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At home with artist and illustrator David Armitage

PUBLISHED: 10:34 01 November 2016 | UPDATED: 10:34 01 November 2016

David Armitage at his studio near Lewes (Photo by Jim Holden)

David Armitage at his studio near Lewes (Photo by Jim Holden)

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East Hoathly fine artist and illustrator David Armitage talks about colour and lighthouse keepers with Duncan Hall

On the wall in David Armitage’s kitchen in Graywood, near East Hoathly is a fairly nondescript painting of a man wearing a sou-wester battling a storm at the top of a lighthouse.

It is the last original illustration from The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch – the book illustrated by David and penned by his wife Ronda nearly 40 years ago, only three years after the pair decided to settle in Sussex.

And all these years on it is still as popular as ever.

“When you’re signing books for four, five, six or seven year-olds in classrooms, often the mum turns up with her book too,” says David from his kitchen table.

“It’s feasible in five years time there will be a third generation of readers discovering it.”

The book tells the story of a lighthouse keeper who has to do battle with seagulls who keep stealing the packed lunch his wife sends in a basket down a line from their cottage to the lighthouse everyday. The original book has since spawned seven sequels and has been turned into a theatre piece by Roald Dahl stage adaptor David Wood, which premiered at the Minack theatre in Cornwall. Director Tim Bray has also produced a version which was staged in Auckland, New Zealand.

It took its inspiration from a family day trip to Beachy Head when David and Ronda’s own children Joss and Kate were four and two years old respectively.

Outside view of artist David Armitage's East Sussex home near East Hoathly (Photo by Jim Holden)Outside view of artist David Armitage's East Sussex home near East Hoathly (Photo by Jim Holden)

“Joss saw a wire going from the Beachy Head lighthouse to the mainland and asked what it was for,” says David. “We said it was to send over the lighthouse keeper’s lunch. One of Joss’s friends was with us, and said it wouldn’t be a bad idea for a story.”

David and Ronda worked together on their kitchen table at their former home in Hellingly, East Sussex, to pull the story together. “Ronda is an ex-teacher and so can write for children because she knows them inside out,” says David. “Often teachers comment about the language in the books. It isn’t baby talk, it extends the children’s vocabulary by using more sophisticated language. Teachers love it!”

For David and Ronda the kitchen table is now where they draw with their grandchildren. David has his own separate studio in the grounds of the Quadrangle – the self-contained mews-style housing in Graywood on the edge of the village where the pair moved to in 2000. The houses were built around the 1920s and used for military accommodation. “It was meant to be almost self-sufficient,” says David. “It’s almost like a commune. You have got to get on with your neighbours!”

The pair first came across the Quadrangle when they came to look at one of the neighbouring properties, having decided to move out of Hellingly after 24 years.

“Ronda fancied a new garden,” says David. “We thought ‘Why not look around?’ There were various reasons why we didn’t want the house next door, but Ronda glanced over the fence and saw this garden. The following day or week the place was up for sale – and we just loved it.”

It’s easy to see why the pair were so attracted to the garden – which is now both a riot of colour and a source of food for the pair who grow all their own vegetables. They have their own table outside for al fresco eating, as well as a large yurt in the grounds.

Inside the house part of the attraction was the use of bold colour, which David and Ronda have kept throughout. “The place had an aura about it,” says David. “It felt almost French with tiled floors and walls. The colours of the rooms and the kitchen were great – I love colour. We have spent a lot of money refurbishing the place, but we wanted to carry on the whole feel and persona of the place. We wanted that warmth, as that is what attracted us in the first place.”

Artist David Armitage's kitchen at his East Sussex home near East Hoathly (Photo by Jim Holden)Artist David Armitage's kitchen at his East Sussex home near East Hoathly (Photo by Jim Holden)

While the house is filled with avid reader Ronda’s books, David tends to keep his artwork separate aside from a few select works, partly because of the amount of time he spends on each canvas.

“What I try to do takes years and years,” he says. “If I had one of my paintings on the wall I would spend my life wanting to fix it. Even though they are eight or nine square metres in size I will agonise over a square centimetre. Each has to contribute to the whole.”

David’s workspace is separate from the house across the other side of a shared yard and car park. Its pitched roof has a see-through polycarbonate roof which allows light to flood in no matter how dull the weather might be. There’s a music centre in the corner, surrounded by piles of CDs and a small selection of wines. The rest of the space is devoted to David’s huge canvasses which are stacked against the walls of the studio in advance of his September exhibition.

He feels an appreciation of art should boil down to one thing – a reaction of: ‘Wow! Look at that!’

“It’s visual, and that’s it. You can go on about composition and the whole manner of everything else, but that is what it is. It’s a world that has been finished and exists in its own terms. Experimentation is very much part of it.”

His most recent series of works, Victims, is a dark series of shocking figures, taking inspiration from modern day stories of domestic violence, illness, war and repression – with topical links to the experiences of refugees.

“They are about feel,” he says.

Sitting room at artist David Armitage's East Sussex home near East Hoathly  (Photo by Jim Holden)Sitting room at artist David Armitage's East Sussex home near East Hoathly (Photo by Jim Holden)

“I’m not trying to cash into the terrible problems of the world today, some of these I have been working on for 12 years. I have taken them out and reworked them.

“I look at them again and again until I’m completely satisfied.”

The drawn-out faces on his Victims paintings reflect the African and Indian masks which decorate his home. Long strings attached to many of his subjects from off the canvas suggest puppet-style control by outside forces.

In composition the works take inspiration from Goya’s war imagery, while retaining David’s love of bright colour as explored in his giant landscapes. Some of these landscapes, such as the four by two metre Terra Australis which he has been working on for 15 years, are going on display next year at Eastbourne’s Birley Centre. He sees his use of size and bright colour as part of his Australian heritage. “It’s in my DNA,” he says. “I haven’t lived in Australia for 30 or 40 years, but the power of the place is as strong now as it ever was. That feeling of space, colour and scale will never go away.”

He sees the worlds of a fine artist and illustrator as two very different disciplines. Although he and Ronda started out working together on her books, she now collaborates with other illustrators while David concentrates on his canvases.

“We work together on the Lighthouse Keeper books, but I’m a painter,” he says. “I find the disciplines of painting and illustrating quite separate. It’s the difference between a four-to-the-floor pop song and an oratorio.

“For some reason the chemistry between her writing and my illustration has just worked. I love putting subplots in the story – my mental age is sometimes about five in regards to my sense of humour! People might think there was a parting of the ways, but it’s not. Ronda has had books published with other illustrators which have worked extremely well.” The pair still regularly talk to schools and lead workshops in writing and illustrating. David says it is always a humbling experience. “You see the seagulls hanging from the ceiling, or lighthouses in the corner of the room for the kids to play in,” he says. “We had no idea it was going to happen like that. The children make their own little lighthouses or write their own stories about it.”

The bright staircase at artist David Armitage's East Sussex home near East Hoathly (Photo by Jim Holden)The bright staircase at artist David Armitage's East Sussex home near East Hoathly (Photo by Jim Holden)

One of his recent projects has seen him combine elements of the two disciplines of fine art and illustration. Winterreise: A Winter’s Journey places beautiful figurative images alongside English translations of Schubert’s 1828 song cycle, but his love of the abstract and bright colour is never too far away in his depictions of the heavens and self-discovery.

Forthcoming exhibitions

Next year is Spectrum – a solo exhibition at Eastbourne College’s Birley Centre from Thursday 2 to Sunday 19 March 2017. Visit www.davidarmitage.com.


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