Emma Crich­ton-miller vis­its an artist rooted in the West Coun­try as he pre­pares for a solo ex­hi­bi­tion of his paint­ings and prints at the start of his ninth decade

Country Life Every Week - - Contents - Brian Rice at St Ives

Emma Crich­ton-miller vis­its West Coun­try artist Brian Rice

On a hill­side above a beau­ti­ful val­ley, in the far south-west­ern cor­ner of Dorset, the painter Brian Rice has found his home, over­look­ing the vil­lage of He­wood, where the painter Lu­cien Pis­sarro once lived. He and his wife, fel­low artist Jacy Wall, live in an im­mac­u­late, lime-washed thatched house, orig­i­nally a sim­ple Dorset hall house built of cob, chert and flint. Long and low, it was ex­tended at the be­gin­ning of the 17th cen­tury and ac­crued a fine chim­ney, arched stone door­ways, mul­lioned win­dows and a date stone in­scribed 1618.

In the at­tics, the cou­ple has neigh­bour­ing airy stu­dios; ad­ja­cent re­stored barns ac­com­mo­date Mr Rice’s larger print-mak­ing and paint­ing. A tun­nel of hazel has been trained over the track that leads down from the road and, all around, sheep graze. It’s an idyl­lic con­text in which to find the artist, who is now 80 and still pro­duc­ing his thought­ful ab­strac­tions, rooted in the land­scape he in­hab­its.

next week, a solo show will open at his long-term gallery, Bel­grave St Ives, to cel­e­brate the pub­li­ca­tion of Brian Rice Paint­ings 1952–2016. As this cat­a­logue raisonné re­veals, in the 1960s, Mr Rice was part of the swing­ing Lon­don art scene, paint­ing boldly coloured, hard­edged geo­met­ric ab­stract works.

He had grown up in the Som­er­set vil­lages of Tintin­hull and Mon­ta­cute and stud­ied at Yeovil School of Art, be­fore mov­ing to Lon­don in 1958 to train as a teacher at Gold­smiths Col­lege of Art. A trip to the Sa­hara with two friends, in­clud­ing the Pop artist Derek Boshier, con­vinced him to be­come an artist and so, in 1962, af­ter a pe­riod work­ing in Mon­ta­cute, he moved to Ful­ham.

At this point, he was ex­plor­ing a dis­tinc­tive, lyri­cal form of ab­strac­tion, owed equally to Euro­pean and Amer­i­can prece­dents and to the English ne­oro­man­tic painters he ad­mired, such as John Piper and Gra­ham Suther­land. Al­most in­stantly, how­ever, Mr Rice says, ‘the paint­ing be­came ur­ban’, re­flect­ing both his im­me­di­ate en­vi­ron­ment and the Pop aes­thetic of the day. He hung out with Royal Col­lege of Art lu­mi­nar­ies David Hock­ney, Joe Til­son, Allen Jones and Peter Blake and min­gled with rock stars and fash­ion de­sign­ers. Soon, his work was ev­ery­where,

fea­tur­ing in colour sup­ple­ments and ad­ver­tise­ments, on bill­boards and even in films. It cap­tured the bright op­ti­mism of the era.

By the end of the 1970s, his paint­ing had be­come rig­or­ously sys­tem­atic—flat, geo­met­ric rule­bound ar­range­ments of colour. ‘I had painted my­self into a cor­ner,’ he says. And so, with a friend, he bought a 50-acre sheep farm on the site of an an­cient hill fort in a re­mote part of west Dorset and, for three years, he painted noth­ing. In­stead, he im­mersed him­self in car­ing for the land, tend­ing sheep and restor­ing the 17th-cen­tury farm­house; it felt ‘like com­ing home’.

And then, one day, while clear­ing a field, he came upon the trig­ger for his rein­ven­tion. Be­neath the soil, he dis­cov­ered some old cob­bled floors and pot­tery shards, in­clud­ing a frag­ment of 18th-cen­tury pot­tery marked with the face of a Green Man. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists from Dorch­ester in­ves­ti­gated, un­cov­er­ing

ev­i­dence of a Bronze Age set­tle­ment be­neath the lay­ers of later habi­ta­tion and en­cour­ag­ing Mr Rice’s en­thu­si­asm for ar­chae­ol­ogy.

He pro­duced a se­ries of gouaches—thaw (1981), Asker­swell Hoard (1982), Wes­sex Land­scape (1982)—which, full of tex­ture and rhythm, hark back to his ear­li­est paint­ings. ‘It was dig­ging into his­tory at Naller’s Farm that in­spired me to, ten­ta­tively, start paint­ing again. Mark-mak­ing in­spired by pre­his­toric sym­bols and an­cient land­scape—ab­stracted but not ab­stract.’

Mr Rice was later forced to sell the farm, but, on a cy­cling hol­i­day in 1983, paus­ing for breath at the top of the hill, he came upon the ru­ins of New House. Once again, he got

stuck in. For 10 years, he worked on the build­ing, strip­ping it back to the eaves. He un­earthed 15,000 shards of pot­tery, all of which he has kept, and scraped back the walls to their orig­i­nal plas­ter. Here, over the past 33 years, he has de­vel­oped a sig­nif­i­cant body of paint­ings, gouaches and prints.

These build on his orig­i­nal com­mit­ment to ab­strac­tion, but

are en­riched by a sym­bolic depth and a wide va­ri­ety of colours and tex­tures, draw­ing on im­agery as var­i­ous as aerial pho­to­graphs of an­cient sites, the pat­terns of African tex­tiles and the in­scrutable sym­bols in­scribed on rocks and me­galithic tombs. Most re­cently, he has even re­turned to his ear­lier geo­met­ric pat­terns, in paint­ings such as Skipzer (2016). These re­veal a new play­ful­ness, as if, re­con­nected with the source of their hu­man sig­nif­i­cance, the mo­tifs can now dance with con­fi­dence and joy. ‘Brian Rice: Paint­ings and Prints from the Artist’s Ar­chive’ is at Bel­grave St Ives, 22, Fore Street, St Ives, Corn­wall, from March 6 to 27 (01736 794888; www.bel­gravest ives.co.uk). All works in the show are for sale. Next week: ‘De­gas to Pi­casso’ at the Ash­molean

Num­ber One (1960). This was painted in Mr Rice’s par­ents’ house in Mon­ta­cute, Som­er­set, where he used a former bat­tery-hen shed as a stu­dio, be­fore he went to Lon­don

The artist in the stu­dio at­tached to his house, work­ing on his play­ful ab­strac­tion Zitzer (2016)

Above left: Draw­ing No. 6 (Yel­low­field) (2001), an ab­strac­tion that al­ludes to the con­tours and rock strata that make up land­scape. Above right: Sol­stice (1993) is part of a se­ries of highly pat­terned gouaches in­spired by pre­his­toric rock art

Sector No. 2 (1968) is a screen­print full of geo­met­ric bravura

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