I’ve just been visiting my old friend, the American painter Bob Bradbury, at his daughter’s house in Soller. I have known Bob for twenty-five years now, and have visited him at least once in most of those years. Until recently, he lived entirely independently in his house in Deia, walking down to the same pine grove every day to paint. But a series of falls have meant that he needs a little more care now, and so he has gone to live with his daughter, concert pianist Suzy Bradbury, in the nearby town of Soller. While I was in Spain, an exhibition was held of Bob’s work at the Soller Museum. Bob and his late wife, the painter Dorothy Bradbury - who died, tragically, many years before him - spent the entirety of their lives painting and interpreting the Mallorcan landscape since their arrival on the island in 1950. During our recent conversations, Bob gave the following advice to be passed on to young artists: ‘Try drawing on the floor, as a child will draw - make your brush strokes as a child, and with no adult corrections. Don’t think while painting! Please the eye and the heart. If it’s not original, it’s not honest. Painting comes from the visual cortex, not the intellectual part. Work without aim - do not copy the styles of others. The artist needs to feel comfortable in isolation - free from the distractions of the outside world. Complete, in other words, within their inner world. Intelligence is saying nothing.’
Below is a small piece I wrote about Bob back in 2008, when he was a mere 95 years old.
Memoir Of A Friendship
Between American painter Bob Bradbury, and English author Mario Reading
It’s a rare occurrence for a friendship to be formed when the two protagonists are, respectively, 32 and 73 years old. And even rarer for that friendship to continue, unabated, for a further 22 years, so that the protagonists have now reached the rather more sedate ages of 54 and 95 (and rising). But this is the case with my friendship with the American painter, potter, and carpet designer Robert (Bob) Bradbury, who has been living and working in the same house in Deia for over fifty years.
From the very beginning, it was clear that Bob Bradbury lived and breathed for his art. During an untold number of extensive (and infinitely extensible) conversations, covering philosophy, writing, music, poetry, and art ranging from the Egyptian, the Coptic, and the Islamic to that of the present day, Bob Bradbury’s intensely personal theories of design were gradually clarified for me, until I slowly began to understand what drove him, and what underlay his continuous and often tortured reassessments of his own work.
Like the French post-impressionist painter Paul Cézanne, Bob Bradbury believes that nature must be the ultimate teacher, and that natural design factors most often divide into two sections, reflecting such things as night and day, life and death, sea and land, near and far, large and small, strong and weak – and that this dualism is ultimately reflected in all great non-conceptual paintings. Alongside Paul Cézanne, masters such as Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin took this dualistic concept of natural design and forged great art with it.
Two harmonious entities hover over all of Bob Bradbury’s paintings – namely ‘idea’ and ‘contrast’. When approaching a painting, he views the surface of the canvas as a plane, upon which colours contrast and suggest shape. To this extent he differentiates between ‘shape’ and ‘line’, viewing line as simply one dimensional, and only shape as having the capacity for the necessary transfiguration which turns design into harmony, and eventually into art.
As with music, Bob Bradbury believes that each force has an equal and opposing counterforce (what Bach might have called a counterpoint), and that in painting, these opposing forces must act planally, and fulfil their function as design factors. Each force must therefore be echoed by another force, finding a reflection of itself in neighbouring areas of the canvas. Transitional shapes (i.e. shapes that pass through one another) must inevitably be influenced by each other, and thus transmogrify into something of a different, yet intimately related significance.
Using the designs of the great Islamic carpet-makers as his benchmark, Bob Bradbury developed his theory of ‘carrying colours’, which comprise both colour and shape, reaffirming in this way the dualistic makeup of his great teacher – nature. Contrasts enrich, and the colour energy of a painting is crucial to its expression – allow that colour energy to weaken, and the painting loses harmony, becoming the equivalent of atonal. At this point the idea has won out over the design, and what has been produced becomes merely an intellectual exercise, and not capable of stirring the emotions on a deeper, more natural level.
To this extent Bob Bradbury believes that when viewing a painting, a carpet, or a piece of pottery, the dynamics of its design should become apparent considerably before the actual idea (or nominal subject matter of the painting) can be inferred. Thus trees, rocks, colours, and shapes become merely design factors, and no longer the pedestrian concepts by which we would customarily define them. The artist has transformed reality, in other words, whilst remaining true to its natural and native resonances. The artist has shucked off learned almost-truths, and can see once again with the wisdom and the perspicacity of a child.
Illusion, according to Bob Bradbury, is not the purpose of visual art. A painting must grow incrementally, and not as a series of separate entities to be gathered together and offered up like an à la carte menu to the gourmand viewer. As Paul Cézanne said: “I advance my whole painting together.” When this is achieved – and Bob Bradbury, although he would vehemently deny it, has achieved this in his finest paintings and carpet designs – the artwork becomes a living entity, changing and transmogrifying from day to day, at different times and with different lights and moods.
Modest to the point of self-effacement, and more likely to give his paintings and artworks away than to allow them to be sold, Bob Bradbury has viewed the last fifty years as a testing ground for his ideas. He approaches each work afresh, and with the enthusiasm of someone many – very many – decades younger. It has been my joy to talk and to correspond with him over these many years, and I think it would be fair to say that in all of my life, I have never encountered anyone remotely like him – or am likely to do so again.