Graeme Black is a portrait painter, not of people, but of the magnificent trees that surround his home on the banks of Semerwater in the Raydale Valley. “Part of being in one place is seeing the seasons change,” he says. “I kept going back to drawing the trees and the forests and landscapes and then honing in on that, doing studies of the bark.
“It’s snapshots as I am walking – I must remember the bright green of that lichen, and the orange – and capturing that on the canvas. I didn’t want to be naturalistic because I didn’t think that was enough – you’re trying to find a point of view, looking at something every day and looking at it in a new way. When you turn them round so they are horizontal, you no longer look at them as a tree, you look at them as a texture, and it does become a landscape or open to interpretation.”
The result is a series of large-scale, richly textured, oil-on-canvas paintings of trunks, bark, moss and lichen, studies that are both intimate and monumental, abstract and naturalistic.
Graeme moved permanently to North Yorkshire almost five years ago with his partner, interior designer Jonathan Reed, who is from Northallerton. In 2019, he stepped back completely from his career as a successful international fashion designer. Born in Dundee in 1967 and brought up on a farm in Carnoustie, he studied fashion at Edinburgh College of Art, then worked in London, first for John Galliano and then for Zandra Rhodes. He moved to Italy as design assistant for Giorgio Armani, rising to senior designer, then moved to Salvatore Ferragamo as creative designer until 2005, when he set up his own label while also acting as creative director for Hugo Boss.
“We have always had a little place in Yorkshire and gone back and forth,” he says. “We were based in London, and I was travelling for work, mainly in China. We found this place – it was an old hunting lodge. It was a year-and-a-half project, a labour of love.
“After years of running to the airports and doing collections and all that fashion business – which I loved and it was amazing – at a certain point I thought, is this my life forever?”
Graeme turned to the painting and drawing he had always loved. “It was a retraining,” he says. He studied portraiture with an artist in London. “He would say, ‘Stop, you’re not really thinking about it, you’re just moving stuff on canvas’,” says Graeme. “But ultimately, I have done it on my own and made my mistakes and given myself time.”
Graeme was more used to the hyperactive, fast world of fashion. “If you’re in a fitting, there are about 10 people there and they are all looking at you to direct, as creative director of this brand, and it’s an intense moment, pinning, tucking, thinking,” he says.
“Every company is very quirky. They have their own sense of what they are, who they are and what they want to be. Very often, I was the talent brought in from abroad to give them a different perspective, so there was a lot of onus on me to be not just creative and interesting, but also to sell. Once you have seen all the journalists and they have gushed about the fab things, then it goes in the showrooms and someone goes, ‘Meh, that green’s not going to sell…’”
Graeme’s first exhibition, his Trunk Show, opens this Friday at Messums in Harrogate, also featuring pieces by the Mouseman, Robert Thompson’s Craftsmen company.
Graeme often paints his trees as part of a set and says Jonathan has advised him to consider the space into which his art might find itself. “People buy paintings for a reason,” Graeme says. “They buy them for a home, put them in their space, and if it’s behind a sofa, a sofa is a certain length.” So the trees can be placed horizontally as well as vertically, to become something completely different, almost like a river flowing.
He seems glad he left the fashion world when he did, saying: “I feel we have got ourselves into a situation where there is so much of everything – too many collections, too many brands, too many people trying to get the same customer.
“The ecological aspect of it is bonkers. This idea that you buy something and the next minute it’s out of fashion, that is a redundant philosophy for me. If garments are cheap, somebody is not being paid.”
Understandable, then, that he wanted to go back to the land, not just through his painting but by rewilding the meadowland at his North Yorkshire home and planting 400 trees.
“For my 50th birthday I was given a small forest,” he says. “All my friends gave trees. We had an amazing planting weekend.
“My grandfather was a farmer, so I have always loved landscape and I lost myself in the city. It’s weird how you always come back to where you came from.”
Graeme Black’s debut exhibition, Trunk Show, will be on show at Messums gallery, 4-6 James Street, Harrogate, from Friday until June 19. His work can also be seen at GraemeBlack.com.