Test 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.