50 years of painting the Black Country

Article by Brendan Flynn, Retired Curator of Fine Art, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Is 50 years long enough to capture the power and beauty of the Black Country landscape? Not for the artist Robert Perry who began the task at the age of nine and still feels as though he’s only just begun.

From his favourite vantage point on Turner’s Hill in Dudley, Perry has documented the landscape in all weathers and often at night when it is transformed into a realm of glittering light. He is a familiar sight to many residents of the area as he travels round in  his customised mobile studio, a converted Renault van equipped with its roof-mounted collapsible painting rig and a range purpose specific equipment he has designed and fabricated.

Once renowned as a region of grim, industrial sprawl the Black Country has a history and rugged beauty that has inspired artists since Victorian times.

Artists like R.S.Chattock (1825 – 1906) Edwin Butler Bayliss (1874 – 1950) and Harry Eccleston (1923 – 2010) portrayed the unique industrial scene in vivid paintings and prints so true to the character of the place that you can almost smell the smoke and hot metal.

Perry’s work is part of this time-honoured tradition though few of his predecessors embraced their subject with more passion and dedication.

Robert Perry was born in Brockmoor in 1944,  but at the age of 6 months moved with his parents to live in a small terraced house in Lawnswood Road near the Old Cat Inn at Wordsley. Here they lived with his grandparents, his aunt and a very old lady being cared for by Rob’s Grandmother. With seven of them living in a house with two bedrooms and a boxroom it was rather crowded but engendered that wonderful, intimate family spirit of togetherness experienced by so many families in the post-war period.  The blackout curtains, the smell of the open coal fire in the blackleaded grate, the grimy scent of his Grandfather’s overalls and the smoke from his “Woodbines” cigarettes which he lit up when he got home from his work at Round Oak Steelworks, form some of the indelible memories of Rob’s early childhood and formative years.

The 1950s were years of optimism and idealism. The lessons learned in the recently finished Second World War (during which Rob’s father had served in the Royal Navy) of community spirit, unselfishness and what can be achieved by “pulling together” were still strong, and the world was becoming a better place, with the establishment of the welfare state, the National Health Service, Education, old age pensions, and the taking into public ownership (nationalisation) of essential services for the public good, the coal industry, the railways, energy and transport industries, the waterways, steel production and so on. It was in this idealistic atmosphere that Robert Perry grew up. (see Rob’s Footnote)

When Rob was 5 years old there was great excitement as he and his parents moved into a BRAND NEW two bedroomed council house in Ryder Street, Wordsley, still within easy walking distance of his grandparents who remained a powerful continuing influence on him.

Living on the very edge of the Black Country gave Rob the best of both worlds. A “rough and tumble” childhood spent playing in and exploring the local woodlands, derelict buildings, culverts and scrap yards, cycling to “Tack Wood” Checkhill, Kinver Edge, Gothersley and Highgate Common or along the canal towpaths past foundries, glass factories, clay mines and steelworks engendered an enduring love of the Black Country and a curiosity and spirit of adventure which has never left him.”

His interest in art emerged from this fascination with his surroundings. He made his first “on the spot “ drawing (Landscape with Ashwood Waterworks) at the age of nine, in a sixpenny drawing book that he bought from Mrs Corbett’s corner shop. Making this drawing was a revelation to him “like being given a new pair of eyes” He continued painting and drawing local scenes and at the age of thirteen he gained a place at Stourbridge Secondary Art School.

Two of the most formative experiences of his life occurred at this time. One was reading “The Time Machine” by H.G.Wells, which awoke in him a sudden and dramatic awareness of the vastness of human imagination. The other was making his first real journey alone,  touring North Wales by bicycle. learning invaluable lessons of self reliance and independence of thought and action.

He moved on to train at Stourbridge College of Art and eventually became an art teacher, but always continued to practice and develop his own professional skills, drawing and painting the local landscape whenever time allowed.

Fellow students in the Painting Studio, Stourbridge College of Art 1963 (Oil)

The rear of the Danilo Cinema, Stourbridge. 1963 (Oil)

Rob’s commitment and determination are legendary. During the 1980s, he was a single parent, bringing up three young children and, with a full time job as Head of the Art Department at Redditch College, the only way in which he could continue to pursue his passion was to add a “night shift” to his workload. This punishing project consisted of working from midnight till 4.00am for a minimum of four nights of every week and was sustained for over seven years. Driving out in his “mobile studio” (which he had also adapted for family transport and camping) he would set up, with rear doors open, in various locations around Birmingham and the Black Country, making drawings and paintings which captured the stillness and eerie silence of the empty streets.

3.40am 22 October 1987. Ryder Street , Wordsley. Size A1. Conte crayon

12.25am 28 August 1987. Station Road, Brockmoor. Size A3. Conte crayon

3.00am 16 November 1988. Fog. Mount Road, Wordsley. Size A1. Oil

3.00am 18 October 1988. Stuart Crystal Glassworks. Size A3. Oil

Many people will remember the resulting exhibitions of “The Black Country at Night” at Dudley and Wolverhampton Art Galleries. (You can view BBC television footage made at the time by visiting his website www.robertperry-artist.co.uk )

He began painting full-time in 1990 and, strangely enough, the lessons and techniques he learned during this period of working in darkness stood him in good stead from then onwards when he commenced his exhaustive and continuing study of the First World War Battlefields, painting the remains of the trenches of the Somme, sometimes in open fields in daylight, sometimes in the haunted interiors of Aveluy and Mametz Wood in the hours of darkness or even deep underground in the chilling, labyrinthine tunnel systems of Verdun and Vauquois in the Argonne.  BBC and Television France 3 coverage of this aspect of his work can also be viewed on his website.

Robert Perry the lone traveller-painter loves wild places and his spirit of adventure has taken him to work high above the snowline in the Alps and the Pyrenees, the Dordogne Valley, the Spanish Plateau, the Forests of Fontainebleau, the Seine Valley, the Scottish Highlands and his beloved North Wales. He has worked at Auschwitz, Oradour-sur-Glane and D Day landings sites.

But always he returns to his native Black Country to confront an ever changing landscape which tests his skills to the limit and, even after half a century, inspires new ideas and techniques.
He continues to paint panoramic visions of the landscape from high vantage points, particularly Turner’s Hill and Darby’s Hill, Dudley, which afford views of vast areas of the Midlands. From Turner’s Hill to the West, the Black Country stretches away into the distance and beyond it you can see Clent Hills, the Severn Valley, the Malverns, the Clees and the Wrekin. From Darby’s Hill to the East, you look out over Tividale, West Bromwich. Birmingham and the Midlands Plateau with Sedgley Beacon, Bilston, Wednesfield, Barr Beacon and Sutton Coldfield on the horizon.

To capture the fleeting effects of light and weather he has to work quickly and decisively, using a wide range of techniques with paint applied by brush, spraygun (powered by a scuba diving cylinder), spattered, rollered and wiped across the primed board. At night he wears a miner’s lamp on site. These nocturnal and twilight paintings have a most intense, almost hypnotic quality with industrial estates and arterial roads bathed in sodium lighting and the streetlamps and house-lights twinkling far into the distance. With the daytime subjects it’s all about the weather and atmosphere – big cloud dappled expanses or approaching storms with tower blocks and factory chimneys gleaming in shafts of sunlight.

3.50pm 30 Jan 08. View North-East from Darby’s Hill, Dudley 36 x 96 inches. Oil


Footnote by Robert Perry
Sadly, this wonderful community spirit began to erode, almost imperceptibly, in the late 1960s and 70s but was dramatically accelerated by the political regimes of the 1980s when self-interest and avarice were re-classified from vices to virtues and the only criteria by which human endeavour was judged was how much profit it made.
The current state of chaotic financial hysteria and political impotence is , in my opinion, the inevitable result of the insidious dismantling of those post-war social values, by anonymous, vested interest groups. financial speculators and unprincipled manipulators, motivated solely by greed for money and power, answerable to no-one, hiding behind a cunningly constructed cloak of “respectability” and collectively known as “Market forces”


12DpA2xA0-05 1.00pm, 13 January 2012. View West from Turner’s Hill, Dudley. 17 x 48 inches. Oil


6.00pm, 19 January 2012. View East from Darby’s Hill, Dudley. 17 x 48 inches. Oil