Every morning come rain or shine, Robert Perry sets off on a five-mile bike ride and tries to beat yesterday’s time if he possibly can.
He is 70 years old. But, even at noon, he is still running around like a whippet.
One minute he’s either making notes to remind himself of a task or dashing towards his computer to look something up in neatly organised files.
Visiting his Stourbridge house is like stepping into the office of a small company on an industrial estate. Walking past his tradesman’s white van with 225,000 miles on the clock in the drive, his organised garage contains a series of oil paintings stacked in an upright fashion, next to a large work table. Various well-hung tools enable Robert to make, fix or frame anything, too.
His ability to be handy in the old fashioned sense is typified by the way he converted a photographers’ tripod into “a better easel” than an easel – and by the fact that he still runs a 1930 Scott motorcycle that he has had since he was 16. Walking through to his main office, you’d think you were entering the den of an engineering draughtsman, so many are the drawers, filing cabinets and clipboards – hanging from the ceiling, each one contains sheets of paper with reminders that have become diary entries.
There are paintings on the walls and little phrase signs, reminding Robert of the need to keep organised.
“Work, eat, sleep – except Saturday nights”, says one. “Do it now” and “Shut up and get on with it” are others. “You know that old saying,” he adds... ‘if you want something doing, ask a busy man’.
“I hate to let anybody down, so I never slack off.” Though known as a landscape artist, Robert shows me a portrait he did of his grandmother back in 1986. It’s a lovely study of Victoria Warren sitting still while watching TV. Another picture is a framed copy of a coastal scene painted by his great uncle Billy Warren at the age of 16. Three years later, Billy – Victoria’s cousin – was killed during the First World War’s Battle of the Somme, leaving Rob to wonder just what kind of artistic talent was lost and what he might have become.
“I suppose if you want to find some kind of genetic link to where my talent comes from you could draw it back to him,” says Rob.
“His original painting is in my current Stafford exhibition and I think it’s an incredible work, though I don’t know which coast it’s from or whether it was his version of a postcard or something. His death, at such a young age, illustrates the kind of talents that were lost.”
But that isn’t the only tragedy that has shaped his life. “The reason I became so organised is that I had to,” says Robert. “I was divorced in 1981 and was faced with bringing three kids up on my own. When my wife left me, I was panic stricken as I had a fairly demanding job as the head of art and design at North Worcester College.
“My wife participated (in looking after the children) two nights per week... and every other weekend. Four years later, she was killed in a car crash and for the kids, that was a very bad time.”
Today, daughter Rachael is 46 and a police support officer; eldest son James, 42, is between jobs while Alex, 38, is in the fire service.
Bringing up the children while teaching kept Rob on his toes and fine-tuned an almost obsessive desire to be organised.
By the mid 90s he began to pursue his love of getting out into the landscape to paint .
His converted Renault van (called Field Studio for its ability to double up as an easel, umbrella or storage unit) has taken him across Europe and to former war zones in particular including the Somme, Verdun, Oradour-sur-Glane and Auschwitz. Once complete – and every work is done in five hours or less – the paintings are stored on runners separated by just half an inch.
Surprisingly, perhaps, even though the oils will still be wet, they can be safely transported in a van bouncing around on uneven road surfaces.
Robert has never felt constrained by materials or techniques.
He has designed his own lighting rig to work in the dark at night and by painting nature in situ he does whatever feels natural to capture the scene. “Sometimes I’ll even paint with just grass,” he beams. “I use everything from charcoal to pen ink to oils or gouache – applied with an airbrush powered by a scuba diving tank. I’ll use brushes and rollers too. I often walk round B&Q, wondering what effect a certain type of tool will have on the way I paint.
“Everything is done in a single sitting and this intense time pressure, combined with the complete and absolute awareness of the environment in which you are working, gives your work a kind of dynamic energy that would be impossible to achieve in a studio situation.”
Robert’s prowess can be traced right back to his earliest years. “One day, when I was about nine, I set off on my bike and cycled over to Highgate Common where I painted the distant landscape with pylons and waterworks. It was like I had just been given a new pair of eyes, like a door had opened, and since then I’ve always wanted to work mainly on site.
“Today, I’m just a 70-year-old art student!”
Robert loved his childhood, which included playing in woodlands, derelict buildings, culverts, scrapyards and cycling along paths past foundries, glass factories, clay mines and steelworks.
As well as painting the Midlands’ industrial landscapes and stunning countryside, Rob drives over to the former war-torn Europe when the mood takes him.
“I’ve found the bones of soldiers in the forests,” he says. “Things like a jawbone with teeth and not a single atom of decay. Shell fragments, too.” Although Rob has his own ever-expanding website, which catalogues his career, he doesn’t sell paintings through it. “It’s almost an autobiography about me and my work,” says the former Stourbridge College of Art and University of Birmingham student. Though formally retired from academic work, Robert recently took a party of students from Northampton University to China. And, only the night before our meeting, he’d given an illustrated talk for Wolverhampton Arts Society.
Robert’s basic technique is simple.
“I just observe a lot,” he explains.
As a painter with such a strong regional identity, Robert wishes he could exhibit at Ikon or New Walsall Art Gallery.
The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery had one of my works for 10 years, The Black Country at Night, but six months ago asked me if I’d take it back,” he says.
“Now people keep asking me: ‘Where has it gone?’ If I had a secret ambition, it would be to fill the Gas Hall with my stuff but I don’t know how to try to engineer it. I don’t network, I keep painting.”
For some of his exhibitions he has to pay to display, at others it’s the other way round.
How does he know how much to charge for something? “I worked out a system based on the area,” explains Robert.
“So for a small painting of six inches square, the charge is a lot more per square inch. It’s a formula, so I price each one quite clinically, but I try to keep the prices cheap and affordable though some of the big ones will go for £3,000. Painting is just the tip of my iceberg – it can be two hours’ work but it contains a lifetime’s experience.”
* Robert Perry is currently exhibiting New Landscapes and a Glance Backwards at the RBSA Gallery in Birmingham until October 4. To mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, the exhibition also contains a small selection of his battlefields work. You can also meet the artist from 11am-1pm and 2pm-4pm on both Wednesday, October 1 and Saturday, October 4. Also running concurrently (but lasting until November 2) is The Fields of Battle 1914-18 – showing at the Shire Hall Art Gallery, Stafford. Website: www.robertperry-artist.co.uk