Art and Acting with Somerset Artist George Winter

Taunton-based artist George Winter talks to Robert Hesketh about his move to art from acting, and the persistence needed to excel creatively.

George Winter paints a wide variety of subjects in various media. He also sculpts and makes the frames for his work. Surprisingly, art is his second career, acting his first, but life has taken him to places he never expected to go.

Growing up in the small Pembrokeshire town of Milford Haven, George had no inkling of talent in either acting or painting. He left school at 15 to become a fitter and turner in Devonport Dockyard. Returning to Wales to finish his apprenticeship, he discovered amateur dramatics.

One of the drama group, an English teacher, recognised George's ability and coached him. It was like the plot of Emlyn Williams' autobiographical play The Corn is Green, in which George later played the lead role at the Old Vic opposite Deborah Kerr as the inspired English teacher, Miss Moffatt.

"Doree Gilmour was my Miss Moffatt and it was through her help and encouragement that I got to study at the Guildhall Drama School in London," explains George when we met in his Taunton home.

George's career took off with parts in films such as Scum, directed by Alan Clark, and All Quiet on the Western Front, directed by Delbert Mann. As well as working at the National Theatre for two years, he appeared in TV's Casualty and The Bill. He took various lead parts in series such as The Bretts, The Knights of God and played Merlin opposite Robert Powell in Merlin and the Crystal Caves.

All was going well until George was hit hard by arthritis and psoriasis. Offers of acting parts dried up. Combined with the financial crisis of the late '80s, George and his wife, Christine, decided to sell their London home and move with their growing family to Taunton.

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"Coming to terms with illness and a premature end to my acting career was hard," explains George. "There's a part of me that still misses acting, but quitting the stage opened another door of my life.

"I first became interested in art whilst I was still acting. Christine gave me a tin of watercolours one Christmas. Not really knowing what to do with them, I enrolled in an art class. My teacher was brilliant, extraordinarily flamboyant and impassioned."

So when they arrived in Taunton years later, George started a painting course in Lyme Regis. "It was an excellent course and led me to Access and Art Foundation courses at SCAT (Somerset College of Arts and Technology) in Taunton. Inspirational teachers have helped me at several crucial stages in my life; with John Hiscott at SCAT my work really took off.

"I moved on to Bristol University and took a BA in Fine Art. The emphasis there was more on concepts than artistic techniques, though I consider both are valid and complementary. Again, I was lucky to find a great teacher in Paul Gough, a man of terrific ability, drive and energy."

Bristol took George along an avenue of exploration which, with persistence, has yielded results. "Persistence is one of the things that professional artists must have," says George. "Unfortunately many gifted amateurs simply don't have the time to develop it."

George paints a variety of subjects, including striking portraits of his family, thoughtful interiors, still-life studies and individual projects such as his powerful 'Road to the Cross', expressive of his faith. Recently, however, he has produced more landscapes and seascapes than any other genre. Hestercombe Gardens, near Taunton, where he was recently Artist in Residence, inspired a series of paintings, some representational, some more abstract.

"There are many failures; few paintings work at the first attempt. It's a matter of keeping at it: a process of pushing and pulling. Some days, when it's difficult to get started, I think of the Scots painter Joan Eardley. She would say 'I haven't got any paintings that are even beginning to be good, but I've got ideas in my mind, and each painting seems to give me ideas for another... and that's a terrific good feeling'.

"For that reason, it's fine to have those failures sitting on the easel to work on the next day, or feed the start of the next picture. Sometimes I have a studio full of part-finished paintings. I tend to be very self-critical, but maybe it's that sense of dissatisfaction, a measure of uncertainty in where to go next, that drives me forward."

Blue Anchor, Lyme Regis, Charmouth and Sidmouth are among George's favourite Westcountry painting locations. He's also found many subjects in trips abroad. A recent trip to the dramatically rocky and volcanic landscape of Ascension Island is inspiring a series of forceful paintings, quite different in tone from George's French and Italian landscapes.

"Venice must be the most over-painted place in the world," he laughs. "Everywhere you look there's a marvellous painting subject. The idea of a painting of St Mark's Square cost us £16: £8 for two coffees and another £8 for a place to sit and listen to the band!

"A certain quality of light is often the catalyst for a painting, especially in our temperamental English climate. Although I like the studio for contemplative painting, I love the spontaneity of working outdoors and chasing the weather - and not necessarily 'good' weather. Some of my best paintings, like 'Hestercombe in the Rain', have come out of blustery days working under a fishing umbrella with the easel constantly blowing over!

"If you just painted just what you see in England, you'd have a sea of green, so I'm always looking for the suggestion of something else, and equivalent colours.

"As to the future, my instinct as an artist is always to produce new work, to move on. Trying new techniques or subjects is a risk, but you have to keep exploring to progress."

George Winter's work can be seen at Lutyens Gallery, Hestercombe Gardens, Cheddon Fitzpaine. He also has an exhibition of his work at Riverside Church, Hamilton Road, Taunton, from 9-13 December, 9.30am-6pm.

For more information call 07748 613748 or visit;