Margaret Laird looks at the work and achievement of Bryan Pearce, the St Ives artist whose disability mean t his pain tings were an essential way of expressing devotion
Summer visitors to St Ives will almost certainly be familiar with the work of Bryan Pearce, for postcards and prints of his paintings abound in the Tate, the parish church and art galleries throughout West Cornwall. Only the local residents, however, would have known about the life of this artist.
For decades, Bryan Pearce walked daily through the narrow streets of his beloved St Ives, but this summer, his solitary figure would not have been seen, because he died in January, just before an exhibition of his paintings, St Ives All Round, opened in the local Tate.
In the Fifties
This article is not meant as a review of his work, because that must be left to the art critics, but it is an attempt to explain the circumstances which produced his style of painting. He was an unusual artist and a special and remarkable man and there is much to be learned from his attitude to, and outlook on, life. In the Fifties, a few of Bryan’s paintings were shown at the Penwith Society of Arts’ annual exhibition. Viewers found his work refreshingly different, with what one critic described as ‘a simplicity of vision that is breathtaking’. Bryan’s rare and original colour sense was particularly noted and his unusual style warranted a great deal of interest.
The fact, however, that the artist was mentally impaired was not disclosed until his reputation was established. He suffered from a rare brain disease, phe-nylketonuria. Children with this disorder initially develop normally, but gradually toxic substances accumulate and in various degrees destroy the brain cells. These days, this is detected soon after birth and the effects can be minimalized, but the discovery came too late for Bryan. Consequently, as an adult, he retained a child’s trusting response to life and it was through his paintings that he communicated the feelings he could not express in any other way.
His mother decided wisely that his work should stand on its own merit and biographical notes have always been omitted from Pearce’s exhibition programmes. Critics, generally unaware of his disability, tried to detect in his primitive style the influence of Braque, Mat-
isse, Louis Vivin or of the St Ives painter, Alfred Wallis. Bryan’s mother, however, herself an artist, insisted that ‘his style was his own.
Bryan Pearce’s paintings are mostly of the St Ives he knew so well: the boats in the harbour, the fishermen’s cottages with their irregular rooftops, their gardens and the parish church where he worshipped. ‘It is a serene and untroubled world,’ wrote Sir Alan Bowness, the influential art critic, ‘that reflects the natural innocence and delight of a man
who has found relief and rehabilitation through painting.’ The late Peter Lanyon, a St Ives artist who was aware of Bryan’s disability, commented, ‘He has to communicate in this way because for him, there is no other.’ In Bryan’s studio, his mother hung a quotation from a Chinese artist: ‘His life and his work are full of the miracle of simple things and his heart is at peace.’ Certainly, his paintings reflect this peace.
A shelter blest
Fr William Leah, sometime Vicar of St Ives, wrote that Bryan’s paintings ‘describe ‘a shelter blest’ – hardly a wave disturbs the calm, just a simple line at the harbour entrance to show where the sea ends and the harbour begins. All is calm, from the simple lines depicting the boats, harbour walls, houses and rocks, to the pastel colours of the sea and the sky. It is a haven of peace. These images seem to take us from the here and now and further into another world beyond… Bryan’s painting has a visionary quality:
contrasting strengths of colour are used to describe the world we inhabit, and the intimations and disclosures of the world invisible, which are sometimes more real and permanent.’
Another admirer, Jim Ede, wrote, ‘If anyone is in need of peace, trust and joy, they will find it in the work of Bryan Pearce. He gives his whole being, totally free of sophistication and totally altruistic, he paints as he breathes, a thousand visual things are the deep unconscious quality of his interior life and his immediate contact with his close friend, God.’ Ede concluded that because of his direct simplicity and devotion, the only other artist with whom he could compare Bryan Pearce was Fra Angelico.
Like Fra Angelico
Both artists ‘had the same inward vision undisturbed by greed, desire of worldly achievement or concern with his own personality and so much else.’ Bryan had an unusual empathy with the Church and ‘his faith would have shamed many’ It has been suggested that his rather flat, shadowless style was influenced by the stained glass windows in the church where he worshipped.
As is the case of so many differently abled people, the disability which they suffer can release in others the ability to see the world in a new light. Bryan Pearce, by reproducing in such simplicity the beauty of the visual world, whether in one tiny flower or in the vastness of the sea which surrounds St Ives and is so often portrayed in his paintings, provides others with that unhindered vision of the glory of God’s creation.
When Bryan’s parents prayed throughout his childhood for a miracle, little did they realize that his impaired mental condition would become the enabling factor for the release of an innate talent – which was in itself a miracle. In caring for her son, Mary Pearce concluded, ‘no life is without hope.’
On 27 October, a service in Westminster Cathedral will mark the fortieth anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act – a time to remember the six million unborn children deprived of the fullness of life and of the opportunity to develop their innate skills and talents, for which our world would have been the richer. |jyp|