The door of Suffolk artist Chris Newson is always open – literally, come rain or shine. On the day I visit his Leiston shop and studio the weather is cool rather than bitter but Chris appears immune to the elements. No heat but lots of fresh air and a sense of freedom which is how he likes it.
The weather, you could say, is benign, in comparison with many of Chris Newson's paintings which are raw and stormy, the products of a troubled soul and a very passionate artist. He paints what he feels and his feelings stem from a difficult and unsettled life.
Born in nearby Saxmundham, he saw his mother leave at the age of four and his father died when he was just six. He went to live with grandparents who struggled to look after him, he says. He developed a stutter and was bullied at school, ultimately leaving with virtually no qualifications and going through a long period of drink and drugs. Painting he says began "When I was under Her Majesty's Pleasure" and the therapy, the drive to paint and produce art is what keeps him going today.
"Painting channels my feelings and my aggression," he says. "I live to paint and if I didn't paint I would be in a bad way." The evidence is all around us, everything from grotesque, childlike self portraits to delicately crafted seascapes crammed onto the limited wall space of his Leiston High Street shop. The sea paintings which he says sell very well but aren't his favourite to do are a benign contrast to the turbulence of much of his work.
On the day of my visit we are joined by the celebrated Suffolk artist Maggi Hambling – she of Aldeburgh beach scallop fame – who has become Chris Newson's mentor and, he says, his inspiration. "She inspires me because of her work and her work ethic. Also because she's such a good teacher."
The work aspect of this inspiration stems back to his obsession with Hambling's controversial scallop sculpture which has been in situ on Aldeburgh beach since 2003 as a memorial to the town's most famous son, the composer Benjamin Britten. "Chris kept telephoning me about his enthusiasm for the scallop," says Hambling. "He came and showed me a little film he'd made using the scallop as part of the performance. We then made a film together and having met a few times I told him that he was really an artist and should be painting pictures."
At the time Newson was working as a photographer and the film they made together, The Storm, is a very powerful depiction of Hambling at work on Aldeburgh beach amid the raging elements and against the haunting backdrop of Benjamin Britten's music. It is a superb self-contained piece of work which can be seen on YouTube and is the catalyst both for their enduring relationship and Chris Newson's career as a full-time artist.
Looking back on his own obsession with the giant shell "It was the beauty of it," says Newson. "I liked where it was and seeing the children playing there. It was also controversial and with anything controversial I pick a side." He now sees himself as the scallop man, clearing away the pebbles and generally ensuring all is ok in exchange for a regular supply of paint from his mentor. Such is the polarization of feelings over the shell that it has been daubed with graffiti 13 times, all of which is easily washed away says Hambling and arguably adds to the notoriety she still enjoys.
Sculpture aside, I ask her what she particularly admires about Chris Newson's painting – the paintings for which she is largely responsible. "It's personal and alive," she says. "He doesn't paint roses around the door or pretty pictures. His paintings come from the heart and the guts and every bit of Chris as a person." Indeed hearts figure graphically in his portraits of people as do the distorted faces which he says can reflect his own moods and inner feelings. Maggi Hambling rates his work "because of its emotional charge. These paintings mean something. There is an urgency in them which takes you on a journey through this imaginary landscape."
A case in point on one of the crowded walls of his small shop is a new series of paintings generically entitled A Winter's Tale. The paintings are awash with white (perhaps inevitably), but also vibrant dabs of red – the hearts again – blue, green and orange and a series of semi-hidden figures which can be seen or missed depending on how you are looking at the painting. The journey Maggi Hambling describes can be different for every viewer. Even the title of the series perhaps travels back to Newson's career as an actor and the Shakespearean roles he played at the Maddermarket in Norwich.
As well as painting prolifically – he is in his even more crowded studio behind the shop from 7.20 every morning – he also frames all his own pictures and provides a picture framing service for customers. Intriguingly he will make a frame first and then paint a picture to fill it. His weapon of choice for the painting part is a pallet knife rather than a brush and he demonstrates what can be an endless process of scraping and refashioning a picture as his restless imagination goes to work.
Mentor and protégé seem to connect on numerous levels. There is their art: Chris paints the sea and her famously sensual and turbulent sea paintings are also an inspiration. They are both Suffolk artists and they both have a raw but sensitive quality which shines through in their work. Maggi Hambling the mentor can kick the establishment quite as hard as her protégé.
Suffolk evidently remains important to both artists. Hambling despite her fame and forays "abroad" still lives and works in the county while Chris Newson is a Suffolk boy born and bred. "Suffolk remains incredibly important to me," he says. "I was brought up by the sea and my grandfather used to take me out fishing four days a week."
As for walking out with the famous Maggi Hambling "Suffolk people are really good at treating others as they are. We don't hero worship. We have a laugh and a joke and that's what it's all about."
Chris Newson will be holding two exhibitions this summer – at St Mary's House, Market Hill Woodbridge, 8th-10th June and at the Garage Gallery Aldeburgh, 5th-10th July. Both exhibitions will be opened by Maggi Hambling.
Nick Cotton 2018