Peter Townsend 

At the age of 17 Peter volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm and when his time on ‘reserve’ came to an end he reported to HMS St Vincent in June 1944. Peter trained in Canada to be a pilot with the Royal Navy and was given 12 hours in which to solo with the threat of being sent home if he didn’t make it. He achieved solo in 9 ¾ hours! At 18 he got his ‘Wings’ becoming a Petty Officer and later a Chief Petty Officer.

 

On one particular day, he gained a certain sense of notoriety when flying, reading a map strapped to his leg in a single-engine, single-seater plane. On his way from Shrewsbury to Gloucester, the innocently exciting idea came to him to take a detour over his Mum’s house. It made the papers: ‘Maverick pilot terrifies inhabitants of Cheltenham’. He hadn’t thought of the consequences if the ‘powers that be’ had got his ID – he was only thinking of saying ‘Hello’ to his Mum, and she was delighted!


Returning to education, Peter attended St Paul’s Teacher Training College in Cheltenham from 1946-48 and took Art and Craft, Art, and Geography; a course which included tuition in book-binding. (He has been making a range of small bound pads, some of which will be in the gallery during his exhibition).

After about 15 years as a Primary Teacher in all subjects, Peter felt he needed additional qualifications to progress and completed a Bristol University course achieving his Advanced Certificate in Education (ACE). Whilst studying for this, his lecturer asked him, “What are you good at?” and Peter replied, “Watercolours”. Paying little attention, the lecturer then asked, “What about 3D?”. Having no experience of 3D work Peter was immediately apprehensive, but thought “OK, I will give it a try”. He began first to work with stone and marble but didn’t enjoy working with these materials. When the lecturer pointed to a tree trunk in the corner and said, “Have a go at that”, Peter found the wood to be very sympathetic and a pleasure to work with, so much so, that he was inspired to make and develop his own art from the material. Regularly passing a building site where trees were being felled, Peter stopped to ask the foreman if he could have a piece of tree trunk, thereby providing himself with a starting point for a new sculpture. Using very simple tools like a surform plane with a wooden handle, Peter started to work the trunks and roots by hand. Some of these early sculptures are still in his possession which you can see in his exhibition at LT Gallery:


‘Abstract’
This was the first carving that Peter sculpted. Working with a divided tree trunk, Peter enhanced the ‘V’ shape to make a smooth hollow. He then influenced the two flat tops of the branches giving them interest through the shapes he formed.

‘Rhythm of Grain’
A tree which had been felled and then set alight provided Peter with a new challenge. He found a fairly unharmed section which he knew, when he turned it over, would have been affected by the heat and smoke. He enhanced the rhythms of the woodgrain on the front, leaving the charred back to become an integral part of the piece.

‘Female Torso’
At first, Peter couldn’t do anything with the stump he was given for this sculpture. It had been cut so short that there was not a lot to go on for inspiration. Then Peter turned the wood upside-down and it immediately suggested to him, a female torso.

‘Running Deer’
Sections of wood do not always indicate a way of working right at the outset, but in this particular case the piece gradually suggested the head and eye, followed by antler and leg of a deer. Hence the title of the sculpture.

‘Mother and Child’
This piece didn’t originate from the tree-felling project. Peter was out driving when lightning struck a tree and a section broke off, falling in front of his car. He took the wood home and then went to work with it. There was a large crack across the piece and in order to get rid of it, Peter cut a section off up to where the crack was and threw it away. However, when he looked again at the bin he noticed how beautiful the woodgrain was and had the idea to form a composite of the two pieces. Placing them next to each other, the larger piece curves over the smaller as if offering protection and creating the visual analogy of a mother’s care for a child.

‘Flight’
The wood for this carving suggested ‘wings’ to Peter but he felt that the branches were not long enough to form the size of wing which he wanted. Sticking to the vision he had set out for himself, Peter worked within the prescribed limitations of the wood, carving downwards and making the edges thinner to give sharp lines, tapering in the direction of further continuation. The sculpture has a modest allusion of grandeur and a stoic presence. It could not fly as it is in reality, but as an artwork, it pleasingly embodies the elements of flight.

 

Peter has held various teaching roles in Essex, Gloucestershire and in 1965 gained a Headship at Milton Junior School in Weston-super-Mare, which he held for twenty years. During this time, he became a Magistrate and was appointed Chairman of the Juvenile Bench, then Chairman of the Bench. Some of his duties were at Crown Court with a Judge and two Magistrates. Married and with a family, his wife sadly passed away four years ago and since then he has filled his time by returning to watercolours. Peter finds himself attracted to buildings and boats, often picking out patterns in what he sees. Initially working outside from life, he now works more from photos or images he has found.


Peter had spent time at the School of Naval Warfare at St Merryn. His brother Don, was also a skilled craftsman and cabinet maker and when he later had a hotel in Cornwall, Peter would go to visit him. Peter’s love of Cornwall is reflected in his artwork and much of his subject material is wrapped up in his connections with it. He particularly notices how the light is quite different as you travel down the coast.


Another painting was influenced by a trip to a caravan park in Bristol. Walking out of the back gates of the site with his paints and paper, Peter turned his attention to the brightly coloured houses and boats and created the painting ‘Baltic Wharf’ which features in his exhibition. The paintings of Woodspring Priory were also done in situ.


Peter’s technique is one which he has developed himself and which satisfies him greatly. He has a modest paint box and manages to get remarkable results out of it. There is an apparent thread of making-do to his approach: making a beautiful sculpture from a tree trunk he is given with the simplest of hand tools; making striking watercolours from a trusty set of block paints in the open air. But that sounds restrictive, and in fact it probably has more to do with the possibility that going with, or choosing certain limiting factors (because he is in control of them) in the creative process, allows him greater freedom in other aspects. Feeling naturally comfortable with his materials gives his own imagination, interactions, decisions and skills the scope to come to the fore. Viewers may detect a calm confidence in his work as a result.


Harold Sayer ARCA RWA (1913-1993) whose works include etchings of the Rotunda at Cheltenham, was his art lecturer at college and instilled in Peter a life-long love of art. Barbara Hepworth was the encouragement for his wood carvings - “she was an inspiration” like Paul Nash. Some of his paintings could be likened to Edward Hopper’s watercolours such as that of Salcombe in Devon. He doesn’t reference any artists in particular however and creates his own original work. His watercolours are cleanly executed with keen choices of palette, which often lead the mood or light of each painting, although the decisive compositions and geometries are predominant.

© 2016 by LT Gallery

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