Meet the artist who paints Yorkshire versions of the Tower of Babel

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They feature some of Yorkshire’s most familiar – and not so familiar – landmarks. Matthew Ellwood talks to Sarah Freeman about his iconic Tower of Fable paintings.

Had things worked out a little differently, Matthew Ellwood could have ended up designing high-end furniture. It was what he studied at university in both Nottingham and Rochester, but then he had what he likes to call ‘his moment of career clarity’.

“I took part in a design exhibition which has been specifically set up for designers working in the same field. I really enjoyed the creative side, but almost immediately I knew that as a full-time job it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a furniture designer and the thought of working in that industry suddenly turned me a bit cold.”

With his carefully-mapped future suddenly wiped clean, Matthew moved back home to the North East and started to think what else he might do to pay the bills. It didn’t take long.

“Art has been the only thing I’ve ever been any good at, so I thought I might as well give it a go. I had a lot of time on my hands back then, so went out and produced a series of watercolours and had a go at selling them.”

As countless artists before him have discovered, it’s not easy to make a living from painting and, while lots of people said they liked his work and admired his technique, sales weren’t exactly brisk.

“To be honest they were non-existent. Being a watercolourist artist wasn’t going to butter the parsnips and once again I found myself going back to the drawing board. I became really frustrated and that’s when I was struck by the idea of creating my own version of the Tower of Babel.”

That famous Biblical story was about the building of a giant tower to reach the heavens. It told of people at first united and then divided by language and, the more he thought about it, the more Matthew reckoned the time was right for a new 21st century version.

His first painting, which featured landmark buildings he had grown up was a fairly dystopian affair. Surrounded by black skies, the structure looked like it was moments from toppling and the process of creating it proved suitably cathartic, if no more good for Matthew’s bank balance than his watercolours had been.

“It was my brother who suggested I should keep the idea of the tower, but I might want to lose the storm clouds if I was really serious about selling them. I wasn’t sure there would be a market for them, but I gave it a go and the demand was almost instantaneous.”

Having completed tower paintings of Newcastle and Sedbergh, in 2009 Matthew moved south to concentrate on Yorkshire, completing prints of York, the Dales, Harrogate and Knaresborough and the North York Moors.

“With each place there are some buildings that you have to include. Obviously I couldn’t do York without the Minster, Harrogate had to have the Spa and the Dales had to feature the likes of Fountains Abbey and Malham, but right from the start I was determined that these paintings shouldn’t just celebrate the obvious honeypot locations.

“I wanted to give people something to really look out. For tourists to the area I wanted the towers to be little maps of places to seek out and, for locals, I wanted to show that I had really got under the skin of the place.”

It’s why the Tower of the Yorkshire Dales includes the cricket ground in Settle, St Mary the Virgin’s Church in Ramsgill and the Muker Literary Institute.

“Whenever I am starting on a new print, I have a good wander around, I go to the tourist information and the local library, but to make the work really different I like to have suggestions from the locals.

“I want to know about the pub tucked away in the back streets that everyone who lives there knows about and the sports ground that is still part of the community and I want to know about the cafe which does the best English breakfast going. And it’s not just physical buildings, in some places it’s a clump of trees or a telephone box which is just as much as a landmark.

“An area like the Yorkshire Dales is huge. Ranging from the beautiful market town of Richmond in the north to the Leeds to Liverpool Canal in the south. From colossal abbeys to the tiny old AA boxes, just doing the research to get the final list of buildings takes weeks, months even.

“With that one I did my best to fathom the very confusing borders of the various different authorities and the expanding frontiers of the National Park. The last thing I want is for someone who has lived there for years to take one look and say, ‘Oh that’s a shame, you missed…’”

Each of Matthew’s tower prints, which are painted with watercolours, highlighted with fine liner ink, features up to 100 buildings and structures and getting the right formation is painstaking business.

“I generally start with what’s known as a wire drawing so I can try things out and move buildings around. Just like building an actual tower, it’s easiest to start from the bottom up and once you have some of the key landmarks in place then it gradually all comes together.

“The very first paintings I did I produced as limited editions, but it quickly became clear that I couldn’t keep up with demand. Now I don’t do the limited editions, but every few years I have promised myself that I will return to each place and do a new tower.

“I call it the Back To The Tower series and the idea is that it’s the reverse of what you saw on the original picture. While some corners of a town and city never change, there are always new places opening up and I think it is important to reflect that.”

While the tower paintings take up most of his time, Matthew has also produced another series of images inspired by fox hunting.

“Often I will get a phrase in my head and from that a painting will spring,” he says.

“A little while ago I couldn’t stop thinking of what happens when a fox ‘goes to ground’. I got out my pencils and drew a hillside with the figures of a hunt on top. Often you don’t see it at first, but when you look closer you see the ground itself is the body of a fox.

“Art should be about making people think, but I also want my work to make people smile.”

Matthew Ellwood will be appearing at Art in the Pen, Thirsk Auction Mart, July 21 to 22; Art in the Pen, Skipton Auction Mart, August 11 to 12. Anyone wanting to suggest locations for his new York tower painting can contact him through his website at matthewellwood.com