The Class Connection: Graham Rust

Graham Rusts iconic book The Painted House gave trompe loeil to my generation of decorative painters. There are very few of us who have not been inspired, influenced, or just plain copied his work. After many years of requests, Graham finally started teaching classes this year at his lovely English countryside studio. He selects his students and limits class size to 6. Here he tells us in his own words the winding path Graham Rust took to become Graham Rust.

Who taught you?

I attended art schools in London and New York studying fine art and graphic design. I had several good tutors notably Miss Flora Ogilvy for flower painting. However, I was not taught mural painting. It was something that I studied and worked on by observation in England and Italy.

Having latterly studied graphic design at The Central School of Arts & Crafts in London I interrupted my course – after a year to spend some time in New York. This idea was prompted at the suggestion of a young American (we were both staying with mutual school friends in Germany the previous summer). Douglas suggested that I join him to share an apartment on the upper east side belonging to his elderly aunt who was away in Vermont. My father opposed this plan and put pressure on me to finish my course at The Central however I was determined to see the New World and duly set sail for New York aboard the SS. Aurelia in 1961. After spending three months traveling north, to canoe in the Canadian lakes and then through the southern states to Florida I finally ran out of money and had to get a job.

I had various letters of introduction and ended up working in the art dept. of a small advertising company on Fifth Avenue belonging to the uncle of school friend. Andy Warhol used to drop by with line drawings for various ads. – before he was famous I wish now that I had held on to one or two! This job lasted for six weeks – then I got another job in a studio in the garment district designing dress fabrics and through this was introduced to a greetings card company that proved to be quite lucrative.- however again after several illuminating weeks it came to an end and I was not sorry to leave this Dickensian outfit.

Then through a friend of a friend of my father I was offered the job of assistant to the art director of Architectural Forum – one of the magazines belonging to Time Inc. I spent a very happy couple of years there on the 19th floor of the Time Life Building watching the ships coming and going from the docks in lower Manhattan. Eventually wanderlust got the better of me and due to a personal tragedy I decided to pick up sticks and head for South America. After three months in Central America international events indicated that it was time to return. Firstly President Kennedy was assassinated while I was in Havana – and then the revolution broke out when I was in Panama City the day that I had the opening party for an exhibition of my drawings and water colours not the most auspicious start to my painting career.

I returned to New York for a while to study painting at The National Academy – before finally setting sail for England. On my return I lived in London in Chelsea and set about trying to get commissions. I decided to concentrate on painting country houses as architecture has always been a great interest combined with a few portraits and the odd flower study. Work was slow to come in but I survived and a few months later I moved to a new studio in South Kensington. In order to drum up some commissions I decided to give a drinks party. Lamenting to a friend that I had few paintings to hang on the bare walls she suggested that I paint one of the walls. It was about 20 x 9’, – I finished it in two days – the quickest mural that I have ever painted! However, two things emerged one was that I found that I liked painting on a large scale the other was that it resulted in my first mural commission ie. to paint the entrance hall of their London house -for two of my guests the late Earl and Countess of Clanwilliam.

Other commissions followed and eventually by chance I was offered the post of Artist in Residence at Woodberry Forest School in Virginia. Once again I set sail for the United States – this time on the final voyage of the RMS Queen Mary and spent a very happy year at Woodberry giving a lecture once a week on the history of art and working on a mural, with the boys help, in the schools new arts centre.

It was during this time that a friend the late Marquess of Hertford came out to Washington for a few days on business for the British Tourist Authority. At the weekend he came down to Orange County to see what I was up to. This visit resulted in Hugh and his wife Louise asking me to paint the north staircase hall at Ragley Hall, their magnificent Palladian house near Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire. It was Louise who eventually persuaded Hugh that I should paint the identical south staircase hall – as she said you cant condemn the poor boy to five years in the north hall for which I was eternally grateful as it ended up taking fourteen years. I started work at Ragley in 1968 – and completed the painting in 1983. In between I worked on other mural commissions as well as holding exhibitions of paintings done on my travels to foreign parts. On average I spent one week a month at Ragley. It became a second home to me.

It is always interesting, with hindsight, to plot how things came about however I have always felt chance and luck play a great part.

Who inspires you?

I was inspired by the old masters ie.Rubens, Michaelangelo,Tiepolo Bernini as well as Georg Ehret, William Blake, Turner – to mention but a few. The greatest inspiration is nature and the human spirit manifest also in music and writing. As they say travel broadens the mind. I am lucky to have travelled a fair bit over the years and have always found that new ideas develop from things that I have seen or experienced.

What do you get out of teaching ?

I enjoy meeting new people – exchanging ideas and sharing my experience. It is also rewarding to be able to help others along the way.

What is your favorite project or technique?

Variety is what spurs me on. I enjoy working on large mural projects from time to time (I have four ceiling paintings on the go at the moment) but I also like working on easel paintings book illustrations,painting plants and flowers as well as writing designing and gardening.

How have your projects/products changed in the last 5 years?

My projects are always changing/different – I find it boring to keep repeating myself.

Please describe your classes/schools including the practical applications to what you are teaching.

Apart from the before mentioned stint at Woodberry I have more recently given workshops in Italy (at Lodi near Milan) as part of the International Festival of Trompe LOeil but decided to hold my own workshops here in Suffolk several years ago after receiving so many enquiries as to whether I ever gave lessons. Unfortunately they have taken rather a long time to materialize. I felt that if I did not bite the bullet now I never would. Please see the description in the workshop brochure on my website

Anything else you think is important or interesting about your business or the industry please talk about.

I think that it is most important to make people think and use their imagination – but also to be measured in their approach and able to communicate their ideas clearly both verbally and visually. Too few seem able to produce a scaled design both to show a client and to work to with the result that they waste an awful lot of time rectifying mistakes.

Did the process of writing a book change you as a artist and teacher?

Writing a book certainly concentrates the mind.

Indirectly I suppose the books have brought commissions my way – and I hope that they have been useful to inspire ideas in other people nothing is new in this world only a new approach. I am sure that many people as have I find the germ of an idea in the work of others and are able to develop it from there.