Tuesday 22 October 2019

A work of art

Painter Peter Pearson has made saving artefacts of classic architecture his life's work. Luckily, he has a large house in which to store his collection – and an understanding wife.

Peter Pearson in the drawing room. While all of the mouldings and cornicing are classic Georgian, the windows have a hint of Gothic. Photo: Tony Gavin
Peter Pearson in the drawing room. While all of the mouldings and cornicing are classic Georgian, the windows have a hint of Gothic. Photo: Tony Gavin
Peter Pearson in his studio. He says he paints in spurts and would complete about 30 to 40 paintings a year that he feels are good. Photo: Tony Gavin
The exterior of painter Peter Pearson's house in Co Wexford. Dating from the early 19th Century, it was once the home of John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party. Photo: Tony Gavin.
The informal eating area in the basement is just off the kitchen, and Peter and Phil use it in winter. Monty is one of the couple's three dogs. Photo: Tony Gavin
The corridor linking the rooms is very unusual, with three mini cupolas bathing the area in natural light. The walls are lined with pieces of plaster that Peter found back in the Seventies and Eighties, when the Georgian terraces were being torn down. Photo: Tony Gavin
A dresser lined with more pieces of Georgian plasterwork. Photo: Tony Gavin
Behind the house can be found these red-brick farm buildings - one of which houses Peter’s studio. The steps lead into the henhouse and on to the woods. Photo: Tony Gavin
Another elegant sitting room in the house - most of the furniture was purchased at auction, though Peter picked some of it up in skips and derelict houses. Photo: Tony Gavin
The bells are not original - Peter found them in a derelict house - though they are similar to what would have been used in their house to summon servants to the rooms above. Photo: Tony Gavin
This yew-tree walk is part of the 20 acres of woodland that lead down to the Slaney river. Photo: Tony Gavin

Mary O'Sullivan

Painter Peter Pearson is a hoarder. Nothing too odd about that – a lot of artists are. Their collections, treasures, memorabilia, stuff – call it all what you will – are often their source of inspiration, their way into a new theme or subject for their work.

However, Peter Pearson brings collecting to a whole new level. His collections include hundreds of old artefacts; what many would see as lumps of old stone, what more tuned-in types would recognise as architectural salvage, but which, to Peter, are things of beauty, as well as being important pieces of social history, and not just useful from a creativity point of view.

He has Doric and Ionic columns – many of which he found on builders' skips – after they had been savagely torn out of period buildings in the Seventies. He has fragments of decorative plasterwork, he has old doors and fanlights – he even has a collection of old doorknobs, as well as keyhole surrounds.

Of course, this enormous collection takes up acres of room. Fortunately, Peter has ample space at his lovely old home deep in the County Wexford countryside.

And, even more importantly, he has an extremely understanding partner in his wife, Phil Stewart.

"She never really minded the plasterwork. I already had a lot of stuff when I met her," he explains. It helps that Phil studied environmental science in her college days, and is now a textile artist, and, though her main passions are different to Peter's – she's more into nature – she's something of a kindred spirit. Because this is not a random collection. Peter is passionate about old buildings and has been involved in some key campaigns throughout his life, including the regeneration of Temple Bar. He was also involved in the restoration of Drimnagh Castle.

To him, the artefacts of old buildings are an important testament to our past, as well as almost incidentally providing inspiration for his wonderful paintings.

The reasoning behind some of his other collections is maybe less obvious – he has a lot of urns, both old and new, he has cabinets of glassware, he has numerous old framed prints – and it emerges that Peter finds it hard throw out anything. He even has his old school copybooks. In one of them is an essay he wrote at the age of 10 and, intriguingly, it shows that the young Peter knew exactly where he was going in life, and what he was going to do.

"What I would like to study are drawing and painting . . . I would draw churches and steeples . . . If I were on a pier, I would draw boats with the sea rough and calm . . . I would draw the sea with a beautiful sunset disappearing over the sea . . ." the young Peter Pearson wrote in an essay entitled My Career, during his primary school days in Glenageary, County Dublin.

"I was always painting buildings and water," he recalls. "I was a sucker for old things. Even as a kid, I was always looking at old buildings. I had a box camera and I was always taking pictures of ruins. It was all feeding my interest."

However, Peter didn't go directly to art college – he decided, instead, to study art history at Trinity. "I was pulled between art and art history, but chose the art history over art college because I realised, no matter what, I would always paint," he acknowledges.

Of course, the art-history degree fed his interest in ruins. "I started collecting when I saw derelict houses being cleared for redevelopment. It all went downhill from there," he says jokingly.

As Peter knew he would, he continued to paint throughout his college years and, after graduating, went to Venice on an Italian government scholarship, a city which, in one tiny space, had all the elements that inspired him – old ruins, water and, in addition, amazing light.

Many of his paintings depict changing cityscapes and dilapidated yet beautiful buildings, while there are also always contemporary features, including cranes and traffic. The result is moody, atmospheric, often romantic.

The curly-headed, almost boyish, fiftysomething had his first exhibition in Venice, and he hasn't stopped painting or exhibiting since. His next exhibition opens on Thursday at Dublin Castle. At the same time a book about his work, published by Gandon Editions, will be launched. He's particularly chuffed that the book will include an essay about his work by Peter Murray, director of the Crawford Gallery in Cork.

Although Peter has always combined the painting with his passion for conservation and regeneration, he wasn't completely tunnel-visioned – he did take the time to look around him and spot Phil. "We met in 1986, on a campaign to save some part of Dublin," he recalls with a smile.

They have two sons, now in their 20s – Adam, who did art history and works in Adam's in Dublin, and Jerome, who's at Dun Laoghaire College of Art.

Their homes throughout their marriage have reflected the couple's interests – they lived first in a Georgian terraced house in Monkstown, County Dublin, then moved to one of the oldest houses in Dublin city centre, a house well known to bus passengers whose route takes them past Dublin Castle – the house bears the sign, The Sick and Indigent Roomkeepers' Society.

"We were there for 10 years, then we decided to move. We had lived in the city, we felt we'd like to try the country. And we said we better do it while we still have energy," Peter says with a laugh.

"We heard about this house through friends. We've been here 12 years now," he notes, adding that the pluses about living in the country include clean air and clear, starry nights.

The house is quite historic. Dating from the early 1800s, at one stage it was lived in by John Redmond, leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party in the 19th Century. It's set in an area of dense woodland and is quite unlike your typical country house. Architectural historians describe it as Italian in style, and, to the front, it has a colonnaded loggia. "We heard about it through friends. It had been owned by a Steiner community for 20 years. It was a farming community and, in the Nineties, as things got good, economically, they couldn't get volunteers, and it sort of fizzled out," Peter explains. The house, which has all the charms and all the shortcomings of an old house, and so was daunting in itself, also came with 50 acres and was a working organic farm, but that didn't put off Peter and Phil.

"It was more than we wanted," he says, "but we decided to give it a shot. And we did work the farm for five years. We also had cows and pigs."

They made a valiant effort with the farm, but, as the couple discovered, it was extremely hard work. "It's a lot of maintenance. Looking after fences, you turn your back and there's another fence down, or another post broken," Peter says ruefully.

These days, they are thinking of letting some of the land to a local farmer – 20 acres of it is woods – and they've given up the cows and pigs. "We have two goats – a mother and daughter – 10 hens, four ducks and three geese. They're all really just pets," Peter says with a laugh, though, ever a glutton for punishment, he adds, "We might go back and get a few cows."

The grounds back onto the Slaney river, and, as well as the 20 acres of woodland, feature a yew-tree walk and walled gardens, which they're in the process of restoring. A collection of faux-Grecian statues line the walls – Peter doesn't have any of the real variety in his collection, though there are plenty of antique busts scattered about the house. All in all, the grounds are an idyllic backdrop to the house.

The villa-style house is one storey over a basement. The basement consists of the kitchen, a family dining room, a wine cellar and an old bakery, which Peter uses as his office. The upper floor is full of rooms, which are all spacious, elegant and high ceilinged.

These are linked by an unusual corridor, which is lit by mini cupolas overhead – what Peter calls natural lanterns. There are two drawing rooms, a music room and four bedrooms.

When they took over the house, which Peter describes as a funny blend of Regency and Gothic, it required a lot of work, including re-roofing and the installation of some new windows.

The wooden floors had been removed in the Sixties and parquet floors had been laid, but they've aged and work well. They were lucky in that the original ceiling mouldings were, in the main, in good condition and, though most of the mantlepieces had been ripped out, two really nice period ones remained.

The walls are all painted in soft period, pastel shades, including primrose yellow and soft sage, excellent backdrops for the many period pieces with which Peter and Phil have furnished the house. Peter is quick to explain that, though the furniture is old, it's not valuable, and he even picked up some of it on skips. Peter and Phil do things on a shoestring – for example, the paints came from a recycling centre.

One particular advantage of the house is the fact that there is so much room for all the stonework that they've carted from home to home. Phil has been very good about it, and, even though she did jokingly suggest a few times that they might leave it behind, Peter was having none of it. So she should be heartened by the fact that, after more than 20 years, she might be about to see the back of it.

"We're hoping to put on a big exhibition of everything in Castletown House. The plans aren't finalised yet, but I think it will go ahead. As far as I'm concerned, I'm the custodian of these artefacts, and I believe they should be exhibited in Dublin, as most come from Dublin," Peter explains.

His own paintings are less in evidence. These are mainly kept in his studio, which is in an old farm building. His subject matter has evolved over the years. Buildings and water still feature, but so, too, do the farm animals, the family dogs – Monty, Blackie and Coco – and there are a lot of surreal touches.

Peter says he paints in spurts, and he likes to return again and again to the same subjects, but from different angles.

He says he paints about 30 pictures a year – not thousands – as he thought when he was writing that school essay all those years ago. "If my paintings were good enough . . . I would become famous and sell thousands of pictures," Peter also wrote, and he laughs about that.

Peter's art may not have brought him fame and fortune, but it has certainly brought him much in the way of contentment and enjoyment of life.

'Peter Pearson: An Artist's Profile', published by Gandon Editions, will be available from Thursday. An exhibition of new paintings by Peter Pearson will open on Thursday, at The Coach House, Dublin Castle, D2

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