Best-selling artist Gary Bunt: “People reminisce about their own lives through my paintings.”
- Credit: Archant
The Rotherfield painter has sold out every one of his 12 solo exhibitions so far. But his route to artistic success has been unconventional and far from easy
One of Britain’s most popular artists working today, Gary Bunt’s journey has been an unconventional one. Born into a working-class Kentish family, he always loved painting and poetry but was obliged by circumstance to seek a less creative living. “At 16 you had to get a job and bring home some housekeeping,” says Gary from his home in Rotherfield. “That was the way I was brought up, and further education would have been considered an extreme luxury.”
Instead, while pursuing a career in the building trade, he opted for private study, with particular focus on some of the great 20th century British painters: Christopher Wood, the Nicholsons, Stanley Spencer. He taught himself to paint in an impressionist tonal style, always fitting it in around his work commitments until in 1999 Gary went home to his wife and told her he wanted to make a go of the painting. All was going well until, in the same week as his first solo show, he was diagnosed with cancer and was seriously ill for 18 months. “I sailed pretty close to the wind and I was reminiscing, thinking about my childhood, my children and my marriage. As soon as I could paint again, it was those things I started to paint,” he says. Remarkably, his style changed entirely, settling on the naïve rural whimsy now so beloved of collectors.
“My work is based around what I would call typical British country life and it has all evolved around things I grew up with and still love to this day,” says Gary. “The village I live in, Rotherfield, is almost like going back in time 30 years. There’s still a really lovely sense of village life. I try to impart that feeling with the paintings.” The old man depicted in Gary’s paintings is, he says, an avatar for himself and his father, but many see in him their own loved ones. “People are reminiscing about their own lives through my paintings. I think a lot of people find them a form of escapism. I have seen people walk around my exhibitions and laugh at a painting, and then cry at the next one. It seems they are going on an emotional journey, and that really moves me. I think that’s why the paintings have had the success they’ve had.”
He’s not kidding about that last part: every one of Gary’s 12 solo exhibitions has sold out. He doesn’t like to discuss money, but he’s certainly enjoying a measure of commercial success that eludes many contemporary artists.
This success has enabled him to explore another facet of his work. Gary was in the middle of a cathedral tour with his religious paintings. A man of deep faith, with a self-built chapel in his garden - “I usually say to people if I’m not painting, I’m praying” - he aims to “make it easier for people to associate with Christ”. The book that accompanied the exhibition showed the old man and his dog following Jesus through the New Testament, and included a depiction of Christ carrying his cross up Firle High Street.
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Although there are glimpses of local landmarks, the scenes Gary depicts seem to inhabit a land outside time. The men, for example, wear caps and braces “because when I was young there was a factory near where I lived and in the evening there were these swarms of men in suits and caps riding bikes and walking home from work.” These are scenes of everyday folk living normal rural lives, but not perhaps as we would recognise them now.
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Gary has been in Rotherfield for three years but says he was always drawn towards Sussex and the South Downs. “There’s a comfort to them, a gentleness and serenity, and that’s what I love: little villages like Firle and Alfriston dotted among these lovely rolling hills which seem to place an arm around them.”
The poems on the back of his paintings have become something of a Gary Bunt trademark even if, he admits ruefully, they don’t always come easily. “At the very beginning I didn’t put a poem on every painting I sent out, and then people started ringing up to say ‘I know someone who’s got one of your paintings and his has a poem on the back, where’s mine?’” Now he views them as one whole.
While painting is his great passion in life, Gary admits to finding some elements of the job more difficult than others. He’s not always comfortable with publicity, he confides, although he’s friendly and forthcoming to interview. And there’s another thing. “I find it almost scary and unsettling that people want these paintings so badly. It’s incredibly flattering but I just cannot get used to the idea and I think every exhibition is going to fail, even if we have a waiting list of 1500 people.”
If he finds commercial success is daunting, however, there’s an easier way to measure it. Gary admits to walking around his exhibitions on occasion, eager to gauge people’s reactions to the work. While he concedes it’s a dangerous game, he’s been immensely touched by some of the things that he’s heard. And what’s the ideal reaction?
“When someone looks at one of my paintings, I want them to feel how I felt when I painted it,” he says. “The paintings always come from an emotional reaction that I’ve had and when somebody looks at it, there’s nothing that gives me more satisfaction than seeing them experience that too. That’s the biggest compliment you could ever wish for as a painter.”
Gary is represented by the Portland Gallery in London and his next exhibition, titled Country Life, takes place from 23 November-4 December.