Cathedral artist’s brush with greatness

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Former Shotton Hall pupil Stuart Fisher switched designing buildings for painting them – now his watercolours are set to hang in Durham Cathedral for the third year running. Alison Goulding reports.

STUART Fisher grew up around hard work. His dad was a deputy at Easington Colliery and the family moved around the country to find work when there was none in the North East.

Now Stuart, 58, uses that same work ethic to create beautiful watercolours of buildings and landscapes that inspire him.

He spends weeks on each painting, and says that while most people think of his job as soothing, it is anything but.

Stuart said: “It’s stressful, it’s not relaxing. If you find painting relaxing, you’re doing it wrong!

“It’s hard graft and there’s a lot of anxiety attached.”

Stuart  Fisher in his studio at their Peterlee home

Stuart Fisher in his studio at their Peterlee home

Born in Warwickshire, Stuart is actually North East through and through.

He explained: “My dad was from Horden and my mam was from Seaham, but they moved where the work was with the pits.”

They moved briefly to Warwickshire, where Stuart was born, before returning to settle in Peterlee.

He went to Shotton Hall School where he discovered that art was his best subject.

He said: “I was a good painter at school. It came to me very naturally.

“Everyone on my mother’s side of the family was a good artist with some talent.”

But painting took a back seat when Stuart started his first job as an architect technician at Durham County Council.

He said: “All the art work was given up for boozing, fish and chips and having a good time.

“Then in the late ’90s there were moves afoot at the council and I thought at the time my job might be at risk, so I started painting again.

“I was only dabbling, but then one of the lads at work, who was 19 at the time, broke his neck and was paralysed in a motorcross accident.

“All of his mates were raising money to help him out and I thought ‘What can I do?’ and asked him if he wanted me to paint a picture and sell it to raise money.

“He gave me a picture of himself in action on a bike and I turned it into a watercolour and asked Dunlop if they wanted to buy it.

“They invited me to bring it down for a look and gave me £1,000 for it. Then I did a run of prints and raised another £1,000.”

After that, Stuart began to think about art as a career. He said: “A friend of mine recommended a gallery in Corbridge that had just opened so I took my best two paintings I had at the time along and they asked me to do a solo exhibition.

“It was brilliant, we had a fantastic time and loads of people turned up. I’ve been exhibiting ever since.

“After that I approached a gallery in Bath called The Rooksmoor. At first they said they weren’t interested, but eight months later they got in touch and asked me to come and do an exhibition. It started to gain a little bit of momentum.”

Stuart turned professional in 2010 and held an exhibition in Durham at the Kemble Gallery.

He said: “We sold half the paintings, which was seriously good. It was packed to the doors and we got some superb feedback.

“After that we got a website designed by my cousin’s son up in Scotland and we’ve had hits from all over the world.”

A big commission to paint Jesus College in Oxford followed.

Stuart said: “The lady said it was my shout and I could paint what I wanted. She told me she had complete faith in me. What a client! But boy, was it stressful. I finished it two weeks ago and sent it down and said I didn’t want to be paid unless they liked it.

“It was a huge responsibility doing something like that, but we got a lovely letter back and she said they loved it.”

Two years ago Stuart was invited to exhibit his paintings at Durham Cathedral and this September he has been invited back for an exhibition to coincide with the arrival of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

To prepare original pieces for the show will mean months of work.

He said: “There are distinct phases when you’re doing a painting. You’re elated as you start, particularly when using watercolour, because you’re doing big broad washes that are mixing on the paper. Then the graft comes in and it takes a long time before you start pushing for a conclusion. During the course of that I usually decide it’s rubbish at which point I either tear it up or carry on.

“Once it’s finished I can withdraw a bit and look at it as if I haven’t painted it. Sometimes I feel quite moved when I feel I’ve exceeded what I expected to do. Watercolour has a life of its own and sometimes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a bit like when we did the wall tiling in the house. You get so focused and drawn in that the tiniest error drives you mad until you stand back and forget about it.”

Stuart left school and trained as an architect technician.

He said: “It was my job to take a drawing and work it up and add all the detail.”

One of his proudest achievements was designing the Science Learning Centre in Durham, which won several awards.

His architect’s eye is an asset when it comes to painting.

Stuart said: “It helps because that’s my interest.

“I love the history of architecture and art history and architectural etchings.

“I bought one of Reims Cathedral by Henry Charles Brewer at Boldon Auction House which is full of incredible detail – can you imagine carving that onto copper? We opened the back up and there were newspapers with articles about Scott of Antarctic. That’s why I’m doing some pen and ink drawings for my next exhibition.”

Each painting is a painstaking process, and Stuart describes himself as ‘pretty traditional’.

He is not a fan of controversial artists like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Stuart said: “I want people to have the same feeling when they see one of my paintings that I get when I’ve finished it – a feeling of awe and a sense of ‘how was that made?’.

“I don’t think Tracey Emin can ever say someone has that feeling about her things.

“I think art has to do something emotional and that shouldn’t be anger. It should be more like a spiritual uplift.

“If I put something in an exhibition it’s because it’s done that for me. Some people will have that same moment and that’s when there’s a sale.

“It’s not Damien Hirst’s fault that people with more money than sense think that’s art, but I can’t appreciate it at all. I do what I do because I believe in it.

“I can’t say he’s not a great artist but I can say I don’t understand it. It’s like Marcel Duchamp. He used a toilet as a piece of art. I understand in a way because whoever designed that toilet put work and effort into it, but all Duchamp has done is point a finger and say ‘look at this’.

“A lot of modern art is about pointing a finger at something that already exists.

“I’ll do my best to stop that happening in my small way.”

Stuart works from a studio he built at home with Anne, his wife of 37 years and greatest supporter.

They met when they were teenagers working at Durham County Council and are ‘inseparable’.

They redesigned their Peterlee house themselves and have lived there for 17 years. “Anne is my right-hand woman. She gives me a second opinion and makes suggestions and sorts out the business side of things,” Stuart said.

They have both worked hard to make the venture a success, but like Stuart’s painting style, don’t want to rush anything.

“We’re in this for the long haul,” said Stuart, “Most artists don’t expect success until they’re dead.”

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