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Social history of North East captured in artist Richard Hobson's work

An exhibition opening this weekend offers a chance for art-lovers to snap up work by late artist Richard Hobson.

SHIPYARDS under moody skies, smoking chimneys towering over huddled roof tops, and the hulking shape of colliery slag heaps.

Once-familiar North East scenes – now fast-disappearing if not already long-gone – are the work of artist Richard Hobson whose life and art are being celebrated in a selling exhibition opening this weekend at Shipley Art Gallery in Gateshead.

There are 45 or so watercolours and monotypes (a process involving lying paper over an image painted on glass), their subjects – fishing trawlers, power stations, sheep auctions, markets and coasts – all full of colour, movement and energy.

This is the personal collection of Pat Hobson, the widow of the artist, who died from cancer in 2004 at the age of just 59, who’s decided to sell some of the work on show, providing an unique opportunity for buyers to own their own piece of local history.

Showing me the artworks yesterday, Pat admits this is an emotional time; just seeing her husband’s name up there on display hit home.

“I’m letting go of some of them. It’s a terrible wrench but I can’t keep them all. I really thought long and hard about it.

“I think there’s a bit of me in each one of these,” she adds but points out that paintings are meant to be seen after all.

The shipyard monotypes – “his preferred medium” – are her favourites, a big panorama of cranes in particular. “Richard would ask me ‘what do you think’? about a painting and there was always a long discussion.”

Regular locations for him were Sunderland and Tyne Dock and the Swan Hunter and Appledore yards where he would work, in situ, until late in the day, returning the next.

“He got permission from the shipyard management to go and people knew him,” says Pat. “He’d be painting or sketching and they’d talk to him and he always had a tale to tell.”

Hobson, who was born in Derby and moved with his family to the North East when he was very young, was not just a talented artist.

He worked as a conservator at The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle for 31 years, having trained at Newcastle College then at Gateshead College where in 1973 he gained a diploma in the Conservation of Easel Paintings.

Pat, a retired lecturer in public health policy, says: “His art was very important.

“He worked three days at Bowes Museum and one fed into the other ... he loved Bowes Museum and conservation of paintings and he loved doing his own work.”

Amy Barker, keeper of art for Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, who is busy sorting through Hobson’s photographs and sketches for display alongside the artworks, tells me she herself worked at Bowes at the same time, having moved from Wales to take up a job there.

She fondly remembers him showing colleagues his work and buying her a “learn yourself Geordie” book to help her settle in.

Humour is evident in Hobson’s work, as in his cheery seaside scenes of Cullercoats while a painting of Guillemots at the Farne Islands includes one bird staring boldly out at the viewer.

Then there’s the black and white Newcastle United scene entitled “Magic Magpies” 1980.

The artist was inspired by ordinary scenes of everyday life that many of us would have passed by and, as such, his subjects find an instant connection with many viewers.

The exhibition, which will open on Saturday after a preview tomorrow, is called Richard Hobson: A Northern Realist and it’s an apt description of work that helps to form a lasting record of the changing face of our region.

“These are realistic,” says Pat, who’s been back and forth from her Ryton, Gateshead, home during this week’s hanging of the artwork. “They’re not chocolate box paintings.”

She recalls: “I’d say to him this is a marvellous social document and he used to get upset as that was not why he was doing them.

“He did not want to capture a record. He didn’t know then that the shipyards were going to go. He was drawn to them because they were subjects that spoke to him artistically.

“But they now are social documents in a way.”

Hobson loved the local landscape, working – quickly – outdoors in all seasons and all weathers, and, when younger, Pat and their son used to accompany him on long walks where he’d be always on the look-out for locations.

He saw art in even the ugly and mundane: a discharge pipe has its place in a beach scene while a fishing trawler is rendered quite beautiful in a vibrant red and smoky blues capture chimneys or a heavy sky.

A detailed and busy scene at Newcastle’s Grainger Market, meanwhile, includes the once-familiar sight of animals hanging outside a butcher’s stall.

And viewers can see spontaneous ink and watercolour scenes of the Hoppings; some of Vane Tempest Colliery – askew and fractured headstones of the church in the foreground echoing the broken-down pit behind; and an example of Hobson’s his rare oils: atmospheric, dark slag heaps.

As intended, the hugely varied exhibition is a true celebration of Hobson’s life and work.

“He invested a lot in people and places and had friends from all walks of life,” says Pat. “He loved life and he lived it.”

Richard Hobson: A Northern Realist will be on display at Shipley Art Gallery in Prince Consort Road, Gateshead, from Saturday until March 2, showing alongside an exhibition of watercolours from the Shipley collection. Entry is free. Limited edition Hobson prints and originals will be for sale at prices ranging from £50 to £3,500.


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