Coast Editor Andy Cooper went to meet the coastal artist inspired by our coastline time and time again.
Howard Birchmore can remember exactly the moment when the shape of light on the water first caught his eye. He was aged five and standing on the edge of the River Thames.
He recalls: “It was back in the 1950s and at that time, believe it or not, there used to be an artificial beach on the banks of the Thames by the Tower of London. My father would regularly take us down there on a Sunday to lark about and enjoy the novelty of this sand in the middle of the city.
“I can remember one time just playing on the beach and then looking up and noticing the light dancing off the waters of the river as they moved back and forth. I was captivated and it seemed to spark something within me.”
That early fascination with light on the water dovetailed beautifully with the young Howard’s burgeoning interest in art: “I had been drawing from the age of three onwards – things like Spitfires and so on – and it was always the subject I seemed to do best at during my school days.
“So around the age of 11 or 12 I guess I started to imagine doing something with my art as a career. But I never dreamed I would end up as an artist – I thought I’d become a draftsman, or something like that.”
But before Howard was to dip his toes into the proper world of work there was the small matter of the fact he was living in Swinging London, a new generation of music was started to take hold, and he also happened to be a rather accomplished musician who played in a number of bands.
“In my late teens and early 20s I spent a lot of time playing music,” recalls Howard. “I was a passable guitar player and could also play drums, mandolin and harmonica, so I found myself in a few bands playing Chicago blues. We were reasonably successful and, who knows, we might have been one of those who made it big – some of our contemporaries did – but it’s about the right breaks and I guess we just didn’t get them.”
As the music career stalled it became clear to Howard, newly married to Sylvia, that ‘a proper job’ might be a good idea. And that was when he found himself joining a branch of the Government which at that time was a byword for creativity, as he explains: “I applied for a role in the publicity department at British Rail as a graphic designer. Of course, at that time BR’s posters and artwork were seen as some of the best in class and it was a very inspiring place to be creative. I was privileged to working there and having so much fun.”
That role as a graphic designer with BR soon expanded out to a wider brief to be part of the special events team for the rail operator, meaning Howard ended up mixing with the Roya Family and other dignitaries from home and aboard.
“At one stage if there was any kind of special event BR was hosting I had a kind of ‘access all areas’ role,” he explains, “it meant I was on the inside at so many major ceremonial events. It was terrific fun, but a lot of pressure to make sure things went correctly to plan as well.”
After that long and varied career with BR, in 1990 Howard left to form a partnership with another artist – Jane Tayler – as they launched Brushmarks, their own independent agency producing leaflets, logos and posters.
Then in 1997 when Jane left to follow a career in book illustration, Howard decided it was time to take the plunge and concentrate on a full-time career in fine art.
“I first started out painting the Thames at Henley,” he recalls. “In my early days bridges were quite important to me in terms of sales and commissions. I painted in watercolours and oils, mainly.”
Some 23 years on from that landmark move, Howard, 73, who lives in Tilehurst in Berkshire, can look back with quiet satisfaction on a success story which has seen his iconic seascapes of the UK coastline sold all around the world.
“I try and interpret the sea in as many ways as possible,” he outlines when asked for his approach to painting. “I have an easel I can drag around with me and I like to just set it up on the coast and paint the colours I see. I love to capture the effects of light on water in breath-taking colours, in a style that captures that moment in time we recall from holidays that live with us our whole life.”
It’s certainly proved to be a winning formula, as his dramatic paintings of places as far apart as Burgh Island in Devon and the eastern counties capture the mood, drama and colours of the coastline we all know and love.
ROUTES TO MARKET
In his early career as a professional artist, Howard found travelling around art fairs and exhibiting in galleries was his main source of sales. Now, of course, the internet and social media has changed the game for him and many other artist.
“I sell a lot of paintings via Facebook Messenger,” he says. “It’s mainly to a UK market but there are some international sales as well. Strangely, a while back all of a sudden I started getting a lot of sales from Newport, Long Island, in the States. It’s hard to explain – I guess someone out there likes your work and word can spread.”
And constantly adapting to market demands has helped him sell paintings: “Around 2003 there was a change in public taste – not dissimilar to the sort of thing which sometimes happens in pop music – when all of a sudden watercolours were not in fashion any more.
“I suddenly had 50 unsold pictures and I realised it was time for a change in direction. I switched to oils and I haven’t look back.”
The size of canvases has also got larger over the years. Howard says: “The most popular size I sell is 60in x 36in, but I can go up to 10ft x 3ft 6in – they are real statement pictures.”
The Covid pandemic stopped face-to-face sales in their tracks – as it did for so many businesses – but it forced Howard to adapt and he is glad he did: “It’s lovely to be able to put up your works online now and see them sell. My website has proved to be a fabulous shop window to the world for my work.”
HIS FAVOURITE COAST TO PAINT?
“For me I am always drawn to paint the coastline in North Devon. When I was a kid, somewhere liked Ilfracombe seemed as far away as New York!,” laughs Howard. “I find myself drawn back time and time again. The light is different every time and it is such an inspiration.
“That stretch of coast between Porlock and Mortehoe is just fantastic to me as an artist.”
You can see more of Howard’s work, meet the coastal artist inspired by our coastline yourself and discover more about his career at howardbirchmore.co.uk