Most authors writing the biography of an artist have a straightforward task. The artworks are complete, and any meaning or symbolism embedded in art is fixed. It is slightly more complex if the artist is still alive and still producing new works, but a line can still be drawn.
Peter Le Vasseur and I began discussing the book that would become A Brush With Life in 2017. Many of his most important works are on ecological themes, some carrying subtle messages about humanity’s impact on the planet and some where the message is not so subtle. From the later 1970s Peter used to append commentaries on his works, citing the concerns his art expresses. These often drew in facts and statistics and projections available at the time, some of which stand up to scrutiny 20 or 30 years later, but others have proved wide of the mark. We have not yet, for example, reached Peak Oil as predicted in Time Limit (1979) but the rape of the rainforests as depicted in The March of Progress? (1984) continues to accelerate.
I began writing the text during the first Lockdown of 2019. The narrative explaining Peter’s charity artwork Lockdown (2020) had to be revised then revised again as the number of people falling sick and dying from Coronovirus climbed inexorably. It almost needed a real-time meter ticking upwards as the reader followed the text. A hundred thousand, a million…the editor and I settled on an estimate of seven million deaths by the time the final proof went to press. When the copies hit the bookshelves in summer 2022, estimates of world excess deaths were in the region of 15 million.
Deforestation has been a key theme of Peter’s work, with burning of primal forest at the forefront of concern. Of course, this is a sword cutting many ways as the loss of forest reduces the Earth’s ability to absorb carbon, whilst the burning and the farming that follows it adds to the carbon. I was chasing statistics to correct and modify Peter’s early gloomy predictions, but the picture regarding biodiversity loss is far worse than when he created works such as Taste of the Future (1992). I had to chase up-to-date figures on the surviving numbers of wild Tigers (4,500) and Rhino (18,000) to keep the text as accurate as a book for the non-specialist could expect to be. Positive conservation efforts mean these numbers actually went up in the four years it took to deliver the book.
The fires themselves made a bonfire of earlier drafts, especially the devastating fires in Australia, California, Canada and Siberia in 2019-2021. Peter’s work Inferno (2019) was an immediate response to these, added to the book late in the day together with the tragic estimate of 140 million animals lost to the Australian bush fires.
Peter’s rather playful Global Warming (1995) was painted at a time this was a theory embraced by a section of the scientific community and the hippie fringe of environmentalists. This is now a process widely accepted as a major cause of concern by world governments. Indeed, my editor proposed the modern term ‘Global Heating’ should be used to express how serious the situation is.
Later images such as Deluge (2021) used at the head of the blog and Réchauffement Climatique (2019) enter the realm of science fiction. The insidious creep of sea level rise is less dramatic, although the combination of higher tides, warmer oceans and a more energetic atmosphere seem to be the culprit behind more extreme weather events.
We became excited about launching the book in time for COP 26 and the fiftieth anniversary of International Earth Day in 2020. These anniversaries pass, the human population continues to grow, and ecological damage continues. COP 27 has just been concluded in a mixture of wrangling and face-saving compromises that paper over the cracks. Let’s cross out fingers for COP 28, 29, 30… Should Lutterworth Press come back in ten years’ time suggesting a reprint, updating the statistics could be a painful job. A Brush With Life is an art biography, not a climatic textbook, nor a polemic to beat climate change-deniers over the head with, but it is our hope that it will add its own small contribution to the argument that the Earth is worth saving.