Ashley Jackson: My life in art (Video)

Ashley Jackson is in his 70th year. He talks to his biographer Chris Bond about his remarkable career in art.

Sitting upstairs in his bijou gallery in Holmfirth, Ashley Jackson is in fine fettle.

His frame may be a little more portly these days, but his tanned appearance and undiminished energy are as good an advertisement as you're likely to find for spending your time in the great outdoors.

"I'm a Wuthering Heights man," he says, answering a question about why in his paintings it's either raining, about to rain, or just finished raining. "I could make more money now if I did sunny paintings, but to me rainy scenes have more atmosphere. I don't like painting on bright sunny days because it flattens the light.

"I first saw Turner's work in books when I was about 14 and I could see he chased light and that's what I try to do. I don't want to paint pictures for the coach tour crowds."

Since quitting his sign writing job in Barnsley in the mid-1960s, Ashley has become a household name, not only in Yorkshire where his brooding moorland scenes have become his calling card, but also to all those visitors who, like him, were bewitched by this beguiling landscape.

Over the past six decades Ashley has had exhibitions all over the world and 2010 is another big year for the self-styled "Yorkshire artist". He has already enjoyed a two-man exhibition with his friend, Barnsley sculptor Graham Ibbeson, and in October he has a one-man exhibition at the Mall Galleries near Buckingham Palace to mark his 70th birthday.

Before then comes the publication this month of his biography which weaves together his remarkable life story – a story I discovered to be full of incongruities. The straight-talking Yorkshireman with the flat vowels was born, not in Barnsley but in relative luxury in the Far East and he was nine years old before he even set foot in God's Own Country. But if his early childhood sounds idyllic, it masks a darker wartime truth. The family was shunted between Singapore, Malaya and India, while Ashley's father spent much of the war in a Japanese PoW camp where he was forced to dig his own grave before being executed.

Ashley's love affair with the Yorkshire landscape began almost from the moment he first clapped eyes on it.

"I remember arriving in Linthwaite with mum and my step-father and looking out over the Colne Valley watching the trains. They were like little toy trains going along the valley and past the mills with the moors in the background. Religious people often say they 'saw the light' and that's what it was like for me with the Pennine hills. I was drawn to them.

"I've never seen a stretch of land like the Pennines. If you go to the Scottish Highlands or the Welsh mountains they have peaks, whereas the Pennine hills don't. A lot of people paint the pretty Yorkshire villages which are lovely, but to me they're manicured whereas the moors, they're wild and empty. You have big skies and flat moorland and it's very difficult to paint this landscape without making it look flat and that's what still intrigues me."

These days his works can fetch as much as 40,000, but back in the late 1950s watercolour painting was widely regarded as a dying art. The following decade saw the emergence of Pop Art where the ethos seemed to be the brighter the better. So what chance did a young watercolour artist from Barnsley have of making a living painting rain-soaked moorland scenes?

"When I kicked off at art school a lot of people painted in oils, but I wanted to be the best watercolour artist I could be. People said I'd make more money painting in oils, but it's the challenge of watercolours that I love and I want any of my paintings to be able to go in a gallery against an oil painting and be just as powerful.

"I always remember LS Lowry telling me, 'If you can paint with watercolours, you can paint in oils; but just because you can paint in oils doesn't mean you can paint watercolours'."

Ashley's paintings have, in some people's eyes, almost become a brand – the glowering, angry skies and melancholy landscapes. Yet his works and the stillness required to create them are seemingly at odds with the gregarious character holding the paintbrush. Art, though, has always been a release for him. It was as a teenager dreaming of his future that he first scribbled in his sketchpad a mantra he has repeated many times since – that he wanted to do with a brush, what the Bront sisters did with a pen.

He has spent much of his life proving people wrong, whether it's his step-father, or those critics who said he'd never make it as an artist. This perhaps explains why he revels in his outsider status from the art establishment and the "pseudo-intellectuals" as he calls them.

Princes and Prime Ministers now own his work but so, too, do many more ordinary people. His TV series A Brush With Ashley ran for the best part of a decade and the reason it was so popular is he made painting accessible. His attitude was that anyone could be a decent amateur and take as much enjoyment from painting as he does.

Even now, after more than half a century during which time he's endured the worst the weather gods can throw at him, he still goes gallivanting around the moors trying to perfect his art.

"I'm still hungry and I still have that love affair with mother nature. I'm always practising my drawing technique but some days I'll go for a walk on the moors just for the pleasure of sitting down somewhere, having a sandwich, and thinking, 'Wow, look at that'."

Ashley Jackson – An Artist's Life by Chris Bond, is published by Pen & Sword Books, priced 25. To order a copy from the Yorkshire Post Bookshop, call free on 0800 0153232 or go to P&P is 2.75.