Matthew Phinn: Brush with the Far East

Matthew Phinn is switching from Japanese to Yorkshire scenes. Steve McClarence reports.

Matthew Phinn's website includes a photograph of him at one of his exhibitions. He stands between two framed paintings: dark suit, smart tie, hands clasped soberly in front of him, like a vicar thanking worshippers as they leave a church. The picture was taken in a smart corner of a Japanese department store: not, on the face of it, an obvious place for an art exhibition.

In Britain, artists try to get their work exhibited in galleries and then leave the discerning public to browse. Not in Japan. There, artists aim to exhibit in stores – far more prestigious than galleries – and then spend every day at the exhibition, meeting and greeting visitors.

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"It's all very formal," says Matthew. "At my exhibitions, I'll be standing there offering tea and talking to people about my work. They usually bring a gift, a little box of cakes..."

Aptly, we're surrounded by cakes at the Doncaster cafe where we meet to talk about Matthew's illustrations for his father's latest book, Gervase Phinn's Yorkshire Journey. We're in Woods' Tea Rooms, a "Purveyor of High Quality Tea and Fine Cuisine" which looks, in its winning and wonderful way, as though it was intended for Harrogate, but took the wrong turning off the A1.

This South Yorkshire answer to Betty's (which gets – Betty's that is – an approving name-check and a couple of pictures in the book) is refinement itself, full of smartly-dressed chaps in regimental ties and women in chunky twinsets. The woman at the next table is absorbed in the Yorkshire Post as she tackles her mushrooms on toast. What a surprise for you, madam, if you're reading this now!

Woods' menus are collectors' items. "Some of our recipes use 'invisible' ingredients," they say, pointing out that staff try to remove all bones from chicken dishes, but "it is possible that the odd one may escape our attention. Therefore your vigilance is requested."

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It's odd to be sitting somewhere so reassuringly English and to be talking so much about Japan, where Matthew, in his early 30s, lived for eight years before recently moving to London. He has exhibited widely over there, and in California, Bermuda and Ireland, working as an artist and painting teacher.

And he has published a book of his own, a survey of the landscapes of the seasons, a Japanese obsession, influenced by the nation's traditional illustrative techniques. The pictures, with their cherry blossom and maple trees, are delicate, stylised, semi-abstract, and with a hint of the formality of Japanese etiquette.

The Japanese influence extends to his eight watercolours in his father's book. They include Staithes, York, the Dales,

the North York Moors and a snow scene in Tickhill, the village near Doncaster where his family live. They're spare, spacious pictures, full of painstaking detail and precision, and they lend an interestingly detached perspective to the book, which is written in the ebullient, anecdotal style which readers of Gervase Phinn's column in this magazine will know well.

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The title, however, is a little misleading. Gervase Phinn's Yorkshire Journey suggests a regional answer to JB Priestley's fact-finding, world-changing English Journey of the 1930s. Phinn's journey, it turns out, is a mental rather than a physical one, round memories of places and buildings that mean a lot to him, with a strong presence for York and Scarborough. Full of plush colour photographs, it's an agreeably

nostalgic read, as comforting as a Fat Rascal.

Is having Gervase Phinn as your father a help or a drawback professionally, I ask. Matthew thinks carefully (and the mushroom lady with the Yorkshire Post turns a page). "Well, I don't see my future as just doing paintings of Yorkshire," he says. "It's good to have done everything for myself in Japan."

He first went there after graduating in Fine Art from the University of Leeds: "I went to teach English, as a lot of graduates do, as a bit of an adventure." He stayed, impressed by the high standard of living and low crime rate. "And everything's on time. When a train is a few minutes late, people start stressing."

He has won a number of Japanese awards, including the 2006 International Cultural Foundations prize in Hiroshima, where he has been Artist in Residence. Living in that city, rebuilt since its almost complete destruction by an atom bomb in 1945, proved a strange experience. When he first arrived, he was struck by the way residents would ignore a ruined dome that somehow survived the bomb and has been preserved.

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"It doesn't mean anything to them on a daily basis, but I realised after being there for a few years that I was doing the same. No-one talks about the war. It's considered impolite to get into serious, deep conversations in Japan. People have asked me to do pictures of the dome, but I couldn't." He aims, he says, to paint beautiful scenes.

His pictures' delicacy of style doesn't necessarily mean economy of scale. Some of them are six feet wide, unusually big for watercolours, and take up to a month to complete. The bigger pictures tend to be sold to hotels and hospitals, and there's an unconscious financial incentive for painting on this scale.

Japanese buyers work in a logical way. They ask artists to cost a postcard-sized picture and use that price as a guide to the cost of the much larger picture they want, multiplying up by surface area. A bit like buying wallpaper.

Big watercolours, Matthew adds, present a challenge. "With watercolours, you can't cover up mistakes. With oils you can go over it again and again, but with watercolours you've just got one chance. If you make a mistake, you have to scrap it and start again."

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He exudes enthusiasm for painting, which started as a childhood hobby, and pays tribute to his Aunt Christine, who encouraged him to paint unorthodox subjects – "sheep's skulls and dead fish".

He adds that his Japanese girlfriend, Misato, has enjoyed her visits to Doncaster: "She thinks chip butties are fantastic."

You don't ask for those at Woods' Tea Rooms.

Gervase Phinn's Yorkshire Journey (Dalesman, 17.99). Matthew Phinn's website:

YP MAG 11/12/10