These are measured and understated works, much like the man himself, who feigns the diffidence of a schoolboy and who is quick to intersperse his conversation with jokes and self-deprecating humour, but who talks passionately and intensely about his work. And behind it all stands a very pressing and definite awareness of his own mortality, as you might expect from someone with a serious heart condition.
‘I was diagnosed with it when I was six months old,’ Andrew explains, ‘and essentially means I have low oxygen levels with oxygenated and deoxygenated blood running around my system and a huge increase in the blood pressure in my lungs. It’s a serious condition, but I lived with it by doing the things I wanted to do. I didn’t like games as I was artistic, spent time poring over art books in the library, and that was fine. And then one day I started coughing up blood.’
He pauses before carrying on. ‘It was towards the end of sixth form, when I felt my future was lying before me and all these great things were going to happen. It was as though it wasn’t in the script. I felt as though I could do anything, and suddenly starting to wonder if I was dying rather grated against that.’ A stay in Great Ormond Street Hospital followed, where he was told what had happened was ‘like a nosebleed in my lungs,’ perhaps as a result of an infection or over-exertion. In time, he would have to have a pacemaker fitted to manage the condition, but its affect on his outlook and worldview have proved to be dramatic.
‘It put the fear of God into me that it would ever happen again,’ he observes simply. ‘I still live in fear that when I cough now,’ he pauses, ‘well, I want it to be clear. And it also means I need to live in the South East corridor with quick access to London hospitals in case of an emergency. My way of understanding it is to recognise that it isn’t a health condition so much as just being my health. It’s the way it is.’
The incident at school may have reminded him of his frailties, but another, earlier moment set the course for everything that was to come next. Introduced to an art teacher who he affectionately remembers as ‘an ex-military man with a handlebar moustache, a pipe and a dog called Sergeant,’ something decisively changed in Andrew’s life. ‘What made my parents choose the school was that they had a very strong art department which didn’t get locked up at the end of the school day. The thought was that I would be able to go to the art department when other people were doing things that were healthy for them, like rugby, or just generally joining in, in their very hearty way. Which is what I did.’
With a profusion of art books in the school’s library, he immersed himself in books and in the world of painters Fred Cuming, Ken Howard and Tom Coates, three landscape painters who were to lead his thinking.
‘What I was looking for throughout my art education was to perhaps reconnect with people like my first art master, and the people in those books, some wrinkly, white-haired 80-year-old man who did exquisitely beautiful paintings and who would take me under his wing and say “this is what you need to do to create similarly exquisitely beautiful paintings that make you want to cry when you see them,” and it never happened. But throughout my education, through my degree, through my Masters and into working as an artist, I knew that I didn’t want to make work about my physical situation even though I knew it was giving me a lot of strong feedback. Life, death and humanity are all the stuff of art. I didn’t want to touch that with a bargepole. I wanted it to be about celebration, about success over physical failure.’
Although he had never made a conscious decision to be a landscape painter and even now is clearly uncomfortable with the label, preferring instead ‘naturalistic’, his concerns about his health and his desire to celebrate through the creation of evocative landscapes fused into a powerful artistic drive. He identifies his breakthrough painting as being of people in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, a moment when his evolving sense of technique and inner momentum suddenly came together with dramatic results.
‘It was the first painting where I felt I had got somewhere as an artist,’ he remembers. ‘I stepped back from the canvas after I’d painted it and thought “who did that?” because I was wholly unaware of having done anything. My dad later said that if I couldn’t find a buyer, he’d have it, which was his way of saying it was good enough for him to put his money to. I was working in a slightly different way back then, I’d put dark tones in, let it dry and then put all the highlights in and swamp the whole thing with a glaze, a wash, and at that point you could lose or gain a painting because the whole thing could run in a really bad way or run in a really interesting way and look fantastic.’
Attempts to scale up the process made Andrew fearful that a canvas which had cost several hundred pounds could be ruined in an instant, leading him to redefine it and make it easier and more standard. He would later rebel against this process and this rebellion would finally lead him out of the studio altogether.
‘All I found was that I didn’t like standard ways of doing things, because the connection between me and the subject, that important reaction I got when I first saw it, had been surgically removed from the process. I was working in a studio, from photographs, and it had become sterile. There was no joy in any of it, and I realised that the combination I worked at when I was at school was hand-eye-heart. That was the phrase that one of my three, great white-haired old men had come up with, or at least refined. And for me, that heart part is vitally important.”
Leaving the studio behind, Andrew went out into Sussex and the surrounding counties as well as to his family’s second home in Spain to create what he saw as being genuinely, authentically art. Taken by the plasticity of the paints he was using and the chance to express himself through painting, often brilliantly and viscerally, he found a form of therapy. ‘With the landscape,’ he says, ‘it’s there already. You come to the landscape, so in that process of painting something within you can come out.’ He compares the process to drawing nude figures at art school, ‘when you react to what’s in front of you, the thinking part of you is gone and it’s about rendering it graphically. It’s a simple, rewarding and therapeutic process, and it disproves my idea that I’m a flimsy, feeble-bodied person because I can stand up for hours and draw continuously.’
Making Sussex his canvas and revisiting places he has been many times before is often the key, Andrew thinks, to deeper paintings that work harder to disinter meaning from the surrounding hills and valleys. One favourite spot, holds his favourite elements of ‘trees, and distance, and layers,’ while another is a beach near Brighton that he has revisited on numerous occasions. One of the coastal paintings done in such a setting won admission to the exclusive Royal Academy show a couple of years ago. If there is any sign that this is a form of creative vindication, Andrew waves it away with self-deprecating references to how quickly and hurriedly it was painted, cramped in the front seat of a car.
So he does not have to fold himself into the front seat again, he has acquired what he refers to as his ‘art van,’ a converted Nissan people mover that sits outside, equipped with a gas stove, rotating chairs and a sunroof. It will let him to escape into his beloved countryside more often this autumn in search of what he thinks is one of the magic ingredients.
‘I like a bit of drama in a painting,’ he says. ‘I was up at Firle in East Sussex and the conditions were ideal, but I was being blown around and I was cold. It was awful.’ He laughs again. ‘So come this winter I want to work with developing this moody, broody, glowering landscape without necessarily getting cold and wet. I want that instant moment where you park your head behind your face and just paint, so the van will allow me to do that. When you’re younger, you want to paint landscapes that nobody has ever painted before, but right now I don’t see why I should put myself in hospital trying to find that place. I want to go where I can park, and where I know I can paint.’
And now, at this stage in his career, Andrew has found an artistic consummation by making contact with the three painters whose work first inspired him when he was at school. More than that, next year he is planning an exhibition with them in London. On the day of the interview, he is just back from Rye, where he talked with Fred Cuming, and is still animated when he talks about it.
‘Finally, I’ve located those wrinkly, white-haired old men,’ he says. ‘Not only that, but I’ve approached them, and I’m talking art with the three British painters whose work I once used to pore over, Fred Cuming, Ken Howard and Tom Coates. You know that phrase “never meet your heroes”? Well, I think it’s bulls**t. Try to meet them, try to talk to them, and find out they are people just like you. That makes it all the more remarkable that they can create beautiful things. Landscape painting has a massive historical basis, particularly in British art, and that was what was never really engaged with in my degree or my Masters. For me, traditional painting is where it is at, that sense of hand-eye-heart. And I feel as though I’m finally close to that.”
To stand in front of an Andrew Roberts painting, to look at its gentle lines offset with quick visceral marks under a glowering, gathering sky, is to realise his life, and talent, are anything other than wasted. It may have taken him years to locate those white-haired old men, to get where he is despite long odds, but this most patient and understated of artists may find his time has come at last.