SHE’S exhibited around the world, curated for the United Nations, been hailed as “a painter of considerable international repute” in France and has even devised her own genre of art called 3D sculptural watercolour.
But artist Prue Bishop, whose work sells for thousands across Europe and America, will always have a special place in her heart for the North East where she grew up.
“I’ve always longed to do an exhibition in Newcastle more than anywhere else in the world,” says Prue, 65, who now lives in Geneva with husband John, a former RAF officer who’s now a business consultant and photographer.
“The North East has always been a very important part of my life. It still is.”
Born Prudence Mary Taylor into a high achieving family on Jesmond’s Clayton Road, it seemed she was destined for success.
Her mother Theresa Mary was one of the first women to graduate from Cambridge in modern languages, while her father, George Taylor, was a well-known accountant in Newcastle’s Market Street.
“He did the audits for practically everybody who had shops and businesses in Newcastle and Northumberland including Bainbridges and Fenwick,” says Prue, who has two children, Oliver, 35, who works for Shell and Rebecca, 37, a former international cyclist who now lives in Edinburgh.
A member of the TA, her father was called up with pals in the Tyne Electricals and served at Dunkirk. He was awarded a military OBE in 1941.
But like many war heroes, he never talked about his experiences.
At the end of the war he did relief work in Germany, so didn’t meet his daughter till she was a year old.
Both grandfathers were equally prolific. Her mother’s father, Dr Burdon-Cooper, went to Durham College at just 15 to read science and became an MD at 20. He went on to partly found the Bath Royal Eye Infirmary and pioneered the cataract operation.
Her father’s father, also George Taylor, used to run a mineral water factory in Gateshead called John Rowells, which made the famous dandelion and burdock, lemonade, cherryade and ginger beer.
Born in Hexham, he was president of Northumberland County Cricket Club in Jesmond and “a very fine man with tremendous entrepreneurial skills”, according to Prue.
It was her grandfather George’s love of painting that would inspire her own creative endeavours, especially as her father had returned from the war “a sad, remote man.”
“My mother always said he wasn’t the man he was when she married him,” says Prue.
“But my grandfather encouraged me in everything I did. I had that design instinct from being a very tiny child. After the war we didn’t have many toys so everything I wanted, I made. There was a woodwork factory in Gosforth that used to give me bags of offcuts.”
As a pupil at Central Newcastle High, then a state grammar school, life in Gosforth was good for Prue.
Later she was sent away to boarding school in the South.
“It was the worst time of my life because I had to say goodbye to my grandpa and I lost all my friends.” she says.
When Prue was 14, the family moved from Gosforth to Elsdon in Northumberland where they bought a Pele Tower and her mother became the church organist, a post she held for 30 years. “It was a very, very happy time,” she says.
“The Journal always had a huge interest in the house and did several articles about it.”
Although Prue later inherited the property when her father died in 1991, they couldn’t afford the upkeep on husband John’s RAF salary.
When Prue left school at 18, her mother tried to line up some work experience for her as a window dresser at Isaac Walton & Co outfitters in Grainger Street. However, the owner suggested she’d study at Newcastle College of Art and Industrial Design.
Although now part of Northumbria University, in those days the building was on Clayton Road, opposite the house where Prue was born.
“It was very sought after and there were very few colleges that did it,” says Prue.
“When I first walked in I could tell it was professional. There was a silent sort of awe about the place, that you were there to work and the standard was impeccably high.”
It was 1967 and Prue was the only female on the industrial design course – which was on a par with a University degree – after two other girls dropped.
Prue admits it was tough being the only woman. “I got terribly teased because I wasn’t very good,” she laughs. “Many of the lads had done technical drawing, woodwork and metalwork at school so they knew what they were doing. They had a huge headstart.
“But because I adored making things I was determined to hang in there.”
Although she started as a product designer, eventually Prue specialised in furniture design and one of her cutting-edge chairs was accepted for display at London’s Design Centre.
After graduating she got a job designing caravan interiors in Suffolk, before switching to teaching.
In the years that followed Prue taught art and design all over Europe, and was behind the re-organisation of the art and design GCSE.
In 1980 the family moved to a chalet in the alps near Annecy where they would stay for 20 years. It was here that her children developed a passion for cross-country skiing, eventually representing their country, and Prue spent her time using wood veneer to create pictures of mountains, streams, rocks and ice.
“I’ve combined my skills with my hands with a passion for watercolour and I’ve now got my own new genre which no one else has,” she says of the 3D sculptural watercolour technique that has made her name.
Now the couple live in a beautiful house with art gallery just outside Geneva which, of course, Prue personally designed.
Her art works are snapped up for around £2,500 each and she has recently started selling prints too.
She’s also had her hands full over the last five years curating for the United Nations in Geneva. “There are 55 nations that take part with five different languages so it’s quite a big job,” she laughs.
Although 65 now, Prue sees no reason to retire. And she’s as opinionated as ever about the art world, which she sees as London-centric.
“The standard in provincial Britain is very good but the UK isn’t represented fairly,” she says. “There should be some major exhibition that encompasses everyone’s talents.
She also believes the art world is pretty ageist too. “Some of the finest artists I’ve exhibited with, you don’t ask their age, you just look at their work,” she says.
And declining standards? Don’t get her started.
“Over the years I’ve become very disillusioned with the standard of art, particularly painting,” she says. “I like to appreciate skill. Students now aren’t taught how we were taught.”
When I ask what Prue misses most about the North East, her answer is unequivocal. “The people,” she says, without hesitation. “They’re so kind and lovely.
“I always get a prickly feeling in my nose when I come back.”
I’ve combined my skills with my hands with a passion for watercolour and I’ve now got my own new genre