Approaching Martin Beek’s art is an intense voyage of discovery, through amazing landscapes and countries.
During an extensive interview, we discussed the genesis of his art, together with inside information on how he used the lockdown to create art talks.
What can you tell us about your professional background as a painter?
I followed a foundation course in the late 1970s and then I went to Exeter College, obtaining my degree in history of art. Ever since I was a little boy, art has always been the ruling passion of my life. My first exhibition was in 1981 and, after that, I worked on small shows for a few years. Most of my paintings represented landscapes around Exeter and Devon.
Then, I decided to travel to the USA and see art museums over there. I got a job in a sort of summer camp in Michigan, and when the former director left, I became their director of art. Connecting with nature – my art started to follow a pattern.
Afterward, I went back to the USA once a year and I would spend part of my time working and part of my time travelling and creating sketchbooks. When I came back to Britain, I had some exhibitions and started working with an agent who sold lots of my works to businesses and private collectors.
Parallel to this, I’ve always maintained a keen interest in art history, the philosophy and ideas behind it, as I’m not just somebody who paints, I’m also interested in art and artists from the past.
People enjoy hearing an artist talking about other artists. You can’t just talk about art without getting under the skin of it. I’m particularly interested in Victorian Art and John Everett Millais since with my degree I did a reappraisal of his later career and it was a challenge, because at the time people debunked Pre-Raphaelite painting, though now they have re-established themselves as part of the national life.
In my art talks, I often bring photographs from my archive, it helps me to explain how an artist has altered or how a location has changed during the years, just like an archaeologist. As Millais, I paint landscapes of places that are important to me and they have to be places I know well.
During the lock-down I started my art talks, using my own pictures. It’s very useful to discuss other artists because it might give you an idea on what you might want to do yourself and how you want to develop your own work in the future. Bringing the work away from the galleries, back to the studio, enlightening the background.
The approach I’ve taken is like a scrapbook: I put all info together and it lasts about one hour. I like to talk through the slides to keep it alive, not being too dry and dispassionate. You need to speak from the heart.
How do you organise your art talks?
As an artist I also move as an amateur in the history of art field, nevertheless, I have good knowledge on where to find information and I’m able to connect them together. For the Ardington Academy, for example, I went from teaching iPad drawing to art talks and that’s where the 46 talks come from and they are up until Christmas. I get more ambitious for them as I get on and I explore different subjects. The idea is giving people a bit of a foundation, so when they go to a show they know what they want to look for and they are able to enjoy them more.
You focus on the Victorian Age, what do you think happens to determine a revival?
I think the problem is its reputation, mainly after the First World War, partly because Victorian Art is narrative and you need to know something about Shakespeare, the Bible, Classic literature and, of course, the great figures from the past.
In Britain, we had a complete change within the arts mainly because of the Slade School moving away from the Royal Academy and we had such important figures as Fry who dismissed the Pre-Raphaelites.
The Bloomsbury Group was linked to Matisse and Picasso who were looking at the formal possibilities of expanding art in a different way. Painters like Leighton and the late Victorians didn’t fit into it at all. All new groups of emerging artists were merely baring the art of the past century. The Victorian world was seen as a world of morality and this didn’t agree with Bloomsbury artists, who were anti-establishment and despised painters like Hunt and their morality.
They didn’t like escapist scenarios, they wanted to deal with the reality of what was happening in the present world.
Fry’s Reflections on British Painting, for example, is a book that goes back to the golden age of British art and painters like Raynolds.
Victorian Art was generally seen as not relevant, but then - following the Second World War and in the 50s and 60s - artists of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were somewhat restored and valued on the art market; because it was a dream and escapist world, related to what people were feeling towards the world again.