High Peak artist Howard Levitt

Howard Levitt painting in the grounds of Stoke Hall, near Curbar

Howard Levitt painting in the grounds of Stoke Hall, near Curbar - Credit: Archant

Derbyshire meets local artist Howard Levitt, who on branching out from his former work as a graphic artist and illustrator, found great success as a creative artist

The Approach to Little Hucklow

The Approach to Little Hucklow - Credit: Archant

Once upon a time, not so long ago, young people who were determined to study art after leaving school were advised by their careers teachers to opt for a specialism such as graphic design, rather than for a course in fine art. While the chances of making a living as a creative artist were considered to be remote, it was thought that it might be possible for artists to avoid a life of penury by responding to requests from the commercial world for illustrations and drawings made to order.

Having accepted the received wisdom of the time, Howard Levitt, a talented young artist from Hull, applied for a Graphic Design course at Manchester Polytechnic, now part of Manchester Metropolitan University. Speaking to me at his home in Newtown in the High Peak, Howard recalled the high quality of the teaching he had experienced there. He said, ‘I developed a wide range of skills during my time in the school of art, because I was taught by, among others, the graphic designer Cameron McClean, the children’s book-illustrator Tony Ross and the landscape artist ‘Tub’ Williams.’

After graduating with a BA (Hons) in 1978, Howard took himself off to London, where he hoped to obtain work by joining Alison Eldred’s well-respected Artists’ Agency. The move paid off handsomely. Thanks to his evident talent for creating imaginative pictures made with great care and precision, Howard soon found that commissions were coming his way from advertising agencies and from publishers looking for illustrations and book covers.

Howard’s artistic skill was recognised in a particularly prestigious way when one of his illustrations, which he had produced for David Wingrove’s Immortals of Science Fiction, was purchased by the Victoria and Albert Museum for their collection of contemporary illustrations.

The Old Hall

The Old Hall - Credit: Archant

After getting married, Howard and his wife Georgie relocated to Cheshire. Armed with his accolade from the V & A and a comprehensive portfolio of work, he quickly obtained commissions from advertising agencies and property developers in Cheshire and Manchester, as well as from organisations such as the National Trust and English Heritage, who were keen to use his perspective drawings and aerial views for brochures and interpretation panels. There was also the added bonus of finding lecturing work in the Graphic Design department at Salford College of Art.

So far, so good, but the world of commercial illustration was beginning to undergo a profound revolution that would see drawings produced by skilled graphic artists replaced by increasingly sophisticated computer-generated images. Howard realised that now was the time to put to good use the techniques of landscape painting that he had learned from ‘Tub’ Williams and turn his attention to the kind of creative painting and drawing that he had been producing for some time either for his own enjoyment or for some private commissions.

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Although Howard continues to respond to requests for various conceptual visualisations, particularly from architectural practices working on renovations or recreations of period buildings, most of his artistic output is now concentrated on paintings and drawings which he makes available for sale as originals or prints. These are exhibited at the Paul Tabernor Gallery in Poynton and they feature in the permanent exhibition of work by High Peak Artists in Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens.

One of Howard’s most eye-catching pictures, which has the appearance of a photo-realist painting but is actually a meticulous coloured pencil drawing, illustrates a detail from the doorway of Buxton’s Old Hall, a hotel that was visited on more than one occasion by Mary Queen of Scots when she came to the Derbyshire spa to take the waters to treat her rheumatism. Acknowledging his fondness for architectural subject matter, Howard said: ‘As a student, I made a particular study of medieval architecture and I am particularly inspired by the skeletons of ruined abbeys and other partially-ruined buildings. I suppose dereliction is one of my favourite subjects.’

Through the Gate Down to Edale

Through the Gate Down to Edale - Credit: Archant

One Peak District building to which the artist has returned time and time again is an isolated semi-derelict barn that stands close to the point where the A623 cross-Pennine road makes a right-angled turn as it avoids the hamlet of Sparrowpit and begins its descent from the White Peak plateau. One of Howard’s drawings of this structure shows the exposed rafters of the dilapidated roof and the innards of the crumbling stone walls in such fine detail that it looks like an X-ray of the original building.

Another favourite haunt is the country road that makes a steep descent to the village of Little Hucklow. Here again there is a derelict barn that has caught the artist’s attention. The decay of this building is so advanced that it has been partially taken over by vegetation, and Howard’s picture of the scene perfectly captures the fact that the barn has almost merged into the landscape.

As well as finding artistic inspiration from the weathering of buildings, Howard loves to depict the impact of weather on landscapes that are largely devoid of buildings. Paintings such as ‘A Break in the Cloud’ and ‘Still Some Snow on the Tops’ are illustrative of this obsession. Casting his eye over these paintings, he said, ‘I think my landscape paintings which take contours and weather as their subject are slowly becoming more abstract in appearance.’

As some of the most striking of Howard’s pictures in the Gallery in the Gardens show, another of his obsessions is the majesty of pine trees and the skeletal beauty of trees shorn of their summer camouflage. Most of these images show groups of trees set on steep hillsides or in formal avenues. Drawn slowly and in meticulous detail, the images capture the natural geometry that every branch of every tree makes to the whole composition.

As these tree pictures demonstrate, Howard has grown into a fine creative artist since he branched out from his former work as a graphic artist and illustrator.

Howard Levitt’s drawings and prints can be purchased as original pictures or as limited edition prints. For details, see www.howardlevitt.co.uk. Howard’s work is exhibited at the Gallery in the Gardens in Buxton’s Pavilion Gardens (07849 673058) and at the Paul Tavernor Gallery in Poynton (01625 878910).