Painting the pear orchard

NICHOLAS BOOTH captures a fleeting moment in Kent

I packed my battered little orchestra of colours in an old Fortnum’s bag along with some rolled up paper and a bottle of ginger beer and set off for the pear orchard which lies across a road at the back of the housing estate where my mother lives in Kent, in the fruit country not far from Faversham. Between us we had been keeping an eye on the progress of the blossom, waiting for it to become picture-worthy. After arriving from London the day before I took the dog on a recce and judged it ready.

After a weeks of cold weather today, Saturday, was set fair, the sky almost Mediterranean. More gloom was in the forecast for following days so it had to be now – rain and wind ruin blossom.

I had painted the orchard before, back in 2014 during dark days when my sister was dying. Then I portrayed it in a blue, moonlit night in early autumn, the trees looking rather monstrous and with dozens of pears lying discarded on the ground. My sister liked it and had it framed and hung in her house, which now belongs to my mother. In the intervening years, I had promised to paint a sort of sequel, or even a series: one for each season. Unfortunately, I am easily distracted, what with my work, other paintings and sundry writing projects. But of late the orchard had begun haunting my imagination again.

My father died earlier this year in the pandemic, not from Covid but after a chain of events that began with him getting Covid. In the four months that had passed since his death I’d had no urge to paint or draw, and scarcely any to write. This total artistic impotence was a new feeling for me. I was not distressed by it, grief making me indifferent.

Then towards the end of March in one of those magical, fiery sunset hours at that time of year, which herald spring and somehow reconnect you with earlier versions of yourself, I felt life and art stirring again.

Now here I was, with a slight feeling of trepidation that I sometimes get when painting en plein air: a feeling that the challenge has been laid down: there is no scope for the kind of pottering and evasion that can be indulged in the studio (or in my case, spare bedroom), except perhaps that if things go badly you can tell yourself that a later studio version will be far better. After all, open-air painting has had its illustrious detractors. Degas, one of my heroes back in the days when one had heroes, would not hear of it. Studies flung down in notebooks yes, but to set up shop out of doors was very wrong in his view:

You know what I think of people who work out in the open. If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don’t mean to kill anyone; just a little dose of bird-shot now and then as a warning

As it happens I could hear guns being fired for sport in the old quarry nearby. Was this a bad omen? Not especially: few things would please me more than to be accosted by the armed ghost of Degas, though why he would be skulking in a Kentish field is anybody’s guess.

In terms of inspiration for this painting Degas had not really figured but another favourite, Pissarro, had though somewhat vaguely. In the back of my mind I recalled Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes from his great period in the early 1870s. Another fleeting thought was of Forties neo-romantics such as Johns Craxton and Minton. The dog days of the pandemic and dead winter vaguely reminding me of that postwar period when dreams of the Mediterranean seeped into visual culture. But in the end when you set hand to paper, you get what comes out, and that is the adventure of it.

I sat down to work on a small camping stool, which promptly collapsed. I chuckled, and began again in the lovely sunshine and luxurious peace, hearing nothing but birdsong and the odd gunshot from the quarry. On a dog walk earlier I had scouted my spot a few feet down a lane of mature pear trees. The blossom against the cloudless blue sky was a tonic after the long grey months.

‘You must find painting relaxing,’ someone said to me recently. Not really. I’m basically an amateur painter but dislike that prefix in this world where artists such as X and Y are considered the professionals: so, not pro yet fairly serious when I get going. Painting for me is half battle and half making love, and the doing of it usually stirs old passions and variances in me that I sometimes resolve on paper: form versus light, realism versus romanticism, abstract versus representation, English line versus French colour . . .

A charcoal drawing took shape. As I drew the blossom I thought, ‘You can’t draw them all, and then I heard Manet backing me up on the subject of detail: ‘One doesn’t want to be a bore . . .’

I thought of lucky old Monet, building his subject matter in his back garden at Giverny, getting as far into water lilies as anyone has got. Given the way the world is going, I thought, I could happily spend day after day in this kind of peace and beauty, making pictures – if I had the income . . .

With the sky blocked in – I was using French pastels of intense pigment – and warming me along with the hot sun, I started on the blossom in white. At this point in a painting the feeling of battle subsides and with colour the lovemaking part of the process begins. The blossoms in the orchard were lavish; I rolled the white pastel up and down the paper, trying to get that sparkling cascade, which now reminded me of champagne bubbles. I was getting thirsty and my ginger beer was gone.

I reached for the green. I don’t really like green, and I often toy with ways of dispensing with it. I was pleased to discover that Eric Ravilious, the lost hero of British art, felt the same way about the colour. I took a deep breath and plunged in, mitigating it where I could with orange and lemon yellow. As I moved down the paper I realised that the pastel would not last out and in a few moments the last crumb was gone. Still, I rather liked the effect of white paper to the right of the picture; it suggested the hot sunlight in reality. Perhaps I was making a virtue of necessity but it seemed a happy accident that I had run out of green.

At last, after a few dabs of yellow to indicate the intense colour of the dandelion, charming urchins that they are, I was finished. Walking back in something of an afterglow, I felt I’d done a good afternoon’s work.

The pear orchard occupies two fields separated by an overgrown public footpath. In a corner of the first field there is an incline which gives a good raised view of the rest of the field. Walking down the slope one evening as I had done many times with my father, I marked the spot down as a potential picture. Two days after my blossom painting I set up again on a windy afternoon with intermittent sun. Once again the orchard worked its magic on me and the struggle on paper resumed. This time it was more battle than loving, but even so the sheer beauty of the environs was a kind of medicine in itself. One of my mum’s neighbours out walking his dogs stopped and we passed the time of day.

As we talked I watched the late afternoon sun creep across the field, lengthening shadows and bringing an elusive and lovely blue into proceedings. We got on to the ugliness of architecture and lack of infrastructure to underpin hasty urban sprawl. ‘Still,’ I added, ‘isn’t it lovely to have this so close?’

‘The orchard?’ he said. ‘It’s earmarked for a new housing estate, wider road and a big roundabout.’