There’s a postcard that lives on my mantelpiece in my bedroom that I find myself gazing at from time to time. It shows a few curiously upturned triangles of boats set against a misty background. When I look at it, I find I almost hear the sound of lanyards ringing together, and the lap of waves against hulls. I breathe in and almost catch the scent of salt on the air. It’s a magical painting that can achieve that, and this is only a small reproduction of Michael Praed’s work.
“My grandfather was a fisherman, operating three boats, including luggers, from Mousehole,” he says. “My son, Nicky (also a keen painter), has continued the family tradition and skippers netters out of Newlyn harbour. My own interest was sparked partly by the numerous handmade models of fishing boats that adorned the family home in my childhood.”
For more than forty years Michael has lived in the heart of Newlyn, Cornwall’s last major fishing port, and the preservation of the county’s heritage is very important to him, says Matt Piper, who runs Eleven and a Half, the gallery that shows his work. “This is most evident in the frequency with which his painting focuses on the old harbours of the region, notably at Lamorna, Mousehole and Newlyn. The small fishing boats that once worked these ports have been rendered obsolete by large modern trawlers. The harbours themselves have lost their importance: in Newlyn a more modern harbour engulfs the old quays while in Lamorna the pier is gradually collapsing into the sea. However, they retain their appeal to Michael, in their rounded shape and in the manner in which they interact with the natural contours of the coastline to provide protection against the elements.”
I find myself drawn to the stillness of the paintings, and the light he captures in the water. There’s a sense of stealing down to the quayside early in the day, before anyone else is awake.
Matt tells me that Michael’s ‘nascent talent’ was discovered by watercolourist Sheila Cavell Hicks when he was eleven, and it was she who bought him a first book of watercolour paper and encouraged him to continue drawing.
Michael attended Penzance School of Art, then Falmouth School of Art (now University College, Falmouth) where he studied for a National Design Diploma. “The experience instilled a discipline and an academic approach to his painting that he has retained throughout his career,” says Matt. “In particular, the training he received in etching and engraving continues to play an indirect part in his work. Michael attributes his interest in paintings with strong linear qualities back to the techniques learned in these courses.”
The strong though delicate lines of the harbours and boats in Michael’s artwork stand out against the dreaminess of the sea, sky and fog, offset further by the bright crimson of several of the boats.
“The view from his former studio window is the single most important influence on my work,” he says. “From halfway up Paul Hill in Newlyn, the house in which my wife Margaret and I lived for many years perches above the roof-tops, looking down to the port, fish market and old harbour, along the seafront to the Jubilee Pool in Penzance and across the bay to St Michael’s Mount and the Lizard peninsula. It offered me all the content I need for my paintings: the variety of boats, the effects of light and reflection on the sea that create every shade of blue, the rusty orange-brown of the granite piers.”
He adds: “In addition it’s an ever-changing panorama. Changeable weather patterns, the height of the sun in the sky, shadows cast by clouds on the sea, and the incoming and outgoing tides all generate different and rapidly evolving moods.”
Matt says that Michael tells of starting a painting one Monday morning in calm, bright sunshine. “By lunchtime the scene had completely changed and he put the painting to one side. The next morning, with overcast conditions, he started a second painting, only for the weather to change once again. By the end of the week he had seven paintings, all unfinished, and each almost unrecognisable from the others.”
Local artists who have had a major influence on Michael’s work include Alexander McKenzie, John Tunnard and Jack Pender.
He describes his own work as striking “a careful balance between realism and abstraction: my paintings are descriptive enough to generate a broad appeal and yet stylised enough to satisfy my own quest for simplification and lack of detail.”
Matt comments: “Michael’s paintings often have an eerie calm, and a sense of foreboding about what may happen next. The landscape is usually devoid of human form and generally of all living things. However, this also gives them a timeless quality, and a sense of detachment from much of modern life.”
No wonder they’re so alluring. Looking at them, I want to dip a toe into that water, feel it cold against my skin, and swim listening to the lanyards’ song.
Find more of Michael’s work at www.elevenandahalf.com.
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