We understand that you started life as a jewellery designer?
Yes, it happened by mistake. I was doing big architectural pieces when I was at college, and I made these little models of running horses for an architect. They were Grecian, almost like cave paintings, and people started buying them as jewellery. A few people like Paul Smith and Theo Fennell (who did Princess Diana’s jewellery) picked me up and although I was never interested in fashion, I ended up going down that route. I got a couple of commissions for shops like Oasis and ended up at Paris Fashion Week. I made a piece for Joan Collins which was Icarus with diamond-studded wings, all made in gold.
Why are you no longer designing jewellery?
It all sounds terribly glamorous, but I was shocking at business. I ploughed more money into it, produced bigger collections and spent too much money on fashion shows until I needed to get out of it. I’d taught before, so I left London and went into teaching as a way of escaping. I started painting to teach the students and it took quite a few years before I produced anything that I was willing to show anybody. Then when I started showing things it took off really quickly.
How did you get involved with The Biscuit Factory?
I’d only done a few shows when The Biscuit Factory approached me and asked if I’d be interested in showing a few pieces. I find them really dynamic. They really get on with stuff and promote you. They sold me solidly for four years and built up a good record of sales for me, then last year they asked if I’d be interested in doing a solo show. We’ve built up a good relationship, so I said yes.
Did you find it difficult preparing for a solo exhibition?
Yes, this is my biggest solo so far with 34 paintings and there was crazy pressure to produce. But while some commercial galleries push you to work in particular ways, The Biscuit Factory gave me complete freedom to follow my own strange whims. Once I got in to the swing of it, I realised it’s the best job you can have. It’s so self-indulgent. Producing so many paintings, I ended up getting absorbed in this strange world inside my head. When I came out the other side I chose the best ones and then sort of collapsed.
What will we see in the exhibition?
I do a lot of work with interiors and figures. I’m interested in what you see and what you don’t see when you look at something. Neurologically we’re predisposed to notice figures and when you notice figures you focus on the face and eyes. I wanted to distract you from that so you’re cast into a space not knowing exactly what you’re looking at. Some things are in really sharp focus and then in others the figures are almost completely blurred. There’s one painting called Three Books. I was trying to be misleading with the title – are the three books more important than the figure who is quite dominant in the painting? The idea is to set up a false narrative to make you question what’s going on. It’s easy to think it’s just a person leaving a room, but I wanted a sense of mystery and loss.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
I did some work with a local circus and a dance company, and I tried a few things but nothing was working. Acrobats and dancers make it look so easy. Their bodies are so flexible. Even when they are sitting chatting to each other, they’re sitting on the floor in unbelievable positions. They’re so physically comfortable with the extreme things that they do and you take that for granted when you’re watching them, so I decided to put myself through it. My wife photographed me falling off chairs, steps and tables and that’s how I came to be in the picture. By trying to experience what they experienced, I realised that it’s all about the extreme things you do to yourself. It’s about fear and success.
Which artists do you admire?
Degas – he was the best draughtsman ever. His composition was so unusual, particularly the way he organised his paintings and the framing. His drawings are exquisite. Also Rembrandt’s experiments with paint quality. In terms of contemporary paintings, I like lots of different ones. Wolfe von Lenkiewicz does very big, very strange pastel drawings with strange combinations of objects and people. They’re similar in a way, but much more dark than what I do. That’s increasingly where I’d like to go. I’d hate to be called a surrealist, but I like putting objects together in surreal, incongruous ways because it forces new thoughts and ideas. The brain needs consistency and logic, so it tries to make sense of it all. The more you can disrupt that, the more you can generate new ideas.
What advice would you give to budding artists?
Firstly, you’ve got to take your chances and trust your instincts. Have a go and see what happens. Being open to opportunities has paid off for me and lots of things seem to be coming my way. But also have one clear idea. Having one idea that you really believe in and can follow is your greatest asset. Your ideas are what’s original to you and having 10 ideas is worse than one strong idea. That’s what I’m trying to do with my paintings now.
All of the paintings in the exhibition are available to buy. Do you find it difficult to let them go?
You become so attached to them and they’re so personal, that it is a bit weird when they go away. My eldest daughter went off to uni recently and though it’s not the same, you do get a sense of an empty nest. There’s a couple of paintings I’d really like to keep, but that’s not the nature of the exhibition. I’ve got more shows coming up over the next couple of years so I can’t sit here mourning the loss of my paintings, I have to be professional and get on with producing more work.
You just want them to go to good homes?
Yes, I just want people to buy them for themselves. I sold an early painting of my daughter to Roman Abramovich and I felt very uncomfortable about it because it could have ended up in a vault. Fortunately it went on his yacht and it was going to be seen, but it was in a bedroom done by a decorator and I didn’t feel the love. It was a really personal painting.
Are you looking forward to the launch?
Yes, there’s a whole gang of us coming and we’re going to make a bit of a weekend of it. I’ve never been before, so I thought I should explore the delights of Newcastle. My wife has been researching and we’ve got a bit of a list – galleries, some good restaurants and see what’s going on. My daughter is at Leeds University and she’s coming up too, so we’re going to explore as a family which will be lovely. I’m looking forward to it.