Walking round to Peter Messer’s studio on a winter-lit morning is rather like walking through one of his magical paintings – especially when he’s the figure perched at the end of it. I hugely enjoy our encounter. He’s fascinating on the subject of art, life, self and town. On his process.
He talks about how the little knot of Lewes he often concentrates on (which also happens to be where I live) has layers: both physically (it’s very hilly) and historically; as well, of course, as personally – as his days, years, decades unfold here.
I love the titles of his paintings – ‘A Very Human Scream’; ‘Trough People’; ‘Panic in the Farmers’ Market’ – and was struck to learn that a painting often starts, for Peter, with a word or phrase. (When we talk about this, he uses the word “sidelong” – “a sidelong phrase in a book”, he says. It’s a word which seems to me quintessentially Messer – even as he slides off into the world of working-on-one-of-his-paintings…) And yes, he loves books. He has, he says, been a “habitual reader – reading every day” since childhood. But it’s paint he turns to to tell his own stories: “I can deal with narrative quite happily in a painting.”
His studio is in Paddock Art Studios in Paddock Lane. His daily commute consists, famously, of a five-minute stroll up Castle Lane and down the other side. “I’ve spent time in Lewes for fifty years”, he says. “I went to school here, and moved in to live in the 1980s. Being here, I’m very aware of the layers of time, and how my own life has changed within the town.” He shares a “throwaway line” from a writer whose work he loves: Kate Atkinson. The line? “There is another world and it’s this one”. He also recalls a 1970s TV adaptation of Cider with Rosie: a boy Laurie Lee, a little drunk on cider, skitters past a man who turns to look back at him over his shoulder. The man, too, is Laurie Lee.
“I’ve always been self-absorbed”, Peter Messer smiles. He talks about how he’s always noticed: that he observes himself even as he lives through (grim, and other) times. And “Lewes is a great microcosm”. Most of all, he’s wrapped up in the physical, actual process “of making something really work” – and that’s from the raw ingredients.
He himself makes the gesso panels on which he paints, and the tempera paint, from raw pigment which he mixes with egg yolk. “It was a breakthrough for me, in my twenties, after Art College, to discover the medium. The minute I started using tempera, I found I could make my own marks.”
He talks about the “white, flat ground” of the gesso base, and how he – and it – works with layers; how sometimes he adds “big, broad-brush glazes”. How the figures – often solitary, or huddled in groups – appear, and how he also likes “the environment to do some of the work”. And he acknowledges the vital role of humour. “Life’s far too serious”, says Peter Messer, “not to laugh at”.