'Timothy Spall: 'I was crying, swearing and chucking paint''

Anna Bailey, BBC News

LONDON — The award-winning actor Timothy Spall is known for playing the artists JMW Turner and LS Lowry on the big screen - and now he's become a painter in real life. 


During the pandemic Spall painted 20 works and is currently exhibiting them in his first solo show called Out Of The Storm at the Pontone Gallery in London. "It's very surprising, I'm not too sure who has done them," he says.  "It was some bloke who was a bit like me crying and swearing and chucking paint around a few months ago. But looking at them, they're probably alright."


The actor who starred in director Mike Leigh's film Mr Turner, and later Adrian Noble's Mrs Lowry & Son, was both "excited and appalled" when approached by the gallery's director Domenic Pontone to put a show together for his space. Pontone had spotted Spall's talent at an exhibition at The Lowry in Salford, where he was displaying some of his works to celebrate the premiere of Mrs Lowry & Son. Lockdown gave Spall the headspace to step up to Pontone's challenge.


"At first, I thought, 'What am I doing, how can I do this? But it's a bit like acting; you get a part and then you just have to go for it and graft and dig away." Spall spent seven days a week for six months mainly painting landscapes and seascapes from his home studio in central London. He was inspired by photographs of his travels around the world in the course of his film career, and when on his boat with his wife Shane. 


The exhibition also features two paintings off the coast of Margate, where Turner painted, but that is where the comparisons mostly end. Spall was determined to create his own style and step out of Turner's shadow after playing him. "One of the hardest things to achieve is your own voice," he says. "I felt like a snivelling worm in comparison to Turner's greatness, but using acrylic helped. "It dries really quickly and is water soluble, so it makes you get on with it and you can alter it."


Many of Spall's paintings have a personal story behind them including The Guarding Bow Wave which captures his experience running into choppy waters in the Baltic Sea, and Harbouring A Sadness, based on a photo he took when his mum was nearing the end of her life in a care home. 


There is humour too. One painting features a dog-litter bin in front of an idyllic sunset. "When I was painting this, my mood was far more akin to the dog bin than the sky. I've always liked the absurd in the profound," he says.


Spall showed early signs of a gift for painting. He grew up by the River Thames in Battersea, south west London, and always enjoyed art at school, where he was awarded grade A at A-level. His mum was also a "good watercolourist," but Spall dithered between a career in acting and being a surrealist, and at one stage even toyed with joining the army.


"Twice a week I was Corporal Spall in the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment Club (cadets) on Lavender Hill. But I only wanted to be a soldier because I liked dressing up as a soldier, I certainly didn't want to kill anyone." He cites the works of surrealists like Max Ernst and Salvador Dali with his lobster telephone as early inspirations. Yet when he performed as the lion in a school production of the Wizard Of Oz, his drama teacher suggested he should join what she called the "horrible business" and that is the direction his career took.


After attending the top acting school Rada, Spall performed for The Royal Shakespeare Company before becoming a UK household name in the 1980s TV drama Auf Wiedersehen Pet. He later became one of director Leigh's go-to actors, with roles in his gritty urban dramas Life Is Sweet and Secrets And Lies, and the Gilbert and Sullivan musical film Topsy-Turvy. Greater international fame followed when Spall played Winston Churchill in The King's Speech and Peter Pettigrew (Wormtail) in the Harry Potter movies.


But it wasn't until he was on the set of Leigh's Mr Turner that he started to paint again. "Mike Leigh went to art school, and I think he knew I had a feeling for it. And that's what started my route to being in this gallery," he says.


For two years Spall learned how to paint like Turner under the guidance of artist and teacher Tim Wright, who provided him with a "foundation course," in classical art. This culminated in 60 paintings, including a reproduction of Turner's masterpiece Snow-Storm - Steamboat Off A Harbour's Mouth. 


By the time Spall played Lowry he knew art was more than just a hobby and wanted to take it seriously. "Like with acting I just felt compelled to do it," and, as with playing a character, "There are so many layers to a painting," he says. "Acting's also collaborative and it's very convenient to blame other people if it's going badly, whereas with painting you've got no one else to blame but yourself."


This is not the first time Spall has undergone a transformation. At the age of 39 he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and at one stage was given just three days to live.  But having recovered, he immediately wanted to explore his "obsession" with the sea and boating and bought a 30-year-old canal boat.


He also lost a lot of weight as he wanted to feel healthier and physically better about himself. It paid off and he started to land more lead roles, including Lowry. "I was always a funny looking character actor with the lead man inside me and it's taken me a long time to do that as well," he says. "I've even played a couple of wrinkly romantic rom-com characters."


Spall often paints on film sets in between takes but doesn't think he will be creating portraits of his fellow actors any time soon. He would rather leave that to artists like his son Rafe Spall's "very accomplished" mother-in-law, Susanne Du Toit, who won the BP Portrait Artist Of The Year award.


When it comes to reviews, he questions whether his show will be of interest to the critics but believes "they're entitled to say what they like". And in reality, "it's just a load of colours flung up with a stick with some brushes on the end".


In the future, he would love to play another artist, especially William Blake. "He was a great scientific mind as well as a great artist and poet. I find the whole spiritual side of him fascinating and he was an artist from humble stock." 


If Spall was a painting, he says he would probably be a tatty picture on the BBC TV antiques programme Flog It! "Something you find in the attic that keeps getting rediscovered and sold again." Or else Turner's Snow-Storm - Steamboat Off A Harbour's Mouth, "because I'm always out there struggling away, trying to get into the harbour".

June 19, 2021
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