Working Lives

Artist Ambassador for the Broads (1960s-2018)

Location: Norwich

David is an internationally recognised artist, known for painting ethereal, atmospheric depictions of the Norfolk Broads. He grew up in Norfolk and pursued his love for his environment through his profession of painting. He is active in the protection of the Norfolk Broads and the wildlife that resides within it.

Growing up in Norfolk

I lost my father at the tail end of the war, and this was in 1945. My father was a Chief Petty Officer, serving on a mine sweeper. I think they were off the coast of France, and unfortunately got torpedoed. So I lost my father, obviously at the age of two I hardly knew him which is a shame, but I’m afraid that was the position that many people were in at the time. Anyway my mother and I, and my grandfather, moved to Sussex and she had a bed and breakfast business going on there. A variety of people would come and go, one came in who happened to be a Norfolk reed thatcher, and his name was Ted Turner. And they obviously got along well with each other because my mother decided to move to Norfolk to live with him, where she got married to him of course. So Ted Turner became my stepfather and we moved to Norfolk. Initially we were living close to Alderfen broad, which is a private landlocked broad. And I must say, when I first arrived here I was absolutely knocked out because it was such a wild place. I hadn’t been used to this, I was only six years old, and I remember being awakened by the sound of a bittern; of course I had no idea what it was at the time. But I could hear all these birds first thing in the morning, they used to wake me up. I was just astonished. And I realised at a very early stage what a wild place Norfolk really was at that time. And I couldn’t wait to get out there and explore the Broads. It sowed a seed in my mind, I must get out there, I must explore this place.

Summer morning – Alderfen

We lived in a variety of places which included Barton Turf. We also moved to Ludham which was my main childhood home. I would go out even at a very young age. I don’t know that we do that much now or encourage other young people to do it, but I would go out with my dog and walk across the marshes on my own, out towards St Benet’s Abbey quite often falling in dykes and coming home in an awful mess, much to my mother’s annoyance. But it was just an amazing place, everywhere I went there was wildlife, there were things buzzing, jumping in and out of the water. I was just blown away by it to be honest, I couldn’t get over it, it was lovely. All the dykes and rivers were covered in lilies and reeds and it was just a wonderful place to explore.

My early involvement with the Broadland environment nurtured a deep love and compassion for wildlife and animals. This love has grown over the years and even in my teens I was bringing home injured and orphaned creatures. I would care for them until such time I was able to release them. This love and level of awareness eventually led me to become vegetarian and ultimately vegan. I have never looked back!

So we lived at Ludham for many years, and when I left school I was going to Stalham school that was my last school. I was always a bit of an odd-bod at school, and I must’ve been a very strong-willed kid I think because I refused to take any examinations, they were GCE’s at the time. I refused point blank to take them. It wasn’t that I was dim or a dunce, it’s just that I couldn’t really come to terms with the fact that all we were worth was just a few pieces of paper. I felt I would make my way in the world by just doing my thing. I remember when I left school at 15 I hadn’t had a clue what I was going to do with my life,. I went to see a youth employment officer, and he said ‘now David, what would you like to do?’ and I said ‘well look, I either want to paint pictures for a living or I want to work with wildlife’, and he looked at me with absolute astonishment because neither were very likely at that time. And he duly did the best he could and he gave me a job in a shop in Great Yarmouth, which was an absolute disaster for me. At that time I went through a variety of jobs, not at all happy with any of them.

I remember one day sitting down by the river, I was trying to come to terms with myself and what I was going to do with my life, and I just suddenly thought I need to work near the river, I just need to be here. So I worked for two or three boatyards, notably Percy Hunter’s yard at Womack in Ludham. I worked there for the best of my memory about four years, that was a tremendous insight into the real life of the Broads. Here we had the traditional sailing craft of Hunter’s fleet, and I would go down there at all times of the year, I was working throughout the year. I would look out the window out across the river and sometimes there was frost and the reeds were bent over with snow. And I used to stand there and think, ‘oh my god isn’t that beautiful! Isn’t that fantastic!’ I used to see all these sights, and then I thought that I really want to get out in the river a bit more. So at that time I went to Broads Tours in Wroxham, and I spent several years driving big passenger launches up and down the river. And it did give me a very great insight into the nature of the Broads. I would be out sometimes early morning with the mist rising over the river, it was a lovely insight and I loved every minute of it really. But at that time I was beginning to paint, I needed to express my feelings about the Broads. So I started to put this stuff down, I started doing sketches I started taking a load of photographs, and I started painting.

Painting then and now

I did not have any professional training, however I did gain inspiration from one or two people, I have to say. I lived just down the road from Edward Seago, and I used to look at his pictures and think, ‘oh aren’t they so beautiful! I wish I could paint like that!’, but of course that wasn’t the way I was going to go because we have to put our own identity into our work. So the pictures I started to do were my own pictures, not Edward Seago look-alikes. Not that I could do that, but I started to develop my own style which was sort of a misty atmospheric ethereal style which seemed to resonate with a lot of people. And I started having exhibitions. One of the first exhibitions I had was at the Theatre Royal actually, where there was a very nice man who I liked very much who had an untimely end, let’s put it that way, at the Theatre Royal. His name was Dick Condon. He liked my work a lot, and he put on several exhibitions of my work there. Then I started exhibiting with Mandell’s Gallery in Elm Hill, I stayed with them for several years. And then I eventually came to the conclusion that I should be doing my own exhibitions. To be honest I couldn’t really see the logic in paying 33.3% from every picture sold through the gallery when I might earn that myself. So I started having my own exhibitions and that’s how I’ve continued to this day.

I always work in oils, I’ve always been blissfully content with oils. I’ve had no desire ever to paint watercolours. I like the feel and I like the smell of oil paints. I don’t take my equipment out to the marshes or to the Broads. I tried that many years ago and it was an absolute disaster for me. Couldn’t keep the easel still, it kept blowing and moving. With oil paint of course they’re slow to dry, I used to have trouble with mosquitoes and flies. And they don’t look nice on my pictures, to say nothing about the death of the poor mosquitoes and flies. So I thought no, this is not for me. So what I do is that I go out on location and I do lots of sketches, take some photographs, and go back into my little studio and work there where the easel is still and I don’t get bothered by hundreds of flies and mosquitoes.

But there have been various things which have happened in between, in the 80’s and 90’s a lot of my work was put into print by a London company called Rosenstiels. Now this was really important to me because although I eventually withdrew from that market, at that time I was absolutely astonished because Rosenstiels marketed my work and they started selling it worldwide. I believe I’m right in saying that I was the first Norfolk artist specialising in Broadland scenes to have his or her work put into print to be sold worldwide. Because at an early stage I was told that you could always sell pictures of Dutch windmills but Norfolk windmills don’t sell abroad, which puzzled me a bit because they’re every bit as beautiful. Anyway, Rosenstiels put several of my paintings into print and before I knew it they were selling in Canada and China, all over the place, I couldn’t believe it. They sold thousands of these things everywhere, at one time I couldn’t go anywhere without seeing my prints. They were literally everywhere, I mean I can remember walking into Norwich and seeing them in Boots. British Home Stores had their own range, I even saw them on special offer on a Kellogg’s cornflake package one time.

Part of this was good and part of it wasn’t so good, because I think it cheapened the image a bit. Although it did get my name out there, I mean even to this day I get inquiries from people living in Holland or Germany. “We have two pictures here which we bought twenty years ago” and they want a description of what they are and etcetera. So that was both good and bad that time, and I withdrew from that multi print market around the late 90’s. Now I do my own prints and if they’re on canvas they look exactly like the original oil paintings. It’s a bit worrying actually because I think in the future some people might think they have an original when they haven’t.

People have actually moved to Norfolk because they’ve been inspired by my work because of the exposure I got in the 80’s and 90’s with the tens of thousands of prints of my work going everywhere it created an image of the Broads. Sort of a misty, atmospheric, romantic image of the Broads.  I can think of a couple now who actually live in a converted windmill. I talked to them about it and they talked to me quite openly that it was my pictures that originally brought them here. It’s nice to know, it’s gratifying to know, that my work has touched people at a deep level. I mean I’ve experienced this at some of my exhibitions. I remember one exhibition at least three years ago where at least two ladies just suddenly burst into tears. I said ‘I’m sorry, have I upset you?’ and they said ‘no, no! It’s your work! It’s your work!’ I think that I must have something to touch people like that. It’s not just a depiction of what I see, the way I interpret it is that it’s something to do with the essence of the Broads.

Protecting the Broads

After 40 years and many different images of the Broads and marshes I still get inspiration for new work. At the moment, I have for the last 14 years lived on the edge of Sutton Fen, which is an RSPB reserve. It now belongs to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), it was partly due to me that they actually acquired it, I have to say that.

Winter daybreak – Sutton Fen

We bought the property from a landowner, and we lived there for about four or five years when one sunny morning the landowner said to me, ‘David, I’ve got some news for you. I’m going to sell up’ and I nearly collapsed because he was a nice guy and we got on with him well. My mind went into overdrive, it really did because I had grown to realise what a special place Sutton Fen was, and is. I mean it is just covered in wildlife. We have bitterns living there, we have swallowtail butterflies, and many other rare species. And I thought well I wouldn’t like that to go to a farmer. They would probably start shooting, which I am very much against actually. I started thinking that the environmental organizations ought to buy this place. So I immediately phoned up various organizations, including Norfolk Wildlife Trust, and the RSPB. And they did actually say ‘Thank you very much for telling us David, we would be very interested’. I remember talking to the landowner one day, and I said to him ‘do you know, this is a very, very special place. You ought to make sure it goes to somebody who can really care for it for the future. To look after all those wild creatures that live here.’ And he looked at me and he said ‘by God, you’re right David.’ That was the turning point, because he was going to sell it to another farmer. But he sold it to the RSPB, because at least most of the animals there are safe and protected and not be shot at. I’d be guessing, but that was around about 10 years ago. So since it has been in RSPB reserve, and will continue to be so indefinitely I guess.

Spirituality and painting

I’ve always been a very spiritual person, I’ve always believed that the people who lived here many years ago are in fact still here, but only at a different level. And I myself have had some pretty interesting experiences throughout my life, and I’d love to tell you about one. In a big exhibition I called ‘The Broads 2000’, in November 1999 was held at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust Centre on Ranworth Broad. It was a very big adventure for me, a very big exhibition, took me two years to work for it. In this exhibition I portrayed the work of the various environmental organizations, like the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, the Suffolk Wildlife Trust, the Wherry Trust and various others. I did one or two paintings to go with their particular contribution. I did a painting of Wherry Albion going across Horsey Mere, and it was hanging in the exhibition centre on the day of the opening which was incidentally opened by Sarah Kennedy. It was packed, we had so many people there. I sold many of the paintings on the first day, including this picture of the Wherry Albion going across Horsey Mere. His was on the Saturday, and on the Saturday afternoon someone came up to me and said ‘David, do you know there’s something very strange about that painting you did of Wherry Albion?’ I looked at him very quizzingly, I said ’no, I didn’t notice anything unusual about it’ and he said ‘well go and have a look’. So I went to go and have a look at this picture, and there was a row of numbers there. And we looked in the bottom left hand corner in the water and there was a row of numbers, six or eight digits. I looked at them and I couldn’t believe it, I had not seen them before, I hadn’t put them there. They were very small, almost like computerised numbers and they were actually in the paint. I was so puzzled by this. So he said ‘I thought you would’ve known that’ and I said ‘no, I haven’t seen them before’. It puzzled me enormously and I spent the whole weekend wondering how they could’ve got there. I phoned up the canvas manufacture and they said ‘no, there’s no numbers on our canvas, nothing that could come through the paint, nothing’. So then I started looking around the painting even more, and on the right hand side close to the bottom of the painting, again in the water, was a name. Cates. It was faint, but it was there, it was definitely in the paint. I was beginning to think, there’s something really strange about this. So I phoned up the Norfolk Wherry Trust, and I spoke to a man at that time who was their historian. And I said to him, ‘have you any idea what this name could mean? Cates?’ I told him the story and he said, ‘that is very interesting, Jack Cates used to be the skipper of the Albion for many years’. I nearly fell over when he told me that. But this is just one of many stories. There was no logical explanation for the name and the numbers being there. We never did find out what the numbers meant, but they were there and so was the name.

The Future of the Broads

I think the Broads are under a huge amount of pressure. A lot of the marshes are disappearing and are now used for farming. There’s a tremendous amount of boats now, boat activity, which of course does disturb the water. I mean many of the areas that I used to know as a child that were covered in lilies and plants they’re now fairly barren, they’re just water. I view the Broads the way I view planet Earth, they are under a great deal of pressure and on a course of self-destruction. That’s my personal view anyway. I know there are still very interesting and beautiful pockets that you can still see what it was once like. My next exhibition is to be called ‘A World Apart’, I think it’s still easy to go and get yourself lost on the Broads to get away from 21st century living for a while. Find a desolate riverbank somewhere on a misty evening and you can be on another planet really. There always has to be room for optimism otherwise we’re finished I think.

David Dane (b. 1943) talking to WISEArchive on 2nd July 2018 at Catfield

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