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by Peter Brown | 13th April 2021 | On Location
It was not until after Christmas that I realised while flicking through a Messums brochure that my spring show in Harrogate was due to open on 5 February. This meant I had two weeks to see what I could produce, and I’d need to order frames ahead.

“What time are you leaving in the morning, Dad?”

“I dunno, four or something ridiculous.”

“If you are staying up all week, an hour here or there won’t matter, will it?”

From the mouths of 14-year-old girls . . .

When my wife Lisa asked the same question later that Sunday evening I said “Shortly after I get up, whenever that is.”

I am slowing a bit . . . not much . . . just a bit. Fewer 2am bedtimes. Fewer 5am rises. I left at 6.30am and arrived in Harrogate at 11am. I had had some pointers from a friend who lived here years ago and a couple of ideas from Johnny Messum. A quick google image search of Harrogate proved heavy on Bettys Tea Rooms and The Victoria Shopping Centre. Google Maps informed me this town had at its heart a large green park area called the Stray. I did not know really where it was other than near York maybe and below Durham.

Monday 4 January

When I got here, I drove around the centre, noting the Baths and steep streets pointing into a blinding low sun. I noted how much foot traffic was holding the flow of cars up at the crossing on Royal Parade as people headed into Valley Gardens. Parking at the Montpellier Shopping Centre Car Park, I did the same exploration on foot. I was struck by the Victorian feel – the cast iron awning structures fronting parades of shops, the wonderful tool shops such as Arkwright’s with their old-style graphics advertising ‘Electrical Goods’ and ‘Spanners’, “Ladders” and so on . . .

It was clearly an affluent town – plenty of designer and interior décor shops, bespoke kitchen shops and a surprising number of commercial art galleries.  I had noticed the large semi-detached, detached and terraced houses skirting the centre of the town on my way in.  It was clearly also a town reliant on tourists with grand old hotels, numerous restaurants and antique shops. It seemed a thriving town in normal times but now it was one on hold.  The posh shops were open and while I am sure Christmas trade would have been good, the town now was by no means busy. I guess what you would imagine at the end of the Christmas period if it was not replaced by sales fever.

I was not desperately comfortable driving all this way from tier 3 to tier 3. Would I be welcome? I found my first painting looking across the front of the Yorkshire Hotel at Cambridge Crescent, Parliament Street and Bettys. It was a nervous fiddly start lacking confidence and residing in tiny detail. Those paintings finish you off. You fiddle and fiddle and are never happy but determined to break the duck, you work on it for too long and finish exhausted. Sustained by frequent trips to Nero’s for coffee, I next set up a small nocturne looking in the reverse direction from below the obelisk. I had few interactions, but they were encouraging or at least pleasant.

At 8pm, Boris made his announcement of national lockdown #3. Oh god, what to do? Legally nothing had really changed. I was still doing my work and it was essential for me to be here to do it (if I was to paint Harrogate). Johnny texted me. He had rather come round to the idea we should shelve it. If it were to go online, as he hinted it could, we now at least had more time. The paintings would not need to be framed so imminently and online exhibitions never seem to have a real hard deadline – nothing needs to be at a certain place by a certain time.

But this was not really the issue. It was more ‘should I do it?’ Was it the right thing to do in terms of our communal fight against this pandemic? At the start of the first lockdown, I talked it over and over with the family and the next morning declared to 60k Instagram followers that Pete The Street was going to remain in his studio. But it was different this time. We are more ‘used to it’. I am isolated when I paint so I would not infect anyone. I am outside and it is essential to my work. So, I decided to stay this week and see how it went, and – to a certain extent – see how Harrogate would react.

Tuesday 5 January

I parked at Montpellier car park again. I struggled with the app and approached a traffic warden. We chatted. I told him what I was doing – what I did. He replied, “But aren’t we on lockdown?”  I explained the ‘essential to my work’ bit but asked what he thought. He shrugged.  This was not a good start.

Luckily, a business owner decided to give the chap both barrels as the council were not offering free parking while they had to lock up their businesses. The town was desolate. I headed off to the bottom of Cornwall Road to paint that delicious curving dipping and rising of Crescent Road and Royal Parade with the Royal Pump room in the fore. I painted with confidence and chatted to locals. They all offered “Hello”s and “Good morning”s and “Aren’t your fingers chilly?” I am no front-line worker but perhaps I could be a small distraction. Seeing a scruffy cold grey-haired man trying to paint a picture of a street seems to make people smile.  Whether it’s a “Silly old fool” or a “Bless him” or a “Good for him” or as was voiced quite a bit “What a good thing to do during lockdown”, it seemed my fears were perhaps unfounded.

Next was looking across the park from Montpellier Hill, a 30cm x 60cm (Pete goes metric!).  As I set up, a couple of ‘oil paint beginners’ quizzed me. I explained my view and why I had chosen it. They left and I set to work as dog walkers “Good Afternoon”‘d me and the odd lone walker stopped for a nose. The groups of teenagers were absent today. You always hear them a mile off and you await the “Hey, there’s an artist!” before they arrive and you get nosed at and commented on – always polite I have to say. As the afternoon drew on, grey turned to winter sun, then back to grey, and then twilight as runners used the hill for repeated sprints up and recovery jogs back down. The ‘oil paint beginners’ returned and were pleasantly surprised to discover that what I had done resembled the view. I finished the day returning to the 6 x 12 (and back to imperial!) nocturne of the front of Bettys.

Wednesday 6 January

I stepped out of the hotel to a dusting of snow. “Wonderful” . . . “Help! Which view?”  The van was frozen.  I turned the ignition on and let it run while I got a coffee. I drove up Cold Bath Road and back down. There were views. Was the sun going to appear? It seemed so. Which view? Any view Pete. It’s all good. The Park!

I headed for Valley Gardens, parking on Valley Drive. I did not scout but committed to every shaped board I could carry and walked into the park. It was the right choice. The sun did make an appearance but not until late. The Gardens are low, and the snow I was painting was untouched by the messy sun! It was quite busy – couples, mums and toddlers, elderly people on constitutionals. They all said good morning and admired the progress.

“Oh! You are making me feel very guilty. I saw you up the top yesterday. I used to do this but have not done it in ages – I’m too scared now. You should brighten the green on the right to give it some depth.” He was an elderly gent with hearing aids. I decided he knew his painting and wanted to share my earlier conversation that I’d had with a couple who were very complimentary about my painting. I had felt quite warmed by their accolades until they started to enthuse about Bob Ross

“I am hard of hearing, I’m afraid.”

I spoke louder.

“No not louder. Just clearer.”

“Sorry, I do mumble.”

I mentioned Bob Ross. He laughed but went on to say he did see a bit of him the other day and he thought he was actually quite good.

The painting was done and so was the snow. I was cold so went for a drive. It’s the only way you can warm up in lockdown – no cafes or bars.

The sun was out.  I was surprised at how low it was at midday. This is its peak I thought.  Navigating the roundabout of Leeds Road and West Park the view through the trees to Trinity Road of the Priory with its lantern tower and Trinity Church winked at me. So I parked up and worked on a 12 x 16. I met Phil who told me he suffered from depression. I don’t know why, but I find people who admit to this extremely good to talk to, or rather listen to. I have no memory of what we chatted about, but we hit it off. It was one of those conversations that tumble down an increasingly steep hill hitting divots and randomly flying off at tangents. I guess we were both desperate to communicate.

I was now cold so I had another drive, and a takeaway coffee and a cake. I returned to my first painting and fiddled some more until it was dark.  Bettys now didn’t have their lights on, so I couldn’t work on the night before (nocturne) pic. I was painting by the van and packed everything away. Looking at the same view again, towards the Memorial, I got all my stuff out again and attempted a 12 x 16 nocturne attracted by the lit façade of the Yorkshire Hotel. I was cold and tired and should have called it a day. Sometimes I think I cannot see any more!

Thursday 7 January

A cold frosty bright morning.

I turned the van on, walked up Cold Bath Street to the bakery for a coffee then drove.  I checked out High Harrogate but found it mainly residential and not very inspiring so, spotting a sign for Knaresborough, set off to check out the viaduct. It was impressive – hidden from the sun, it would be very icy to paint from the bridge and besides it would always be there for another day. I wanted to take advantage of this crisp morning.

Thinking of viaducts, I remembered a conversation I had in Valley Gardens on Tuesday in the snow. The chap told me there was a great view of a viaduct in Hornbeam Park. So I headed that way. The satnav was taking me to the railway station. I could see an area of green on Google Maps next to it and drove alongside through what looked like an industrial estate.  Driving to the end of the road I parked in customer parking for one of the businesses and managed to collar a walker returning to his car. He was plugged in to some podcast and although I had interrupted him he was very polite and helpful.

My guess as to which way the viaduct would be was completely wrong and he directed me the opposite way. Looking at my shoes he suggested I took the longer route via road rather than direct as it was very muddy. I ignored him. He was right although the mud, on the whole, was frozen. It was like walking on chocolate crispy cakes. As I entered the wood, I asked a dog walker whether I was heading the right way.

”Straight on and you’ll see it.”

500 chocolate crispy steps later to my right, over a beautiful, frosted field licked with pale shadow and peachy morning sun, was a long expanse of elegant arches. A draftsman’s nightmare and something I would usually duck, I told myself I could do it. I did not count the arches relying instead on gut. I did make sure the spacing was even, but it was long, and the perspective of the arches changed from left to right.  I was aware of the frost melting and the light changing and was calm and pragmatic.

‘Don’t stress. Just get on with it, Pete’.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed trying to get the sheep, and also how much they moved as they munched grass, rotating like teenagers slow dancing at a disco. There were quite a few walkers, with or without dogs, on their own, or as couples.  One was running a virtual race and could not stop. The couple I spoke to as I was packing up pointed me down to the beck for a closer look at the viaduct although they pointed out much to my delight that I had the better view.

The mile-or-so walk up the path in the now-defrosted mud was hard in my twenty-odd layers of thermals, and I was knackered when I got back to the van. I got a coffee at Indulge in one of the units and headed back to town. Parking on Montpellier Hill, and after much ruminating, I decided to work some more on the 30 x 60cm of the park with the ice cream hut. I did not like the lime green grass I had painted originally and thought I could get the painting to a more resolved, more ‘real’ level. It was mistier today and the light had now flattened a lot although sun and shadows came and went. I was pleased I had a second go.  There was lots more that I noticed and adjusted – tones in particular.

I had some weird Scandinavian lunch of beetroot and potato bravas that relied heavily on the pot of ketchup for its flavour. But it was hot and filling. It was 3pm now, so dark in an hour and I returned to outside the bank to start a 12 x 16 of Bettys shortly moving on to the nocturne I had started on Monday.

A man called Frank started talking to me. I am not sure what he started with but again I instantly realised he knew his painting. Initially annoyed with the interruption I warmed to him. He used to illustrate for the film industry – advertising posters mainly but for his soul he used to do this a lot. He told me about a trip he did with mates years ago on the east coast of the USA, painting and flogging off the easel. He said he wished he had the nerve to do it again and he said I had inspired him to maybe get out there. Empathising with his lack of confidence and explaining how hard it is to start again, I said “You know what you have to to don’t you?’ He was nodding in agreement before I had finished “You just have to do it.”

We were joined by a woman with what sounded like an American accent.  She was a writer and we drew comparisons between writing and painting and in particular the artist’s block.  Attention was now moving to her.

“That accent. Are you from America?” said Frank.

“Bradford” she replied.

We were amazed. She said people often thought that. The reason for her accent she surmised was that she had travelled a lot and also spoke several languages. We quizzed her on how many. She listed eight and said she was currently learning Arabic as she was becoming a Muslim and wanted to read the Koran in the original.

She wished Frank well in getting back to painting and suggested he go painting with me.  I hate it when people do that. Promising my time away for me. She left and we looked at each other stunned.

“Aren’t some people amazing.  What an amazing person!”

We talked a bit longer, then Frank left after repeating that I had inspired him. It dawned on me that perhaps this was something useful I could do. I seem to be stumbling on quite a few people, particularly men late in life, who have or had a talent for painting and are keen to re-engage. So that is duly filed in ‘the day I decide to do something useful and slightly less self-centred’ folder for later . . .

Friday 8 January

I was really looking forward to driving home at the end of today to see the kids and Lisa.  I knew it would be a full-on day. Heavy snow/sleet was forecast. I looked out the window which overlooks a small back yard of the hotel at 7am – the night’s snow had not settled.

As I left the hotel an hour later, snow had started to fall again. I switched on the van and walked up to the bakery for a coffee and a croissant. Walking back, the snow had got heavier, but the ground was wet. The van was now toasty and as I sat in drinking coffee and scoffing my croissant, the snow got heavier still. The flakes were huge. The snow was winning. Landing rate was beating melting rate by quite a margin and in 20 minutes the snow was 2cm. I decided to drive around looking for the best possible view.

Big mistake. The snow was getting serious and traffic was struggling to navigate the roads. I abandoned the van on Crescent Road and headed up Parliament Street armed with canvases and boards of all shape. Cars were sliding into each other at the bottom and Parliament Street was becoming gridlocked. It did this on and off throughout the day. I found shelter with a view under the awning of a jeweller looking directly at Bettys. I phoned Lisa and asked her to book me another night at the White Hart, assuming I would not be able to drive out of Harrogate. I have never experienced snow like it. It was consistently heavy all day. I had to paint under shelter or I would not last an hour before everything would be soaked through and useless.

I really struggled – nervous and lacking confidence. Everyone was consumed by the snow but if they noticed me, they could not resist a peek. As I set up an elderly man in an electric mobility scooter looked at me and declared ‘Bloody Hell!” I laughed, not knowing if he was cross or just a bit of a card. He passed again a few minutes later and it turned out I did make him cross for some reason. Perhaps he was struggling in this awful stuff, yet I was treating it as a bit of fun?

Later on, a man called Mark struck up a conversation. He lives in a chapel he had converted in Harrogate. I imagine anyone from Harrogate reading this would now know who I meant.  We seemed to agree on most things art.  Both obsessed with paintings and the need to acquire them although it seems he has the means, is more ambitious, fanatical and his taste is more eclectic than mine. Another couple he knew pulled him away from me although they included me in their chat. The second man had just bought (well, the development company he worked for) an impressive Grade I listed building in an industrial estate in Leeds which they were making good for the British Library to the tune of £75million. They eventually left.  Mark remained. I had to keep making the point of trying to look around him as he kept blocking my view so ‘into’ our conversation as he was. He left after us exchanging numbers and him insisting I come round for a nose a chat and a bottle of wine. OMG, how I’d love that. I returned to the hotel later to a DM from him confirming the offer which I ducked.  Rules is rules. It will have to wait until spring. I’d started this painting at 8.30am and as I was packing up, a lady asked how long I’d been painting it.

”What’s the time?” I asked her.

“2pm.”

“Christ. Have I been painting that long?”

I panicked.  It’ll be dark soon.

I headed to the Bettys awning. The view back to where I had been was good but the ‘on and off grid-locked’ Parliament Street meant I could well be looking at the side of a van for the most part. I found a view under another cast iron awning a little further down Parliament St and on the other side.  Again, I was looking back at Bettys, but with a much more interesting perspective up the hill.  I continued to struggle with the pale greys and was frustrated by the view being constantly blocked by delivery vans and trucks. The linguist from the day before spotted me but I was grumpy and gave her short shrift. She said she would buy one of my Harrogate paintings, but her place was more Morocco really. As it inevitably got dark sooner than I wanted, I rotated and tried a view down into the melee of purple snow on the rooftops of the buildings on the rising hill from the bottom of Parliament Street.  An opticians threw peachy light across the snow in the foreground and the view was framed with some cast ironwork of the awning. I pushed it further than I would normally with these ‘end of the day’ ones, even though I was knackered. Usually, these paintings get abandoned and left unfinished. This one felt close to resolution.

It had been a long hard day. I managed to move the van from its parking spot surrounded by a foot of snow and drove around town trying to work out where would be best to leave it as we expect a big freeze tonight. Driving up Cold Bath Road, I was managing until I had to come to a rest behind a Seat that was being pushed by three men. They got it going and then they came to help me. One played foreman and he knew what he was about. The three-tonne van had more traction. As I got purchase, I tooted a thank you and drove on up passing the Seat that was now in more trouble. I eventually settled on leaving it on West Park giving me two options for an exit of Parliament Street or Montpellier Hill.

I ordered a click and collect Wagamama’s, crunched through the snow to the hotel and checked in.

“We’re busy tonight, Sir. Most of Harrogate Hospital are here as they could not get home.”

The COVID death toll that day was the largest it has been to date at 1,325 with 69,025 people testing positive. The forecast for the next day said -2°C and sun so I imagined the snow would remain through Sunday and maybe Monday too which it said would be overcast. It looks like I will head for home Monday night.

“Today I let it feel like work. I am a twat. Tomorrow I shall relish it!”

Saturday 9 January

Saturday morning was icy and bright. As the sun rose, I painted the trees on West Park, their limbs laden with lilac snow against ochre viridian sky. As the sun hit the tops of the trees and worked its way down chunks of melted icy snow fell on me and pallet. The light on the snow was beautiful. I crossed the road at Montpelier Hill and worked on a 10 x 12 board looking back at the sun.

As the day wore on, the sun weakened to a milkier light I preferred – less intense.

Working on a 30 x 60cm board, looking east on West Park, I painted people walking on the Stray crunching over the compacted icy snow. I’d return to the van for warmth and would leave the engine running as I painted heating a spare pair of boots with the blower so I could swap my damp frozen pair for a warm dry toasty pair defrosting my frozen toes as I buried them in.

As the sun was weak and almost gone, I returned to the 18 x 24 of Bettys from Parliament Street until the daylight waned and I could return to the twilight Parliament Street and The Skipton Road, Evening Snow.

Lisa booked me in for another night as snow was still deep on the Stray and I reckoned it would be here until Monday afternoon.

Sunday 10 January

It was thawing.  The roads were now black, and trees had shed all their snow, now just sodden. The Stray was still covered as was the ungritted pavements and the awning of Bettys, but it lay in patches on rooftops.

I revisited ‘Bettys from Parliament Street’ now with no queuing cars in front. But I mainly concentrated on the left façade which I had ignored the day before – the painted shopfronts and windows reflecting grey sky and white snow. It was a treat to paint.  Couples on a Sunday morning stroll greeted me.

“Ah! It’s Pete The Street. We’ve been reading about you. You’re all over social media.”

Fame at last, Mother!

I had an idea that the grey ‘moving towards twilight’ painting I had started of Bettys from the bank could convert well to the thawing snow. I nipped up the street to confirm and went and grabbed it from the van.  It was the last painting I would work on for this trip and I was comfortable driving away knowing I’d got all I could out of the snow. I was pleased to see the surrounding countryside on the way to Wetherby and beyond was devoid of snowdrift and stunning white rolling landscapes. I was a bit shagged out and just wanted to listen to my audiobook and drive home.

Second Trip, 14–16 January

Thursday 14 January

I dropped my son Ollie back at Durham on the Wednesday and headed down to Harrogate to meet Tony the Yorkshire Post photographer. I was booked into the White Hart Wednesday night and Thursday it seemed Harrogate was ‘doing its snow thing’ again.

The glowing window display of the Bettys fought with the reflection of the white snow across Parliament Street’s pavement and road. Harrogate was very quiet. Behind me, a homeless man was sitting under a red brolly. Over the morning, two or three customers knocked on the Bettys door to collect an order and a handful of people walked by as well as two gritters and three snowploughs, oh, and of course the odd runner. They are mad on running here. They’ll run in anything, over anything, precariously slipping up and down hills on icy rutted snow and in biting winds. A young couple appeared from below at one point – baring their pink glistening legs, they were covered head to toe in the snow they had been running into. They seemed to be perfectly happy!

After a while, the red brolly man and I were joined by two gentlemen. One of them offered his friend, the chap under the brolly and me a coffee. He took the orders and returned from Nero’s with hot drinks for us all. The two friends then immersed themselves in serious conversation about erecting shelves, their wives’ habits, weekly shopping, and other things.  I did not notice them leave. The homeless man had now been joined by a young woman and they were gassing with as much gusto as the previous two. I painted until 1pm and then starving offered the brolly man a coffee.

I returned to finish the painting off. Brolly man had now left his corner and it offered me a good, sheltered spot with a view down West Park at oncoming warm car headlights. I painted here on a 16 x 20 until it was too dark.

Twilight is both longer and more enticing. The view down Parliament Street from the other side of the road was fantastic. The jeweller or optician whose light I used to work in for the previous twilight painting down Parliament Street was now a great subject, spilling bright light across the snow. The Skipton Road melted into the sky in the background. Even the warm glow of the top floor lights in the 60s office block on the left looked yummy, so I dumped the two previous canvases back at the van and returned with a 16 x 12 board.

I set up under a bright white streetlight. Unfortunately, however, it was still snowing, and I remembered the value of shelter as I pushed oil paint and ice crystals around a piece of MDF for an hour or so. Ruby from The Post phoned as I was walking back to the van. I said I’d ring her back when I was somewhere warmer. I sorted the paintings back at the van stripping my wet layers while catching the ever more depressing 6 O’Clock News then checked back into the hotel where Lisa had booked me another night. I ordered room service: a samosa and an aubergine curry and phoned Ruby. The room was warm. My back ached but I quite liked it. Tomorrow would be bright, sunny and icy . . .

Friday 15 January

It was an incredible morning. Clear skies and it seemed as though the snow on the Stray was sublimating. A thick low mist hovered over the ground. As the sun peaked over the rooftops and began to lick the snow it became even more impressive.  I ended up parking on Trinity Road and walked about looking for a view.  It reminded me of an argument we had had at an NEAC selection. The committee was rejecting a group of paintings by an artist. A colleague and I were arguing forcibly for this not to happen pointing out what great facility the artist had. “Yes,” argued the other camp, “but it is disgusting.” At which point I agreed and out the paintings went.

The sun through the mist, the mist’s feathering of the ground, the pinks, the blues, the pastel shades were impressive, but I just thought it was disgusting. Everywhere I looked reminded me of those 70s posters with cheesy captions “God is Love”. So it took me an age to find something that I wanted to paint. I was running low on boards and long and thin would be handy. I found the place at West Park looking back into the light. As it rose, the sun was warming the snow on the branches. I had made the mistake of setting up under a tree. As the session wore on, more and more larger and larger lumps of ice fell on my palette, painting, easel, my head, and at one point my hand as I was trying to do a particularly fiddly bit.

I ran the van and defrosted my kit and me, particularly my feet. The same view was different now. It was now side-lit and I was coming to terms with pastel blue shadows so I moved further down the road away from trees and set to again.

As the sun had weakened, I thought I’d have another bash at the previous day’s afternoon pic. However, it was 3pm – just an hour from twilight and I was more keen to return to the nocturne I had started the night before. Before I moved on to the nocturne, a man with a bicycle on his way to hospital decided to engage me in conversation.  He asked the usual questions including how much the painting was, which I ducked. At one point I told him my nickname was Pete the Street.

“Pete the Feet?’

“Ha! No. Street”

He had a mate in the army called Pete the Feet as he could water ski in his bare feet!

I felt this was my last chance at the nocturne as the snow would not be there tomorrow and the year would have moved on the next time I would get back. It was an icy day, below zero degrees all day, but when the sun dropped, so did the temperature.  My toes and fingers would have revolted were they not numb and in pain (can they be both?). Back in the hotel room, they were hot and fizzing.

Saturday 16 January

Temperature: 3 to 5 degrees.  It was raining. It was thaw day.  But the snow still lay thick on The Stray. I parked on Beech Grove. The Terraces of West Park formed a thick dark cold grey silhouette between the cool white snow and the slightly warmer thin viridian sky. Figures and trees stood stark black against the snow Bruegelesque!  I manoeuvred the van so I could paint the view I wanted from under the open tailgate without getting sodden. Clever Pete!

The rain eventually stopped and gave way to a low winter’s sun. I had run out of 8 x 24 boards but had a 6 x 24 canvas with an abandoned painting of Chichester Harbour on it.  With Trinity Church on the left horizon and Beech Grove wet and glistening on my right, I painted as the sun crossed the line of oncoming tees from left to right.  Two and half hours later the snow was heavy and wet.  Black twigs and grass were making a come-back.  It would not last until tomorrow. I threw everything in the back of the van and texted home to say I was on my way . . .

See the resulting paintings in my exhibition Paintings of Harrogate with Messums Yorkshire until 1 May.