Peter Miller’s landscapes, bales and rivers bring a slice of Yorkshire to Partisan café

The White Horse From Fields Near Kilburn, Summer 2020, oil painting by Peter Miller

FOR 40 years, Peter Miller ran Ken Spelman’s Bookshop, on Micklegate, in York.

Now, he is completing a hattrick of exhibitions since the bookseller’s closing chapter, retirement in 2012, on the same side of the cobbled street, at Partisan, Florencia Clifford and Hugo Hildyard’s vibrant artisan café on the same side of the cobbled street.

Filling the café’s upstairs walls with God’s Own Country colour, Peter is exhibiting From Kilburn To Hawnby, his series of landscape oil paintings of North Yorkshire, until November 30.

“This is the third show I’ve had in the last few years, after Ken Spelman’s Bookshop in 2014 and Scampston Hall, near Malton, in 2015,” he says. “As with the first two, the paintings explore landscape, in this case North Yorkshire.

At easel: Peter Miller at work on an oil painting in his studio. Note the angle of his chair

“The first one featured Eskdale to Scarborough; the second one, for Scampston Hall, focused on the Wolds, and what you notice is that Yorkshire is such a big county with these completely different landscapes.

“The pictures are representational and are painted in a modest spirit of connection with place, but as with all painting, colour, tone and composition increasingly have become the real subject of the pictures.”

Miller’s tale behind his latest show begins on the Wolds. “I was approached by Florencia and Hugo to do an exhibition because they’d been out to a mutual friend, Una McCluskey’s house, beyond Kilnwick Percy, with its fantastic view of the Vale of York,” he recalls.

“Some years ago, I did a picture of that view for Una for her kitchen, and when Florencia and Hugo saw it, they said, ‘gosh, who did that?’. I’d known them for a long time, and in fact they approached me before the pandemic, saying they’d love to host an exhibition of my work…but of course it then got put back.”

Boltby Scar, Summer 2020, by Peter Miller

Peter is an enthusiastic walker, blessed with a painter’s appreciation of landscape. “I’d done a lot of walks between Hawnby and Kilburn before the first lockdown, getting out and about, and then, in between lockdowns, I was able to refresh my memory of certain landscape scenes,” he says.

“I then did the paintings in my studio based on studies and photographs: Kilburn to Hawnby is an area I know well because I go up to Shandy Hall in Coxwold, where I’m involved with the Laurence Sterne Trust, and I enjoyed doing the studies in different seasons, such as studies of the White Horse in spring, summer and autumn.

“Put together, the pictures form a tangible evocation of time spent in the wonderfully varied Yorkshire landscape.”

Peter’s love of walking takes him to the Wolds most weeks, packing up a sandwich and stretching the legs over eight to ten miles. “It’s very seldom that we experience weather bad enough to make us abandon the walk; the Yorkshire weather is often better than people imagine, and walking over the landscape is very sustaining,” he says.

Hay Bales II, near Felixkirk, Autumn 2020, by Peter Miller

With that in mind, you might expect Peter to be a plein-air painter, but not so. “There are very strong arguments for plein-air painting, but I prefer to carry the scene in my mind’s eye, have it there and then re-create it, re-living the moment of being there, because it’s not just a picture of being there in the open air: it has veracity in paint and tone, and I find that being at one remove suits me better.

“Whereas with plein-air painting, the light is changing all the time and I would find that very distracting.”

Peter uses watercolours and acrylics for sketching but favours oils for his paintings. “I’ve never really mastered the watercolour technique, which is very difficult,” he says. “I find oil to be the most sympathetic medium because you can move it around on the surface; you can point over it, you can mix in, blend in, the oils, whereas with acrylics, the surface is dry within half an hour.

“I love how, with oils, you can paint in the sky and two days later you can feather it around and change it a bit. That freedom is not something I would want to give up. It’s such a satisfactory feeling working with oils, and then when it’s finished, you apply the varnish that gives it an intensity that rather flatters it.”

In the mix: Peter Miller mid-painting in oils

Born in 1947, Peter grew up in Chiswick. “But when I was a boy, I lived with my grandparents for three years in Blackpool; my grandfather was a commercial artist there but loved the countryside and I used to go on sketching trips with him,” he says.

“I learned the basics of paintings from this lovely old man, and that was my starting point. In fact I did think of going to art school, but I felt it would be limiting my options too much, so instead I studied history as a degree.”

Peter’s grandfather, meanwhile, has his own place in Blackpool’s history. “At the age of 75, he was called out of retirement to repaint the 4,000 square feet of the Tower Ballroom ceiling after the fire of 1955,” he says.

“He had to re-create The Carnival of Venice series of murals, going up 120 ft of scaffolding to start each day’s painting in his mid-70s, with only one helper to mix the colours. The mural now has a preservation order on it.

Hay Bales and Field, near Felixkirk, Autumn 2020

“He was also invited to paint a scene that could be seen behind famous Tower Ballroom organist Reg Dixon as he emerged from below, choosing to paint Isle Of Capri, in honour of Gracie Fields, who sang that sing.”

Peter first came to York in 1965, initially as an undergraduate at the then-new University of York, but like many since, he ended up staying, running Spelman’s, latterly in partnership with Tony Fothergill, until the canvas and cloth called.

“In that time, I’ve always had close links with the Friends of York Art Gallery, helped to set up a modern art gallery in Grape Lane and held regular art exhibitions at the bookshop from the late 1970s,” says Peter.

One such artistic association has come in handy for the latest exhibition. “Many of the frames were given to me by my artist friend John Langton, who’s now in his late-80s and no longer paints,” reveals Peter. “I availed myself of them and then did the paintings to fit the frames! It ended up being the cheapest exhibition I’ve ever done!”

Peter Miller: From Kilburn To Hawnby, Landscape Paintings of North Yorkshire, on show at Partisan, Micklegate, York, until November 30. Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 9am to 3pm; Saturday and Sunday, 9am to 4pm.

The River Rye at Hawnby, Early Autumn 2020, by Peter Miller