Portrait of the Artist as a Young Artist

Back in 2019 I was surprised and flattered when Guernsey-based artist Peter Le Vasseur asked me to write a book about his life and work. It has been a rewarding exercise but did not follow the path expected at the outset. Firstly, I left Guernsey to live in England at the end of that year. Most of the essential face-to-face interviews had been completed by that point, but it added complications when notes needed to be checked, especially on the earlier artworks which were less well documented.

And then came the pandemic and all bets were off. A Brush With Life was begun whilst Peter was within Guernsey’s self-imposed cordon sanitaire and the first draft was written during a nine-day quarantine as I waited to be allowed back to the island.

Peter had been a wartime evacuee, growing up in London of the nineteen fifties and bursting onto the scene as a young artist just as the sixties were starting to swing. His first major sale was to Beatle Ringo Starr, and he was invited to parties with leading artists and actors of the age. He dined with the aristocracy and was asked to paint their houses, in scenarios reminiscent of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited. However, as the anecdotes tumbled out during repeat interviews it became clear that I was not going to be writing a rock n’ roll biography full of drug-fuelled parties and affairs with models. Peter was no wild child and he saw attending social events as just part of the job for an artist building his career, not an end in themselves. He’d often leave early, and the actor Oliver Reed was one of the few stars of the age that he maintained a long-running friendship with.

Peter amended this sketch for a proposed Heineken advert in 1975 by adding himself and Oliver Reed as drinkers

Often the off-screen and off-page antics of larger-than-life artists push their achievements into the shade, but the focus of A Brush With Life could only be Peter’s artistic journey. More specifically how he came to focus on the natural world and the impact that humans have upon it ­– hence the play on words in the title.

What I know of the art world has largely come from conversations with artists and art curators, so when Peter first came up with the idea for the book, I made the point that I’m not an art historian. Indeed, I dislike art-babble and tried to eliminate it when we were mounting exhibitions at Guernsey Museum. Factual writers need to communicate in fresh engaging ways, not tie the reader up in knots trying to show off how clever we are. It turns out that Peter shares the same sympathies and found it amusing to have his biography penned by a thriller writer.

The most time-consuming part of the project was constructing a catalogue of Le Vasseur paintings, but this came naturally to an archaeologist. By the age of 82 Peter had produced a large body of art and had only maintained his own catalogue since the nineteen eighties; and then only of the larger pieces. Detective work was required to fill the gaps back to the ‘sixties, and even now the evidence remains incomplete. Some early exhibition catalogues survive, added to colour images of a selection of works from that era, but images of key pieces and even the titles of some remain to be rediscovered.

Page from the King Street Gallery catalogue of Peter’s sixth London exhibition. Word Cage depicts Peter trapped by newspaper buzzwords. It was revisited in 2020 as Lockdown for a charity auction.

During his career Peter has also completed a large number of small pieces of wildlife art, Guernsey scenes, illustrations for his wife’s children’s books and commissions such as stamp designs. We decided to leave almost all these minor works out of the catalogue and the book to concentrate on the art he is most well known for. Some winnowing of the major pieces was also needed to create a book people would want to read at a price they would be willing to pay and of a size Lutterworth would be willing to publish. I’ll discuss those left out in future blogs.

The book’s narrative therefore concentrates on the major artworks and the background to the themes that Peter has followed. The artist’s life is told via his art.

A Brush With Life: The Art of Peter Le Vasseur is now published by Lutterworth. 

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