In May 2020, continuing our series on artists' lives and creativity in isolation, we caught up with Ben Brotherton who lives and works with his family in an old farmhouse in Sadeillan, in the Gers region in South West France.
Ben Brotherton and his wife Mollie moved to France just over 10 years ago. With two children under 4 and another on the way, one tap outside and a wood burning stove inside, no hot water and limited electricity, it was a challenging start. Teaching himself electrics, plumbing and lime-rendering, Ben set about renovating the house into what is now a comfortable home and converting the barn into a fully isolated studio where he and Mollie, a ceramicist, now work.
As Ben explains ‘The present crisis is very alarming, but the isolation in itself is not a problem. In a way we have created our own little bubble over the years, where we can live, raise our children, work in the studios, pick fruit and vegetables from the garden and collect eggs from our hens.’
At GrandyArt we had our first solo show with Ben Brotherton back in 2008. Having graduated from Canterbury Art School with a 1st class degree in fine art and MA in painting, Ben had just moved out to France and was painting atmospheric landscapes of the French countryside and rural life.
Since then Ben has turned his attention to life-studies and now works predominantly drawing and painting from a life model. A natural progression in style, these bold, colourist studies bring together everything Ben achieves so well as an artist. Distilling space and light into layers of colour and tone, his models are entirely comfortable in their own space. They exude a calmness, a sense of contentment and peace.
In amongst everything else going on at the moment, there is still a sense of continuity in Ben's life and these last two months have been a creative time. 'The life of an artist is already somewhat isolated. The soprano Patricia Petitbon said to sing is to isolate oneself from the world and yet also to engage with it on some deep level. I think this is true for a painter. One needs time and space to create. One works alone.'
In the absence of his life model, Ben has been concentrating on still-life and interiors. Finding solace in his studio after home-schooling, ‘on any given day I will work on several paintings. Perhaps two hours of unbroken concentration on one, then another to realign shapes and shift the pitch of colours up or down. Then an hour or so to play around with the setup for a new still-life, followed by preparatory drawings... In this way the works evolve simultaneously and sequentially, one work informing the next.’
Alongside their own work, Ben and Mollie both teach. Mollie has set up Le Terrain Vallonne art school running workshops from her ceramics studio, while Ben runs an art class in nearby Auch.
Keen to continue this interaction with his pupils in isolation, Ben has kept in close contact with his class online. ‘Art, whether it is painting, music, literature, or any other form, is important for one’s mental well-being, especially in troubling times. To concentrate on a still-life, and see the array of colours reflected off the skin of a lemon change as the sun moves and clouds scud, is to engage with the richness of the world. To understand, in some small way, that what is beautiful is also transitory. Next year’s lemons will be all different, but part of the continuity of life.'
The first time I met Ben, looking at his study of a girl in a blue dress that had just silenced the room, he described his paintings as ‘slow release.’ Today, 14 years later, that phrase still rings true. The more you look, the more you see. Layers on layers of colour, tone, texture and light. They are paintings to live with, like old friends, to be enjoyed again and again, adding something new on every retelling.
I have loved working with Ben Brotherton, exhibiting and collecting his paintings over the years, and I am looking forward to showing his latest collection in our new catalogue of Small Pictures coming up in June.