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A Journey to the Far East with a Paintbrush

‘Journeys’, a retrospective exhibition of paintings in Oxford University’s Wolfson College which roams from farming in Laos to noodle bars in Vietnam
David Pollock

"I enjoy painting people because you can read so much of them in their faces"

Esther Lafferty


After six years at the helm of the board of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival, Charlbury’s David Pollock is presenting ‘Journeys’, a retrospective exhibition of paintings in Oxford University’s Wolfson College which roams from farming in Laos to noodle bars in Vietnam, and brings the travels and temples, hopes and history, and the bikes and boats of another continent, to a gallery here in Oxford.


“My dad was an architectural technician with a very adept pen,” smiles David, “and my mother was an enthusiastic watercolourist, so I remember always drawing as a child, and I took art at A-level. Although I didn’t follow that up with any formal training, I carried on sketching and painting into adulthood. In my twenties I drew in any old sketchbook in ink and watercolour, and the pages would crinkle. Then on a train journey one day, by chance I sat with some architects who had these wonderful sketchbooks with beautiful heavy paper pages and at that moment I decided to use quality sketchbooks myself from that day forth. It made such a difference!” And having stayed true to his resolution, a selection of these sketchbooks makes up part of this exhibition, which records his travels over the past thirty five years.

“We used to go on family holidays when my children were small,” continues David, “in the UK and Europe, and to the US too, and then one year we went to Malaysia and that was it – I was hooked on Asia! I’ve been back many times since and I still find it fascinating. There’s such an amazing variety of different cultures, colour and exotica, and it’s incredibly visually stimulating.”

Sri Lanka is one of David’s favourite destinations and one of the pictures is developed from a detail of a sketch he made in 1996 of a ruined temple in the centre of the island. “I remember in particular the heat and the guardian, in a yellow sarong, explaining the details to us before slumping back to sleep! The flowers were white frangipani, but when I was in the studio, scarlet seemed good and I think perhaps the figures are my two children, as they were at the time.

“Another spot that I found completely unforgettable as a spiritual experience and absolutely compelling as a painter,” he continues, “were the Ghats – or steps leading down into the Ganges – in Varanasi in North India. They are the most irresistibly colourful celebration of life and death imaginable. I sketched a holy man with a rather fierce expression, and for the final painting of him, I needed to refer to my photos of him to capture his look.”

“Because my father spent time in Burma during the Second World War, it was a long-held ambition of mine to visit, and three years ago I finally spent a few days in Bagan. The temple in one of the paintings shows a site of archaeological significance that rivals Angkor Wat or Machu Picchu but it’s far less visited. Its name means The Donation of the Umbrellas and refers to the shape of the roof.

“My father thrilled me as a kid with stories of India during the war; and I was particularly fascinated by his photographs of the Himalayas taken from Darjeeling and the amazing narrow gauge Himalayan Railway that runs up the middle of the street there. One painting is of the train driver and his wonderful steam locomotive and it reminds me of the magic of my Pa’s stories.

“For some years Laos was my main destination; I collected and promoted tribal weaving from the country and lectured on it at Asia House in London. We went to some pretty wild places up around the Golden Triangle: I remember being woken up at 3am by the sound of hoofs and seeing a cavalcade of ponies and mules – seemingly hundreds – with full pack saddles heading south under a heavily armed guard. Like mosquitos and pigeons, they moved too fast to sketch!

“Another time I was staying in a tiny, spiritual jewel of a town with the most exquisite religious architecture, in a little hotel run by a princess who had miraculously survived the Pathet Lao purges and returned to her ancestors’ capital. Opposite, a gold stupa stood on a hill which also sported a rusting anti-aircraft gun. It was such a striking contrast and a stark reminder of Laos’ horrific experiences in the 20th century.”

Since retiring six years ago, David has taken the time to convert many of the drawings in his well-travelled sketchbooks into dozens of striking pictures that show clearly the vibrancy and spirit of the people and places he has found so captivating. “You can’t always complete a picture in situ in a market place,” he explains, “so, for example, I might have sketched something figurative in the moment which I have then worked from, along with a photograph, in the studio back at home.” Many of the images also include people. “I enjoy painting people because you can read so much of them in their faces,” David says.

The paintings are mainly in watercolour, as David particularly enjoys the serendipitous characteristic of this medium. “Watercolours create effects of their own accord which you can’t ever totally control and so I get great satisfaction combining these with the accuracy of observational drawing to produce the final image.”

Although the Far East figures strongly, ‘Journeys’ also includes paintings of Europe, and South and Central America too. Memories of Peru, Ecuador, and a more recent trip to the Galapagos Islands all make an appearance in an exhibition that traverses the globe with colour, energy and a sense of time gone by.


Journeys runs at Wolfson College, Linton Road, Oxford from 22nd October until 10th November

The Artweeks Christmas season of more than seventy art exhibitions and Christmas craft events runs throughout November and December. For further information visit artweeks.org


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