Sussex painter: “Working in conflict zones has given me a new intensity in the way I look at things”

Jack and Jill Windmills near Clayton

Jack and Jill Windmills near Clayton - Credit: Gordon Rushmer

Former war artist Gordon Rushmer will exhibit his Sussex landscapes this month in Petworth to celebrate ten years of the South Downs National Park

Bridge Over the River Ouse by Gordon Rushmer

Bridge Over the River Ouse by Gordon Rushmer - Credit: Gordon Rushmer

Landscape painter Gordon Rushmer had already enjoyed a long and successful career as an artist when he received a call that would change his life, and his art, forever.

“Out of the blue I had a call from the Royal Marines in Portsmouth, who produce a Christmas card each year,” says Gordon, now 74. “The officer responsible had forgotten to commission a painter, and with three days to go before the printer’s deadline, he panicked. It would appear that I was the closest artist to the base in Portsmouth - he just found me in the Yellow Pages.

“He obviously thought that all artists could paint anything, it hadn’t crossed his mind that there were specialisms. He asked me if I could ‘knock out’ this watercolour for him, which I duly did within the three days, and the next thing I knew I’d got a call from the Dutch Marines who wanted me to go to Bosnia.”

That was the beginning of 11 years as a war artist, during which his assignments included visiting the site of a Bosnian massacre and recreating the scene from the testimony of special forces who discovered it. Later, in 2002, he worked with the Special Boat Service in the north of Afghanistan. He describes this work as “difficult to explain – I capture action, I capture emotion. I suppose I turn into a reporter – I’m not looking for pretty, that’s for sure.”

Gordon Rushmer. Photo by Maureen Adams

Gordon Rushmer. Photo by Maureen Adams - Credit: Maureen Adams

Gordon’s South Downs watercolours, suffused with a sense of bucolic calm and revelling in the beauty of this place, are an interesting juxtaposition. An exhibition this month at Rountree Tryon Galleries in Petworth brings together his local landscapes in celebration of ten years of the South Downs National Park. He was born and brought up in Petersfield, and moved to Plaistow near Petworth eight years ago, so the Downs have been a constant backdrop. But Gordon says the area has changed in his lifetime: “It’s busier, and the footfall across the Downs now is massive. I worry that the National Park has made the area too accessible. The whole notion of the park was a great idea, if only to stop the spread of building, but in doing so you’re bound to attract more people to the area. It’s a tricky balance they have and I think it will be a continuing battle.” Nevertheless, he meets few people on his own forays for inspiration, usually setting out at dawn. “I quite like bad weather, I think wherever you are it shows the landscape in the raw. Winter is a good time for me,” he says.

Did you read our story about award-winning Brighton artist Faye Bridgwater?

Corporal 'Tomo' Thompson RM, CGC, Helmand, Afghanistan by Gordon Rushmer

Corporal 'Tomo' Thompson RM, CGC, Helmand, Afghanistan by Gordon Rushmer - Credit: Gordon Rushmer

Rather than setting out to paint a specific scene, he tends to walk until something triggers inspiration. Then he’ll sketch and take photos before repairing to the studio to see what works.

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As far as favourite subjects are concerned, “I do like the roll of the Downs,” he says. “The whole stretch of the Downs is just stunning but I also like the old buildings. There’s a beautiful house in Bignor, the Yeoman’s House, which seems to grow out of the landscape in the way buildings in West Sussex and Hampshire do. The old churches are the same – they are so much part of the landscape that without them I suspect the landscape would not be so attractive.”

All this, he says, provides a good foil to documenting the horrors and mundanities of war. And somewhat surprisingly the war work has influenced his landscapes: “It has given me a new intensity in the way I look at things and portray them. I take more time and care, and I want to say more – I’m not just looking for the pretty.”

Gordon’s South Downs paintings capture the beauty of our gently undulating landscape, its moods and seasons. They will also act as a record of this moment in their long history – and in that respect, his paintings do not differ so much from his war work. Gordon names the inclusion in Tate Britain’s Watercolour exhibition of one of his Bosnia paintings as one of his career highlights. The Palace of Westminster has six of his paintings and the Royal Archive has one too. “Things like that make it all worthwhile,” he says. “The war pieces end up in museums and they are there forever, I hope. It’s a bit of a responsibility!”

Gordon Rushmer: The Wind in the Trees will be at Rountree Tryon Galleries 12-25 September.

Gordon’s book, A Celebration of the South Downs National Park, is being published to accompany the exhibition and will be available from local bookshops and Gordon’s website.

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