The World of Ben Hartley

PUBLISHED: 11:47 18 October 2010 | UPDATED: 17:59 20 February 2013

The World of Ben Hartley

The World of Ben Hartley

Jean Rose looks forward to an important exhibition

In 1996, Bernard Samuels, former Director of Plymouth Arts Centre, received an unusual and totally unexpected bequest the lifetimes work of his friend, Ben Hartley, who at that time was a relatively unknown artist.

The bequest comprised almost 900 paintings and 322 notebooks. Bernard has since devoted his retirement to publicising Bens work, and is collaborating with Peninsula Arts on this exhibition, the most comprehensive show of work by the painter that has yet been on public display. There will be 60 paintings (some from private collections, and many that have never previously been shown), together with early prints and drawings, and a selection of detailed notebooks.

Ben arrived in Plymouth in 1960 to teach part-time at Plymouth College of Art. But he needed the countryside, and he moved to Ermington a year later. When Bernard first met him, he found a shy, frail, almost reclusive man in an almost bare house bare, that is, except for a few postcards and Bens own vibrant paintings in gouache on brown wrapping paper stacked against a wall.

Ben spent his time in Ermington, says Bernard, painting and drawing, walking and cycling, day in, day out. His love of the locality and its life shows in Farm Scene with its echoes of Chagall, where images of farmer, ducks and farm buildings revolve around a great tree that is depicted in splashes of greens and browns. Fawns Autumn uses yellow and ochre tones in a celebratory burst of colour from an Ermington garden. Devon Lane, Westlake demonstrates Bens vibrant use of colour, and is, as Bernard explains, an exact depiction of the location. A realist in many ways, Ben nevertheless creates great fields of colour reminiscent of Matisse or Van Gogh.

He had a gift of being able to combine gentle humour with understanding and compassion in his drawings and paintings of people and animals. Dogdays depicts an unkempt black canine with red gums and huge lolling tongue considering the fate of a tube of Rowntrees Fruit Pastilles. Everyone feels for Dumps, a yellow dog in a state of depression, and Bernard is particularly fond of Custodian Collie, a dog with deeply intelligent eyes, minding a car from the drivers seat.

At times, Bens humour can verge on the grotesque, but not without humanity. Madame Celandine (which probably derives from sketches of nuns Ben made while on a trip to France) shows the head and shoulders of an old crone with massive nose and chin. Three tiny celandines (harbingers of spring that Ben was particularly fond of) wave in a corner of the picture, however, and Madames thin mouth lifts in a smile. Shes on a shocking-pink ground that tones with her pink headscarf.

Bernard explains the subtlety of Bens work: Often many colours are used in a build-up of paint using fine brushwork. In many of the paintings, you can sense energy in the marks. In Hay Time a farm worker shoulders a bale of brown-ochre hay against a light background that Bernard sees as reminiscent of Bonnard. There are echoes of Van Gogh too. The weight of the hay shows in the bent shoulders, and the blacks and browns of the mans simple, peasant clothing give a sense of him being dragged down. Yet theres a strong feeling of movement in the legs that demonstrates how accustomed he is to his daily toil.

Bens delightful notebooks are filled with sketches of people, animals and small scenes, but also contain poetic jottings that often display his feeling for childhood memories. Here he is on a Wind-blown breathe-in-deeply day:

Been a boy again:
& scrambled earthy banks
& almost had to cross a
stream upon a fallen tree

In one of his notebooks, Ben wrote (alongside sketches that became part of the inspiration for Rose Cottage, Vase of Flowers III, a painting with strongly religious undertones): Everything in the world... has significance... The artist has love in his soul and thus it appears in the finished work....

Ben writes of a spiritual unity of all things which shows especially in those paintings where he draws together a variety of disparate objects. Its almost as though he takes the fractured world of modernism and keeps the pieces safely like collections of childhood treasures, the joy of it all demonstrated in the vibrant colouring. Ben celebrates the natural world and (like a great novelist) the rag-bag of people in it. At every encounter, he lifts my spirits and makes me happy. JEAN ROSE

The exhibition can be seen at the Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University, 13 November 18 December.
Peninsula Arts: 01752 585050,

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