Featured artist - Bruce Argue

A South African now living in rural Kent, Bruce Argue on his art heroes, inspirations and the unpredictability of watercolour

Bruce Argue and I are they at the top of an old house, in quarters that would definitely qualify as being a garret. Here the artist accomplishes painterly pursuits surrounded by his works on the walls “All the best works have gone,” Bruce tells me. “Sold.”

It is a fittingly humble residence. A fire burns in the grate and two dogs greet me, together with a welcome cup of coffee. On an easel is a work in progress. It is beautiful. A pastel portrait, it has all the colours that you associate with Impressionist work, carefully blended into giving the canvas a totally original turn. There are several pastels here. More stunning portraits adorn the walls. There is a luminescence to them: Bruce likes colour.

The first time I came across Bruce Argue and his work was at the Pilgrim’s Way Art Fair which takes place in Lenham each May and which Bruce founded some 15 years ago. At that time he was showing some large and very vibrant landscapes, redolent of South Africa where he lived for many years.

The landscapes were in acrylic, with sand added to enhance a grainy texture to the works and highly coloured, as of African light. There are a couple in his study, plus one that he has turned upside down and is reworking a portrait onto.

Along with the acrylics and pastels, Bruce has also used watercolour. “It is exciting because it is unpredictable,” he tells me. We look through a folder of his work where beautiful flowers are depicted in watercolour.

Bruce had spent three months in the semi-desert painting these rare flowers, with a very fleeting life. The folder also includes some very accomplished nudes. We talk about how the art market in London is very different. The nudes would sell there for a good price: here in Kent nobody would buy, even at a cheaper rate.

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Which brings me on to the question of Bruce’s reputation. Modestly he tells me “it’s hard to say what it is. People think I’m quite good…I don’t know.” He has shown at the prestigious Royal Academy and has had works in the exhibitions of the Pastel Society in London. Is there a spiritual core to his work? “I don’t know”, he laughs and, appealingly, blushes “I don’t want to sound poncey” (his word).

We get onto the subject of contemporary art. “My theory of art is that it is the conscious making of a mark,” he says. However, he is singularly uncomplimentary about the YBAs (Young British Artists). This work, he says, is just part of a commodity system. The idea of an artist just turning lights on and off however sends him into paroxysms of cynicism. (this won the Turner Prize in 2001). “But I like some contemporary art. Kandinsky”.

Bruce’s artistic heroes include Van Gogh and Gauguin, the Impressionists; his inspiration? “Everything. What’s nice about being an artist is it opens your eyes to everything: shapes, colours, forms, textures. A road is not just a road, but has pebbles on it, trees along the side.” For Bruce, one of the problems with the contemporary training of young artists is that not much drawing is taught, but this he sees as very important.

The artist’s day begins at around 5am, when he gets up to work on a book he is writing. Each day at 9am, a Downe’s syndrome friend comes around for coffee for half an hour. He is also a successful artist who shows at Lenham. After this Bruce dedicates the morning to painting, finishing at perhaps 2pm or 3pm and then allowing himself free time. His favourite reading is technical books, there are many on shelves around the walls.

The Pilgrim’s Way exhibitions have created a strong following. Bruce says that this is possibly one of the most successful shows in Kent, with some �25,000 of art works having sold last year. Disappointingly Bruce won’t be showing this year. However, he is very happy to welcome visitors to his studio. It’s worth a visit.

Bruce Argue welcomes studio visits: The Studio at New Shelve Farm, off the Ashford Road, Lenham. Tel: 01622 851190