Chloë Ashby

Peter Begley: Birch Stands


It began with an accident. Peter and his family were skiing in Chamonix when his knee started playing up. He decided to rest it for the day, and after bidding the others goodbye he settled into an armchair by the toasty fire with a book. They were staying in his brother-in-law’s chalet, and from where he was sitting he had a good view of the garden, in which there was a stand of finely spun birch trees. He was reading, looking, reading, looking – until, eventually, he closed his book and picked up his sketchpad.

I’m an abstract painter, but I paint what I see. That’s what Peter tells me when we talk a couple of weeks ahead of the opening of his new exhibition at the Yarrow Gallery in Oundle. Initially trained as a sculptor, by the late 1990s he’d swapped mediums, and ever since he’s produced series of paintings sparked by direct observation. He’s inspired by small details of daily life: taut and sagging washing lines; marks of (dis)repair on meandering pavements; warped and straining timber buildings; his then-small son’s jaunty towers. He feels the pull of the natural landscape again and again, from the vast and imposing (overlapping mountain peaks) to the scraggy and easily overlooked (strips of seaweed and flotsam washed up on a sandy beach).

Back in his studio in southeast Paris, observation tips into imagination. The stuff of life breaks down into rhythms, textures, gestures, hues. The first paintings tend to align fairly closely with the sketches, but they morph over time. Spindly birch trees become more waif-like and wobbly; instead of the snowy scene the artist witnessed in Chamonix, his illustrations are creamy white against spring green. At times, the slender trunks line up neatly in a row; elsewhere, they’re tangled and twisted like overcooked spaghetti. Occasionally, two follow the same trajectory, bending in sync. Stare at them for long enough and you’ll see legless pairs of tights, strands of hair, pieces of string.

Peter’s painting process has gradually evolved and involves the application of layer upon layer of acrylic, oil and wax with brushes, palette knives, spatulas, rags. He paints dozens of works at a time, over many months, the makings of a series. Each series begins with different sized sheets of pinkish rice paper pinned up in his studio – a large triptych up front perhaps, a dozen little works along one side. A change in scale allows for new stories, which are also told by the dried-up drip lines and pools of paint on the walls and floor.

First come two coats of colour in the form of lumpy and mottled mixtures of powered pigment, plaster and acrylic binder; look closely at the Birch Stands and you’ll notice a zingy muddle of yellow and green. On top is the drawing, done in either black oil sticks or oil bars – Peter describes them as big greasy crayons and likes that they produce a frank, unfussy line. Then there’s scumbling, more colour (this time, oil paint thinned out with linseed oil), and a patina of wax.

He listens to the radio as he works – for years opera, more recently jazz. He tells me he used to dance along, especially when he was sculpting, but now not so much. Nevertheless, a sense of rhythm runs through each series. A sense of repetition. That’s what I see when I look around, he tells me, I’m navigating the world looking for some sort of an order, a pattern that repeats.

Before the Birch Stands came the Topkapi, speckled blue-black abstractions loosely based on the flagstones found in the Harem apartment of the Topkapi Palace, where the sultans once lived in Istanbul. During a visit with his family, Peter became absorbed by the arrangement of the marble slabs on the floor, which appeared to have been jumbled up and pieced back together again in a way that meant nothing quite lined up, the chisel marks and grooves wonky and out of place, a puzzle gone wrong. Without his sketchpad, he took photographs on his camera, which he later translated into drawings and paintings.

I can never quite figure out why things appeal to me, Peter tells me, but I look at them, and then I move onto the next phenomenon. Occasionally he’ll think a series is complete, and then he’ll find himself returning to it, or producing a variation on the same theme. He stuck with the Topkapi throughout the pandemic, the daubs and dashes providing a small source of comfort. Order amid chaos.

For the time being, he’s considering sticking with trees, too, though if he does, he’ll probably switch up the species. There’s a row of oaks that lines his father and stepmother’s swimming pool in Long Island, and when he was there last summer, something about the gnarled and knotted trunks caught his eye.

Of course, those trunks are just the beginning. Things will change. Accidents will happen. For me, says Peter, it should always be an adventure.

Chloë Ashby