Jonathan Newdick, artist and illustrator graduated from the West Sussex College of Art in 1971 and started his career as a designer in Fleet Street. He soon returned to his native Sussex countryside, where he worked as a typographer and book designer as well as a visiting lecturer at the London College of Printing. In 1990 he was awarded a Master's Degree in the Cultural and Critical Theory of British Art from the University of Sussex. He has had exhibitions at the Barbican, Pallant House Gallery and San Tommaso, Venice to name a few. He was Artist in Residence at Petworth House in the late 1990s and is currently Artist in Residence at Chichester Cathedral. Operations Manager Clare Clinton talked with him about his work at West Horsley Place. 

CC- How did you come across West Horsley Place?

JN- There was a violin player – I don’t even remember her name – she was living close to me in Petworth for a while and she had played at West Horsley Place. She said to me one morning “You would love it there. It’s just your sort of place.” Well, I was busy and didn’t think much more about it. People frequently say that sort of thing to me and often there’s nothing in it. Then a little later I had a chance encounter with a Country Life in the waiting room of a dentist and there it was again – West Horsley Place and I thought it would be cavalier to ignore two prompts. By chance I have a friend who knows Bamber Gascoigne and he gave me his address. When he replied to my suggestion that I might make some pictures there his letter was kind and welcoming. I was to get in touch with you, he said. At the time I was (still am) working as artist in residence – more accurately artist out of residence – at Chichester cathedral recording the progress of its re-roofing. But it’s all hi-viz jackets and hard hats and health and safety and it all gets in the way of creativity. Good views though. Isle of Wight in a clear day. As a contrast, Bamber Gascoigne’s attitude, and yours, while by no means irresponsible, was far more relaxed. I could work here, I thought. And so it proved.

CC- What else attracted you to working here? 

JN- Well, yes, as I have said, the relaxed atmosphere is important. But of course, that alone is not enough. It’s the gorgeous brickwork of the house – the fact that it isn’t what it appears and it hides practically a forest of ancient carpentry. The redundant farm buildings which are, for me, always a pleasure. I think I probably look at them in the way nineteenth-century romantics would. John Sell Cotman, Cornelius Varley, people like that. People whose tradition would be continued in the next century by Raymond Cowern and Wilfred Fairclough. Louisa Puller also. It’s an awfully long way from the avant-garde but I don’t think I mind that. The avant-garde seems to have lost its way – but then if it is doing what it is supposed to do and commenting on society as a whole it’s probably doing a pretty good job. But I don’t want nihilism now. I think I want reflection. And quiet. Quiet’s important.

CC- I feel that West Horsley Place is a place that provides tranquility and reflection. How would you describe the atmosphere?

JN- I was brought up in a semi-detached farm cottage. A bath once a week in a tub in the kitchen. And yet, when I open the door of West Horsley Place I feel as if I have come home after a long time away. I don’t think I can say any more really. That probably says it all.

CC- I agree. Even on the darkest and coldest days, West Horsley Place is welcoming (even without heating). Pevsner described it as 'an atmosphere of happy domesticity. . . Versailles is a very long way away.' Are there any particular buildings or architectural features here that you particularly enjoy?

JN- Oh gosh. Not really. I mean there is nothing here (so far anyway) that disappoints. I love early timber framing so your small 3-bay barn is a joy. It isn’t just the structure which, when reduced to two dimensions on paper, becomes a sort of abstract design. It’s also my admiration for that level of engineering in timber. The instinctive skills of those craftsmen. They permeate my drawing and help it along. It has a lot to do with wisdom and little to do with being clever. You once took me up into the roof space of the house to see the early timber construction there and I am looking forward to getting up there with my pencil and paper. Could be difficult. And the famous brickwork of course. You can’t ignore the brickwork. And there are all those details, insignificant really, but it is their very insignificance that makes them significant. 

CC- Yes, your eye seems to focus just as much on the mundane everyday objects in view as well as the buildings. Why is this important to you?

JN- Well, I wouldn’t say “just as much” but as I said, I enjoy the significance of the insignificant. I think it’s a bit like being a travel writer – you don’t write about the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, at least, not if you’re any good you don’t – that’s postcard Paris. No, you go and poke about in the eighteenth Arrondissement and see what you can winkle out there. I don’t consciously go looking for what you call the mundane but I think I am always looking, and prepared to give anything a chance.

CC- What is it about vulnerable buildings and structures that attracts you as an artist?

JN- As I said earlier, I seem to be continuing a romantic tradition. I enjoy the combination of the man-made and the natural – ivy creeping over a barn is the obvious example. Of course, the man-made is natural too: we are just another species after all, although we do try and isolate ourselves from the rest of nature. Most of us anyway. But I like the idea of the rest of nature disagreeing with that isolation.

CC- Though made with a high degree of accuracy and detail as recordings, the drawings are infused with feeling. Is this something you are conscious of while working?

JN- No, it’s not something I am conscious of. In fact I think it’s true to say that I’m not really conscious of anything while I am drawing. Sometimes I am sitting on my little folding stool and it begins to rain but I might not notice until I realise my paper is wet. I think it’s nature again and I seem to become a part of the nature I’m drawing. (And by nature I mean anything from a pile of bricks to an open landscape – it’s all nature). I think – and this might sound presumptuous – I am contributing something to the nature I am studying. For me this is a difference between what I do and taking a photograph. With the camera there is always the lens and a little piece of machinery between the eye and the subject. Intrusive. The words we use say a lot. I mean we ‘take’ a photograph but we ‘make’ a drawing. One is a theft and the other creative. Of course, any self-respecting photographer is going to disagree but that’s the way I see it.

CC- Do you have any plans for the beautiful drawings you are making here?

JN- Well, it’s generous of you to describe them that way. I hope they are. They are not easy to do. It would be much easier (and far quicker) to make a set of pretty watercolours. But I like to limit myself. To produce as much as I can with as little as possible. Just a pencil or a silverpoint. It seems sometimes like trying to service a fighter jet with a box of spanners from Halfords: possible, perhaps, but a struggle. So yes, after all the work I think it would be fitting to collect the drawings into a book. Perhaps a beautifully made edition of say, 25 copies with a further few hundred as a trade edition. Publication to coincide with an exhibition at West Horsley Place if you can find somewhere… But I’m getting carried away. We’ll see. There’s still a lot of work to do. 

CC- That sounds splendid, something we can all look forward to. Thank you for sharing your experience with us. May your next visit be a sunny one!