maybe he’d have painted like Pearce. Words like “serene” and “visionary” are often used of his work.
Let me try and describe two of these paintings, they’re both on board, the same size, about 60cm by 50cm. Belladonna Lilies no 4 is a simple picture of half a dozen lilies in a jug. They are sat on a tiled surface, with the frame of a window behind. The flowers are pink and white with dark stalks, and they loll in different directions. The tones of the picture are muted, with slate blue tiles, the paler blue of the window, and the reddish lines which mark out the curves of the jug and the rectangular window frame. The picture reminds me of David Hockney in its simplicity, but it could also by an early Italian Renaissance painter like Giotto. Others have compared Pearce’s work to that of Fra Angelico. Part of this is because the depictions do not follow the established artistic rules of perspective. It’s also because there’s a literalness about Pearce, whether he’s painting mugs and bowls and tablecloths, or angels above the local churchyard. Finally, I think this simplicity gives the work a similar spiritual intensity.
Pearce’s 1973 picture, My Mother, also has a muted colour range. Mary Pearce is looking to the left in profile, like the Queen on a playing card. But she also seems to be keeping one eye on the painter. The background is plain grey, but there are two orange lines cutting across like tracks about a third the way down the canvas. Bryan has captured the texture of his mother’s hair, and then has carefully followed the checks of her blouse. It’s a very balanced painting, which has both stillness and weight. Bryan Pearce mainly avoided putting people in his pictures. But he did paint his mother and her friends, and sometimes their lawn bowls team.
So far, I’ve described a still life and a portrait, but Bryan Pearce is best known for painting his own home town of St Ives and surrounding countryside. Every morning and afternoon, he would take long walks around the local district , and come back to paint. He had a powerful visual memory, but his works are also carefully composed. Take, for example, a painting of Westcott’s Quay from 1980 which shows several buildings, and in a gap between them, you can see the harbor and on the horizon a spit of land, ending in a lighthouse on an island. A fishing boat is moored in the harbor. The stones of the walls and the tiles of the roofs are rendered carefully. There are no people in sight, but it’s almost as if the windows of the buildings are eyes, as if the town itself has personality. It’s a calm painting, with this characteristic stillness. Something about the way he uses line is very satisfying to me.
You always know you are in Cornwall, with Bryan Pearce. They’re always sunny scenes, bathed in light, full of vivid colour, reminiscent of a post-impressionist like Cezanne, or perhaps of modernist stained glass. Often the perspective is unusual, sometimes the scene is taken with a bird’s eye view, as if Picasso had done it. But Pearce himself did not study other artists, and his style was his own, not the result of external influences. He never felt bound by convention. Nor was he bothered by art-world politics. In his obituary, critic Mel Gooding wrote of him as:
“a visionary artist of a quite particular kind, whose distinction had to do with the solitary nature of his artistic experience and the use he made of a profound creative solitude in the midst of a world experienced with preternatural vividness. That enforced and productive apartness is not to be confused with social solitude or loneliness; it was, rather, the necessary condition of his imaginative freedom and his peculiar talent.”
Whereas other St Ives artists sometimes struggled to achieve authenticity, he wasn’t trying for this effect. He had no other way to communicate than this.
Descriptions like innocence and lack of self-consciousness are often made in connection with learning disabled people. We tend to think of such folk as childlike and unreflexive. We may admire their apparent purity and sincerity, because it contrasts with our world of ambition and manipulation.
I think that when we see the work of Bryan Pearce, which is as visionary and unique as that of any other major British artist, we are forced to rethink our assumptions about intellectual disability. Bryan Pearce was limited in his ability to learn and communicate verbally. But alongside his deficits was a huge talent to see and communicate through art. As he said to his mother
"What would I do if I didn't paint? What would I do?”
Ruth Jones, The Path of the Son (1976)
Marion Whybrow, Bryan Pearce: a private view (1985)
Janet Axten, The Artist and His Work (2004)