Tim Bulmer always wanted to be an artist. ‘I was a natural show off so it was always going to be either painting or acting – thank God I didn’t go down the acting route,’ he confides. After growing up in Northumberland he went to school in Sedbergh, a town teetering on the borders of Cumbria, Yorkshire and Lancashire. He doesn’t recall his time there with great fondness. ‘Going to the art department was my sanctuary. Back in the Seventies if you were good at art you were automatically labelled a rebel. It meant you thought for yourself and the establishment didn’t like that.’
It’s a period he now looks back on with gratitude, for helping him build a resilience he would later come to rely upon. ‘If you want to establish a career in anything creative you’re going to have an awful lot of people telling you not to do it.’ Tim ignored those people and after school enrolled on a degree in Theatre Design at Wimbledon Arts School in the late 1970s – ‘A compromise between being an artist and an actor,’ he tells me. He met his wife Sarah there and they spent the next 20 years of their lives in the south-east.
He did a number of jobs while plugging away with his art in the background. ‘Being a theatre designer is a bit like being a poet or a sculptor – it’s not an awful lot of use. They’re a very refined, rare breed. You can probably count the number of successful theatre designers on one hand.’ After leaving college Tim worked backstage shifting scenery around, then became a temp in central London. His first break came during his mid-twenties when a company called Frame Express advertised for arts graduates. After working as a framer on the Kings Road for a year, Tim moved to a gallery in Guilford where his job was to sell art. ‘I was absolutely rubbish. I couldn’t sell food to the starving. Fortunately I was quite handy at the framing and whenever it was someone’s birthday I was always called upon to draw the card.’
Tim’s boss at the gallery gave him some space to display his art. He began to do well and held his first exhibition in 1988. Two years later he made his first attempt to go solo. ‘I really struggled for four years until DeMontfort Fine Art, who are one of the biggest art distribution companies in the country, took me on. I worked with them for 14 years.’ Selling etchings and watercolours through DeMontfort, the demand for Tim’s work was so great he had to lease three buildings and employ staff to help him cope with orders. ‘It was a very productive part of my life and it turned into quite a nice little business, but it wasn’t really satisfying creatively.’
Moving to York in 1998 with his wife and family he continued to sell his work through DeMontfort for another 10 years before officially going solo in 2008, 30 years after he had begun his degreee. ‘I haven’t looked back. It’s been fantastic. I call myself a brush for hire.’ Tim paints private and commercial commissions for people from all walks of life, one of which was so high-profile that he had to sign a strict confidentiality clause, ‘I haven’t even told my family who it was for, it’s very sensitive – fun though, I quite liked the intrigue.’
As well as commissioned work, Tim produces his own fine art, prints and gifts. The day he speaks to me from the studio at his home, he’s applying the finishing touches to an amusing A to Z of wine, a light-hearted look at all things wine. The detailed painting is a mixture of the amusing and the informative, all illustrated with Tim’s striking cartoons.
As he discovered early in his career, Tim’s forté is painting art, not selling it. Working from the third floor of his house in York Tim describes his studio as downsized, decluttered and modern, containing just a computer and drawing board. He starts work soon after seven each morning and will hardly lift his head up until 5.15pm when he puts the kettle on and sits down to watch Pointless on BBC One. ‘It can be a poisoned chalice. Any amount of my friends will say, “How come you’re not watching the Test Match all day, or down the pub?”’
Though he doesn’t admit it, I suspect another reason Tim prefers to hide away in the studio rather than attend shows is an inherent self-deprecation. ‘I fall out of love with anything I do very quickly after it’s finished. I’ve got to like it enough to do it, and be pleased enough with it when I’ve finished it. It’s like when you hear your own voice. It can be cringingly embarrassing. I get the same feeling when I see my pictures on someone else’s wall.’
When I press him on a piece he’s particularly proud of he’s honest enough to admit he hasn’t yet fallen out of love with his illustrated map of Yorkshire. ‘I did it about 10 years ago. It’s the thing that’s really made me feel part of being in the North. Yorkshire people love it and I still don’t know how it went so right.’ About as far removed from an ordnance survey map as you can get it features a large collection of strategically placed cartoon depictions such as Dracula in Whitby, Red Coats in Filey and Harold Wilson in Huddersfield, with lots of sheep, horses, cows, birds, planes, trains and automobiles between. Tim’s since painted maps of York, Gloucestershire, Italy and France to name a few, and has recently revisited his Yorkshire map for Marie Curie, the official charity of the Yorkshire stages of the Tour De France. Though not available to buy yet, it will be on display at LIVE with information on how the charity plan to use it to raise money.
Like his portraits, Tim’s maps are striking pieces of work. He insists that he doesn’t deliberately set out to stamp his style all over every piece of art he produces. ‘It’s something I’m not conscious of. It’s always changing. When I look back at some of my earlier work I cringe because it looks so basic. My style continually changes and develops. It’s a natural thing and I don’t want to stop it. Hopefully it’s always improving. I know I’ve got a long way to go but that’s the case with anyone who’s creative, you’re always trying to get better. The other thing is not to worry what other people think – you’re always going to have people who think your work’s wonderful and people who think it’s awful.’ Luckily Tim doesn’t take life too seriously and that’s reflected in his art, which is seriously good.