Review by Alex Wade, journalist and author, published in Cornwall Today in the August 2016 issue.
Simon Pooley remembers his first day at school as if it were yesterday. “I had to paint a train – that was the first task I was ever set,” says the Macclesfield-born, Cornwall-based artist. “I couldn’t believe it. I thought: ‘this is great!’”
The sheer, simple, unadulterated joy Pooley felt then, as a primary school child asked to make marks on paper, has never left him. In fact, this sense of joie de vivre not only makes for an apt title for the current show of Pooley’s work at the Yew Tree Gallery in Morvah, west Penwith, but also sums up the man. Pooley is passionate – about art, music, dance, life – and intuitive, too; an artist who relies on what he feels as much as what he sees.
We meet at the Yew Tree Gallery on a balmy June morning. I had briefly met Pooley once before, and I’m aware of his love of Argentinian tango, but even if I’d had no idea about this I’m sure I’d have put him down as a dancer. There’s something flamboyant about him – a subtle flamboyance, if there is such a thing; something feline in the way he moves. And yet, as we talk, I find that he’s not all spontaneity and emotion, someone who doesn’t think before he speaks. Quite the opposite: Pooley is measured, almost careful about what he says.
“For the past 12 months I’ve been watching rooks in the fields near my studio,” he explains, of a series of paintings in the gallery. “I loved watching them, taking off, flying above me, disturbing each other, then settling again. Their agility and poise is wonderful.”Tumbling Rooks, 100x80cm, mixed media on canvas
Pooley’s rooks swirl and flow in blue skies infused with flecks of the brown earth below. The effect is poetic and haunting, and, with another painting entitled ‘Priest’, it’s tempting to wonder if Pooley is a religious man. “Not religious in a conventional way, no,” he replies. “But spiritual, yes. I don’t consciously bring this into my work – it has to arrive of its own accord – but to me there is something mysterious and magical about life.”
Priest, 25x30cm, mixed media on wood panel
Pooley’s life began in Cheshire, and, as he grew up, was dominated by three things: art, music, and sport. “I was always drawing, painting and making things,” he says, “but played a lot of cricket too, for the school and my village. I learnt to sail, on holidays in north Wales, and swam, and also led the school orchestra. I played piano, violin and guitar.”
Having taken ‘A’ levels in art and geography, Pooley enrolled at Kingston Polytechnic and took a degree in architecture. This was to be his profession for 12 years, initially in London and then in Sheffield. He and his wife Hilary visited Cornwall often during this period, and when the financial crisis hit in 1992 – the year of Black Wednesday and the withdrawal of sterling from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism – they had no hesitation in deciding to move to the far west. “The building trade had collapsed, and work was scarce, but it pushed us to make a decision that we’ve never regretted,” says Pooley.
Settling near Lamorna Cove in west Penwith, Pooley worked for a short time as an architect but soon threw himself into being a full-time artist. Two things helped: “I felt at home here as we moved in – there was something so special about the area and the sea. And I met Boots.”
Pooley is referring to the late Mary ‘Boots’ Redgrave, one of the legendary figures of the Cornwall art scene. Along with Janet Leach, who founded The New Craftsman Gallery in St Ives in 1992, Boots was instrumental in discovering and promoting the careers of many great Cornwall artists. Boots gave Pooley his first break, too: “I’d had just one impromptu show in Sheffield, for friends, but soon had a body of work once we’d moved to Cornwall,” he says. “Boots came round to see the work, didn’t say much about it, but then, after about 10 minutes, said ‘I’ll have that one, and that one, and that one…’ She sold them all within a few days.”
Pooley was to show with The New Craftsman for many years, with his work also featuring at Cornwall Contemporary and The Rainy Day in Penzance, and The Stour Gallery in Shipston-on-Stour, Warwickshire. The landscape of west Penwith was his inspiration, and remains so today, with Pooley painting it from a blend of memory and sketches made en plein air, fusing abstraction and figurative motifs to create works that are as enigmatic as they are alluring. His palette is often soft and gentle, and yet, in his paintings of dance and music, it is stronger, more graphic and expressive, almost strident. Here, indeed, is what Pooley readily admits is his other obsession.
“I’m as obsessive about tango as I am about painting,” he says. “As soon as I hear it, whether I’m sitting or standing or whatever I’m doing, my body wants to respond to it. There’s something so soulful about it, such a deep yearning.”
For the past 15 years, ever since Hilary said she’d like to do some dancing, tango has been a major part of the Pooleys’ life. It all began when couple went to dance classes in Penzance, learning to waltz and quickstep before chancing upon tango. “As soon as I heard it the hairs on my neck stood up,” recalls Pooley. “That was it. We’ve loved it ever since.” They regularly attend tango festivals, and Pooley will be starting a weekly tango class in Penzance in September. And he sees a clear link between tango and his paintings:
“They’re both improvised, every step of the way. There’s always something new and fresh, each time I start a painting – when I don’t know how it’ll end – and when I dance.”
And in both his art and love of tango, trust is important, says Pooley. “The way I work is intuitive and responsive. You have to trust that things will be OK. In a painting that can mean not being afraid to make a radical decision, maybe even to lose ninety per cent of the work. In tango, such an intimate, physical form of dance, you have to learn to trust your partner.”
Hot Swing, 40x50cm, mixed media on wood panel
In Hot Swing, one of the paintings in The Yew Tree Gallery, a dancer is caught mid-move, hips swaying, arms aloft, black skirt flowing one way, her body the other, as a pianist belts out some jazz. They’re both wearing red tops, conjoined but separate, ebbing and flowing as one but apart, the numbers ‘2’ and ‘3’ floating mid-air, beats in a bar that are present, at the same time hinting at the missing notes of the canvas. They’re supple and poised, suspended in time, and yet entirely of the moment, fluent and passionate, immersed in the fun and mystery of life, relying on trust and intuition.
Rather like Simon Pooley, the man who painted them.
Take to the Sky, 19x24cm, mixed media on paper
I first saw a painting of Simon Pooley’s, perhaps twelve years ago, on a wall in the Penzance Arts Club. It wasn’t the only painting on the wall, there were many, but it was the one that caught my attention and admiration; a small abstracted piece, maybe a harbour wall, maybe a pier, perhaps a buoy, a sail, the sense of depth and tide-in, the sense of rough weather. I held it in my mind’s eye and eventually contacted Simon, and the Stour Gallery has shown and sold his work ever since – to those who respond to the strong colour and tonal qualities of the paint, to the sense of mystery, of what might be just under the surface of land and sea, and how the ancient paths are marked. Simon’s training as an architect enables him to dispense with so much a more obvious painter might include, but ensures the structure is always there. His handling of paint, his style of over painting that depends so much on earlier marks and colour, his ability to create and reflect mystery, his drawing that lets a simple line convey a form, are all skills that are strongly evident in this new body of work. The paintings are of Cornwall, its ancient settlements, landscapes, sea, sky and harbours; in all its sharp light and tonal beauty. Many painters find inspiration for their work in Cornwall- the requisite essentials are all there, few succeed as Simon succeeds, in reducing to essential but recognisable forms and colours what lies below and above the surface of land, sky and sea, into paintings that are as successful as these. Sarah Stoten