The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Dorset artist: The living landscape

Harry Bucknall spends a morning with Dorset artist Charles Church

A private commission showing riders in front of Hambledon Hill

In the lee of Bulbarrow Hill, the Blackmore Vale folding out before it, is a wooden cabin. It is an airy studio, positioned so that the light catches it from every angle, with full-length windows and a pastel-green dovecote at one end; within lies a scene of organised chaos. Painted scenes of seas, mountains, and beaches – from Cuba and Italy to Scotland and Dorset – combine with images of hounds, pigs, cows, a Brahmin bull and horses upon horses on every wall.
There are cabinets piled high with squeezed paint tubes, pots bursting with sable-bristled brushes and, in every corner, rolls of canvas. Then there are the shelves of books, filled with tomes on the likes of Degas, Monet, Constable, Velasquez, Van Dyck and William Nicholson. These are the influences and this is the world of Charles Church who, at 42, is arguably one of the country’s finest and most sought-after artists; fearful of being typecast, he sees himself as a British Impressionist, hesitant of the soubriquet, ‘sporting artist’. It is a style that the Prince of Wales said displays ‘a profound understanding of his subject matter’.
Centre-stage in the studio is an easel with a large canvas of a chestnut racehorse and, in the saddle, a jockey in white breeches and the colours of the chestnut’s owner. The easel, like an altar in a cathedral, is the star of the piece. On it is the current commission, surrounded by three or four supporting actors in the form of studies which together represent the vital ingredients of a whole that will consume Charles for the next four months, until the painting finally becomes a picture that is worthy of his signature.

A bull in front of Bulbarrow Hill

‘I will probably paint this three or maybe four times,’ he says in his quiet, self-effacing manner. ‘Just as I come to finish, I’ll suddenly wash it over and fetch a fresh canvas. It sounds alarming, but the process gets quicker and the picture better until I am satisfied that the finished painting is just right.’ Whether it is his materials or the picture itself, Charles is the consummate perfectionist.
Originally from Northumberland, he moved to Dorset twenty years ago to be near his father, who restores furniture in Blandford Forum; his first lodging was a freezing caravan above Milton Abbas with views across to the Isle of Wight. Before, he was formally trained under the American artist, Charles H Cecil, a stone’s throw from the river Arno in Florence – home to the Medicis and birthplace of the Renaissance – where he made ends meet by painting murals in bars. Surrounded by galleries like the Uffizi and Pitti Palace, and under Cecil’s careful instruction, Charles learnt the principles of painting by ‘sight-size’: a philosophy of observing and understanding movement that flows from the leading ateliers of 19th-century Paris but, adopted by masters like Sir Joshua Reynolds and Velasquez, dates back to the 17th century.
For Charles to agree a commission is like gaining the seal to a plot worthy of Machiavelli: a complex union of animal, rider and landscape perfected by the artist. ‘I like to work through word of mouth – someone sees a painting of mine and says, “That’s what I want”.’  A good deal of his custom originates in the United States where his pictures, likened to those of Munnings, are increasingly popular: ‘Americans are nuts about painting in a realist manner, far more than we are. [John Singer] Sargent combined his formal training under Carolus Duran with Impressionism, which leads to beautifully structured works with an Impressionist feel. It took me time and a lot of practice to build on what I learnt in Italy’.
Charles prefers to paint in the open – plein air – ‘where all the happy accidents happen that can never be replicated in the studio: the weather, the pace of the horse, how its feet move, how the rider sits. I can work myself into the picture in a way that would take far longer from a photograph [which lacks] that vital sense of motion. It’s exciting, forcing me to work at speed.’

Charles at work creating a landscape image

He paints his studies on wood, starting with the landscape. ‘The key element to understanding horses is that they are in perpetual movement, every part of their being is changing in some way, the light plays so differently across their bodies. See a horse at the races, and the following day in the yard with no adrenalin, no nerves and tired out – it is a different animal. That’s why you have to see these beautiful and intelligent creatures fired up and in their element. You can’t recapture that anywhere else. They are the ultimate challenge to paint.’
While the majority of Charles’s work derives, not surprisingly, from the racing world, he is busy preparing for his first exhibition in over eight years. ‘Last time, I concentrated on rare breeds – cattle, poultry and pigs. The few horse paintings I included were the last to sell,’ he laughs. ‘This time, however, I am shifting a little more towards my hobby, landscapes.’ He has just returned from a trip to Egypt, where, in his own words, he went to ‘have some fun on canvas’ in new and challenging surroundings to see what he could create. Up at 5.00 every morning to catch the dawn light, there was little rest.

Charles's view of the beach at Ringstead

He talks of two careers: ‘There is my public work, horses, and then my private work, the countryside. The two go hand in glove – it would be unthinkable to produce an excellent picture of a horse in a shoddy landscape,’ which explains why he only lets a fifth of his paintings out of the studio door.
A passionate Anglophile, Charles remarks, ‘There is nowhere else that you find such subtlety of colour. Dorset is my favourite – from the coast to the Vale, there is such variety, something for every mood.’ He pauses and, looking up from a study of a shack painted in Trinidad, adds, ‘It’s important to paint other things. I enjoy the diversity and it improves my work.’

Charles Church’s next exhibition, ‘Further Afield’, will be held at Gallery 8, 8 Duke Street, London, from 18-23 November 2013. For details contact

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