Few artists in the North East embrace the great outdoors with as much gusto as Brita Granström whose latest exhibition has opened in Newcastle.
The artist, who was born in Sweden but has lived for many years in Berwick, paints pictures so full of life they seem ready to burst out of the rectangular constricts of frame or canvas.
In previous exhibitions she has found inspiration in the landscapes of Northumberland and her native country, in her rough-and-tumbling family – she and husband Mick Manning have four boys aged seven to 17 – and in the bodies of female relatives, captured in Degas-like poses as they undress or bathe.
There have been intimate portraits – notably the latter – and paintings that are gloriously public, celebrations of beaches and sledging hills and a popular series featuring Berwick shopkeepers.
The latest exhibition, which has just opened at the Northumbria University Gallery, draws on some of the above and adds a touch of magic.
It is called The Night Swimmer and, as the gallery suggests, it shows Brita drawing upon her Swedish roots “to blur the boundary between observation and imagination, reality and dream”.
All the pictures in the exhibition, including large acrylic paintings and small crayon and wash drawings, stand alone. Several, in fact, have already been sold and will do precisely that.
Hung together, though, there is a sort of story. As the gallery puts it: “In a narrative sequence that opens with playful domestic studies and bedroom interiors she (Brita) leads us at dusk, by way of farmyard and orchard, to a lake where women struggle with storm-blown washing and a dark jetty awaits the night swimmer.”
Brita says the exhibition follows on from two previous exhibitions: Undressed – Painting from Life, which featured those studies of women washing; and A Breath of Fresh Air which focused on landscapes.
“I wanted flesh and light,” said the artist back in 2008, explaining the background to Undressed. “I wanted to paint women who have looked life in the eye.”
Those women, along with a few men, are back, this time enjoying a skinny dip in one of the lakes which may well have featured in A Breath of Fresh Air.
“I knew when I started with this body of work that I wanted to explore the light at night in the summer when it’s not really dark at all,” says Brita.
“With The Night Swimmer I wanted to capture the blackness of the water and the effect of the light on people’s bodies. Also, I liked the idea of them inhabiting that wild landscape.”
In Sweden, where Brita and her family still spend much of their time, there is a lake where people do strip off and swim. “It’s a beautiful thing,” says Brita, “a celebration of life, really.”
But if that is a convivial activity, full of splashing and laughter, most of the paintings and sketches in The Night Swimmer series are a little more mysterious and often solitary.
“The places in The Night Swimmer are largely Swedish but I hope people can imagine them existing wherever they want them to be,” says Brita.
“I wanted to show that special night-time light and give everyone the chance to have a midsummer night’s dream. They can put their own interpretation on the pictures. They can look at the people and wonder what they’re doing. Why are they there and what are they looking at?”
Brita worked from life with models she knows well and who obligingly swam for her in water which sometimes appears blue and sometimes inky black.
Some of the swimmers are shown close up and others are glimpsed from afar, entering the water or posing in the half light on a jetty against distant trees. All of them look really happy to be there on a summer night, liberated, perhaps, from the cares of their daytime lives.
The exhibition also includes some Northumbrian landscapes, including a beach scene called Near Bamburgh which shows swirling surf and sand beneath a glowering sky.
Brita’s Berwick studio has a view of Holy Island and there is a painting called On Lindisfarne.
Brita says she loves the landscapes around her Northumberland home and it shows in the colours she chooses to depict the fields and dunes. The “weather-beaten hawthorn bushes” are singled out for special mention. To those with a less discerning eye, these might go unnoticed in real life.
Choosing good quality acrylic paints , which suit her style of work, she says she enjoys taking her brushes and sketchpads out ‘on location’, painting people and places in the raw.
And of the finished pantings, she says: “You are sorry to see them go but it’s nice when people really fall in love with them. That’s the nice thing about having an exhibition like this.”
The Night Swimmer can be seen at Northumbria University Gallery, Sandyford Road, Newcastle, until October 31. All the pictures are for sale.
And then there’s brita ’s ‘fab four’ tribute...
It isn’t only Brita Granström’s landscapes and skinny dippers that you will see this month at Northumbria University Gallery.
On the ground floor, in the Baring Wing, you will see her framed illustrations for The Beatles, the latest in her string of highly successful collaborations with her husband, author Mick Manning.
“I’ve always had these twin careers and they feed each other, the illustrations and the paintings,” she says.
“The paintings are quite separate, a different way of expressing myself. Illustration is an applied art but I do love both.”
It is likely that visitors to the gallery will also love both. The books by Mick and Brita have earned them a clutch of prestigious awards and a following in many different countries.
Their subject matter is wide, covering nature, war, history and the human body, but their books are always clearly written and beautifully illustrated. They are books for children and their parents to enjoy.
The Beatles tells the story of the Liverpool ‘fab four’ in a warm and amusing way which should appeal to those who remember them in their heyday and those to whom they are ancient history.
Mick and Brita do ancient history, too, of course. Among their titles is The Secrets of Stonehenge.
The Beatles, catching a current nostalgic craze for the 1960s, is the latest in a series of easy-to-read (and lovely-to-look-at) biographies. Previous subjects include Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens.
Coming next is William Shakespeare which sounds like another monster challenge for the couple.
The Beatles, though, are one of the main attractions at this gallery until October 31.
Complementing the Manning/Granström exhibition are four large portraits of John, Paul, George and Ringo taken by the celebrated photographer Jane Bown in 1963.
Meanwhile Mick and Brita are also taking part in the inagural Berwick Literary Festival in their home town. They will be hosting workshops for schoolchildren based on The Beatles at Berwick Guildhall on October 17. Find festival details on www.berwickliteraryfestival.com