Marcus Janssen meets artist James Lynch at his picturesque home in rural Somerset.
James Lynch isn't necessarily a technophobe, but the trappings of modern technology do seem to be unusually low on his list of priorities. When I emailed him to organise an interview, his wife Kate – also an artist - replied on his behalf, which I thought nothing of at the time. However, when I turned up at his home in rural Somerset for the interview, and his neighbour dropped by to return a memory stick she'd borrowed, I very nearly choked on my coffee. James looked at the said USB and commented to his neighbour: “Gosh, I've never seen one of these before.”
James is an artist, and even his chosen paint medium – egg tempera, a mixture of egg yolk, pigment and water – is as far from modern as painting gets. “It precedes oils, and has been used since medieval times”, he says. And so, when James tells me that they didn't have a television when he was a child, I am hardly surprised. “We did have a little radio though, and instead of sitting around watching TV, I would listen to Radio 4 and sit and draw whatever came into my head. I used to find that inspiring as there were some really good stories on the radio in those days, and they had people like John Gielgud reading them.” Try as I might, I just can't imagine the kids of today getting their kicks from sitting round a radio with a set of watercolours.
Whether or not the lack of technology in James's life has had anything to do with it, is uncertain, but both the inspiration, and subject matter of his exquisite paintings come directly from the countryside. “My paintings are always of rural UK landscapes”, he says. “I simply couldn't get into the whole going abroad thing and painting on holiday, it doesn't appeal to me at all. I need to feel like I am part of the landscape - I need to feel rooted really, and this is the part of the country where my heart is.”
To get from James's quaint stone cottage, which is tucked away at the end of a country lane, to his studio, you follow a mossy path through an overgrown garden, passing several fruit-laden apple and pear trees, until you get to a shabby little out-building which I was surprised to see has electricity. I presume that the ancient woodburning stove inside, beside which sits James's stool and easel, is there to compensate for the modern lighting. “It's far too effective”, he says, referring to the stove. “I have to open all the windows and doors when I've got it on, even in the middle of winter. It's because of all the cracks – it breaths too easily and burns red hot.”
Once inside, my gaze is torn between settling on James's current piece - a commission of a spectacular view across the Blackmore Vale near Wincanton - and the actual view from his studio. The latter is of an archetypal West Country landscape with the Mendips and Glastonbury Tor prominent on the horizon. Both the scenery and the soft autumn light are reminiscent of several of the paintings of his that I've seen. “We're tucked away here, so we don't get people passing through. It's so secluded, peaceful and quiet, and it's a really lovely place to work from.”
Opposite his studio, across a narrow ravine, I notice a strip of maize next to which is a pheasant feeder. “I allow the local shoot to use my field for one of their pheasant drives”, he says. “They push the birds out of the maize and two Guns stand in my field. And because I allow them to do so, they make a point of inviting me to their annual shoot dinner which is always great fun. It's allowed me to become acquainted with some wonderful local people who I probably wouldn't otherwise get to meet.”
James grew up not far from here in Devizes, a place that is closer to his heart than anywhere else on earth. Both his parents were art teachers, and he was encouraged to draw and paint from a very young age. But when I ask him if art is his passion, he hesitates before answering. “Yes, it has become a passion, largely because I couldn't do anything else. It was a case of simply having to make a success of it - I didn't have a choice.”
After studying graphic design at university, he started off doing commissioned paintings of people's homes, travelling from door to door on an old BSA motorcycle with his equipment in a sidecar. “I did that for about four or five years”, he says. “I soon lost track of how many paintings I'd done, but the advantage of it was that I ended up with a readymade mailing list. So when I had my first exhibition, it was a complete sell-out.”
James hasn't always painted with egg tempera – he started off using gouache on paper, but the tempera paintings in the National Gallery caught his eye. “They seemed to glow with a light that came from within the actual painting. So I started off by reading some books about tempera and almost got put off, because it sounded so difficult and so complicated.
“The trouble is, a lot of the material that was written about tempera was penned centuries ago, when it was still being used quite readily, and in those days you had to grind your own pigments, and I wasn't sure if I could be bothered with all of that. In the end though, I gave it a try, and I was amazed when it worked!”
As it happens, light does penetrate the semi-transparent tempera, and reflects off the gesso (a mixture of rabbit skin glue and whiting) underneath, giving the paintings a real vibrancy of colour. This is noticeable in James's paintings too, in which his rural Wessex landscapes sit below atmospheric and often dramatic skies which do seem to exude natural light.
“I do have a love of the skies, in more ways than one”, he says. “Both my parents were gliding enthusiasts, and I used to go with them as a child. When you've been up there, in control, on your own, it's just something that you've got to do. I had a long gap and then came back to it in the way of paragliding because it is the cheapest form of flying. It's also the most fantastic camera platform – the classic paragliding image is an expansive view with a pair of feet suspended below!
Given James's apparent disinterest in modern technology, I am almost expecting his next comment which he adds as an afterthought. “And I think it's also the best form of flying really, because of its simplicity. You aren't reliant on anyone or anything else. You're completely your own boss.”
The fact that James's views of the countryside and the landscapes he loves are unhindered by even the glass of an aircraft's canopy is quite apparent in the paintings he creates. They are imbued with a soft natural light and sense of perspective that perfectly captures the beauty of the West Country throughout the seasons, which goes some way to explaining why he has such a following amongst fine art collectors and nature lovers alike.
For more information see: http://www.james-lynch.co.uk