How Jake Attree is taking inspiration from two Yorkshire rivers for his latest exhibition

Artist Jake Attree.
Artist Jake Attree.

Jake Attree is one of Yorkshire’s best-loved painters. As a new exhibition of his work opens, Julian Cole met him.

Jake Attree has filled many sketchbooks in his 65 years. So let’s turn the tables and sketch the York-born artist in words. Jake is quite short and slight, amusing, a teller of tales and a good mimic too. He is down to earth in a no-nonsense Yorkshire way and yet can quote assorted artists and writers at the drop of a pencil, for his cheery bluffness masks a mind bright with knowledge about art.

He seems relaxed but is anxious about getting things right. There is a lightness about him and a heaviness too, if that is how you wish to portray seriousness of intent. For Jake, a painter’s painter, is entirely serious about his art. He has other pursuits, such as listening to music – Bob Dylan is a favourite – or spending time with Lindsay, his wife of nearly 40 years. But ultimately he is dipped in paint deeper than his brushes have ever been.

Jake works in a studio at Dean Clough, Halifax, a long and narrow room filled with light from the windows along one wall. Paintings are propped on easels, waiting to be completed. Sketches fill some gaps, paints and brushes fill others.

As we sit in this crowded but tidy space, Jake tells me that he failed the 11-plus and went to Danesmead Secondary Modern School in York. After York School of Art, he left aged 18 for art college in Liverpool, and after that studied at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Jake grew up in Grange Garth in York. His sister, Judith, still lives 10 doors from where they were born and raised. His father, Noel, was brought up by his grandmother in the Red Lion pub in Merchantgate; and his mother, Mary, was from Leeman Road.

“Lower-middle class, working class people,” says Jake. “They worried about me being an artist, but they were supportive.”

The artistic glimmerings were there at an early age, as suggested by a discovery made after his mother’s death.

“My sister was given a book by my father’s mother, so our grandmother, it was a fairy story book called The Milk White Thorn,” says Jake. “It somehow got back to my mum’s house, and getting rid of my mum’s effects, my dad, my sister and I, we came across this book.”

The family home looked across to the tall Victorian houses in New Walk Terrace. When he was three or four, Jake had a recurring dream that those houses were on fire. “There were people screaming and trying to get out the gate at the back,” he says.

When the fairy story book was found, they saw that the young Jake had filled in the blank pages. “Looking through these drawings I’d made, I found I’d drawn the dream, which was kind of weird and interesting.”

Although he hasn’t lived in York for years, he often visits friends and family in the city, and has felt compelled to paint York many times.

“I think there are certain kinds of artist, two of whom are a massive influence – John Constable and Paul Cezanne – to whom the place of birth was very important,” says Jake. “York’s been emotionally very important to me.”

Jake’s latest project is A Small Box of River, a collaboration with Robert Powell, former director of Beam in Wakefield. Robert is a poet who now lives in York.

They met when Jake was showing at the New School House Gallery, in the city, and talked about working together. This led to a series of walks along the Ouse and the Foss. “We were going to make it a book, but I brought along some drawings I’d done in a box, because I’d done box drawings before,” says Jake. His drawings and Robert’s poems can also be seen in an exhibition at the Lotte Inch Gallery, in Bootham, York.

Jake occasionally steps away from the canvas to work with the Dean Clough Foundation, a charity that helps young people appreciate the links between design, technology, the arts and science.

And earlier this year he held a drawing workshop at York Art Gallery. “That was a fabulous experience for me,” Jake says. “We had a room full of people, you’d see three-year-olds and 83-year-olds drawing together.”

While he is happy to mix if necessary, he doesn’t at all mind the solitary life of an artist. “I’m quite happy with my own company, and if you’re not you’re going to have a problem doing this,” he says.

Despite a long life in art, Jake is not confident about his work. “No, massive doubts all the time. I think if you’re so self-confident you’re sure that everything you’re doing is brilliant, then you probably aren’t. It’s a bit of a paradox, like everything in life. Jean Genet, a writer I very much admire, said you need to be the weakest and the strongest all at the same time.”

He has no idea how many paintings he has produced. “I am quite prolific, I paint all the time.”

This busyness, this need to paint, has it made you happy? Jake laughs at this, uncertain how to answer, then says: “Yes, it has. It’s made me deliriously happy. I’ve been depressed and fed up, but yes.”

Long ago he drank too much and wrapped himself in what he now sees as the “kind of romantic nonsense” that artists should be reckless in that way.

“I don’t drink at all now,” says Jake. “Haven’t had a drink since 1982.”

So did you have a problem with alcohol? “I did. It was no friend to me. In life you have to love yourself, which isn’t the same as being in love with yourself. That’s absurd and frankly obscene. But you do need to care about yourself.”

Many of the paintings around us today are of Howarth. These will join others next year in an exhibition entitled Journeying North, Howarth to Howick and a Few Places in Between. It will be held at Messum’s Gallery, in Cork Street, London, through which Jake sells his work.

After making initial sketches in the field, Jake works in the studio. His paintings are often thickly textured with oil paints. “They start off quite thin and then I don’t get them right to begin with, so I just keep putting it on.”

As well as landscapes and cityscapes, Jake likes to paint crowds on the London Underground or massing in Maddison Avenue in New York.

Jake and Lindsay, who live in Saltaire, met in the 1970s at the Royal Academy. Lindsay asked for her bus fare home and Jake agreed, but only if she would have a drink with him. “So she did and we got engaged after three days and married pretty shortly afterwards, and we’ve been married for 40 years this year.”

Jake is full of praise for Dean Clough, the enormous mill complex in Halifax that once housed Crossley Carpets. And he is equally admiring of the massive contribution that the Bradford entrepreneur Jonathan Silver made to the revitalisation of Salts Mill.

Barrie Rutter of Northern Broadsides is also based in Dean Clough. He likes to tell the story of the woman who, remarking on the way that Jake applies so much paint to the canvas, described him as “the thickest painter in Yorkshire”.

Rutter repeats that tale loud and often. “It was quite funny the first four or five times,” says Jake.

■ A Small Box of River: Jake Attree and Robert Powell is at the Lotte Inch Gallery in Bootham, York, to November 12, and will move to Salts Mill at a later date. Jake is also working towards an exhibition at the Piece Hall in Halifax when it reopens.