Work in progress

Sam Dalby with his new oil portrait of Alan Bennett
Sam Dalby with his new oil portrait of Alan Bennett
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Sam Dalby swaps his paintbrushes to pursue an ambition. Terry Fletcher talked to him.

A painter and decorator puts aside his pasting table at the end of the day to capture the faces of the characters of the Dales on canvas. Sam Dalby has worked for ten years at his trade and now hopes that his fine art career might take off thanks to a new showcase opening for his work. “I know I have to spread my wings,” says Sam.

For an artist growing up in the shadow of two of Yorkshire’s most distinctive hills landscape painting might seem to be an almost unavoidable path. But the eyes of Sam, a vicar’s son, have lighted on the characters that populate the Dales rather than the shapely hills and valleys that surround him every day.

Although still based in Settle, Sam, raised in the shadow of Ingleborough and Penyghent, says that he is never tempted to try to capture the beautiful views that wait seemingly round every corner. “I prefer painting people and studio work suits my temperament better. With a landscape you get half way through it and the clouds change or the light goes or it starts raining which must be very frustrating. Besides, there have been so many fine landscape artists in the Dales that I’m not sure what I could add that is new.”

However, portrait painting also has a long tradition in the Dales as is proved in Sam’s new exhibition which runs at The Folly in Settle.

Sam is also conscious of the tradition of portrait painting in the Dales and scoffs at suggestions that today’s generation lacks the characters of the past. “Anyone who says there are no characters around these days is not looking hard enough or perhaps has no idea of what a character is. This area is full of people with fantastic stories to tell.”

Telling those stories, he says, is the true role of the portrait painter and it takes time not only to tell them but also to tease them out of his sitters in the first place.

He said: “It is not just a question of reproducing a likeness of a sitter. A camera could do that. The artist is an interpreter rather than just a reporter. As an artist you have to capture something of a person’s essence too and that takes time, building a rapport with your subject. In the time it takes to take a photograph I would barely have sharpened my pencil.”

Sam likes to work with his subjects over a couple of sittings, each lasting around two hours. During that time he will chat with them as he produces a detailed sketch which will form the basis of the finished portrait, to be produced in oils in his studio.

He said: “As you draw someone you are also trying to understand them. Sometimes it is like solving a puzzle, getting to the heart of a person. There are all sorts of clues, not just in the things they say but also even in the way they sit or hold themselves, especially as they start to relax and you see more of the real person. With the sketch complete it can take another couple of months to produce the finished portrait, letting the information and impressions percolate through to the brush,

“In some ways it is not too far removed from caricature. You are looking for what makes that person who they are, except as a portrait painter you do not exaggerate things. But you do amplify the characteristics you think are important. That is something a camera cannot do.

“I don’t set out to flatter my subjects. I think it is important to be honest to your subject. Some people are a bit nervous when I ask them to sit for me but it helps that I’m a local. My father was Vicar of Austwick and I went to Settle High School. Even if they don’t know me personally they will probably know someone who does. Settle’s not a big place.”

Sam’s growing national reputation also helps. After leaving Settle, he studied for a year at Harrogate when there were three life drawing tutors, before going on to university in Cleveland, where he admits he slightly lost his way and left “rudderless”. It was his old art teacher from Settle, Peter Huby, who helped him discover his love of portraits and suggested a Millennium Project painting local people. A portrait of Peter, who now lives in Greece, features in the current show. Sam had a portrait selected from thousands submitted, for the BP Award exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 2003 and his work also featured in Royal Society of Portrait Painters shows in 2010 and 2011. His most recent work is a portrait of playwright Alan Bennett painted specially for the Folly Exhibition. Bennett, who has a home in nearby Clapham is president of the trust which owns the Folly.

“That felt quite pressurised because everyone was waiting for something special to come from it. He has not sat for many portraits so it was a great privilege. He was very generous, sitting for me twice. I actually finished the painting at 9am on the morning of the show. I hope he likes it,” said Sam. The original drawing of Bennett is being sold through sealed bids to raise funds for The Folly, a 17th Century Grade 1 listed building, at the end of the show.

Does Sam like it? It’s probably too early to be sure. “When you have just finished a painting you are too close. It can take a year or more to get a perspective. Some you really liked, you go off, maybe because they came a bit too easily while others you had to work at and fight for grow on you. Time will tell.”

Sam’s exhibition runs alongside an exhibition of original portraiture and artwork from more than 70 years of Dalesman magazine. Anne Read, Curator of the Museum of North Craven Life at The Folly, said: “The two exhibitions complement each other perfectly and both are firmly rooted in the Craven area. Sam’s portraits continue a tradition established by The Dalesman in its earliest years of showcasing the lives of notable local residents.” Sam’s portrait of former Dalesman editor Bill Mitchell featured in the exhibition neatly cements the link between the two shows.

Portraits by Sam Dalby and Off the Page, the Story of Dalesman magazine run at The Folly, Settle, until July 1. Telephone 015242 51388 or 01729 822361. Sam Dalby’s work can also be seen on