Maritime artist Peter Leath has lived on the Isle of Wight all his life. He and the small seaside town in the south of England are inextricably linked and the picturesque scenery has worked its way into many of his paintings. When his peers left the Isle to go to University or explore the world, Peter preferred to stay put. “I didn’t want to leave home because it meant leaving the Isle of Wight and I was very happy there and still am. I don’t think I could live anywhere else. You’ve got country, seaside, and a very quiet pleasant way of life.” The coastal location begged to be recreated on canvas and after finding his passion for painting in his mid thirties, Peter didn’t look back and went on to produce hundreds of works that have been lauded across the globe for their exceptional depiction of maritime scenes. Every one of the near-400 works produced has found proud owners and he is left with just three in his possession. Recently Peter suffered a stroke and sadly, has had to put down his brushes, as he is no longer able to paint. Despite this blow to his health, Peter says he keeps busy on the Isle and takes comfort in the enjoyment people have gained from his art.
Peter was born in Sandown in the Isle of Wight in 1935 where his passion for boats and the sea was obvious from a very young age. Despite not having come from a boating background – his family were not boaties as one might expect - Peter spent his younger days at the shore. He would fish for mackerel in a clinker-built dinghy, then cart his catch around to the local houses to sell door to door. He credits the location with igniting his passion for the sea, saying it naturally breeds people with a love of all things maritime. At one time more than 13,000 people on the Isle made their living from boating and this atmosphere buoyed Peter’s interest. As for painting, Peter was dabbling in art from a young age and even had a piece accepted by the Royal Academy entitled ‘Christmas Lunch’ at the age of 11. This early indication of his artistic talent kept Peter intrigued by the possibility of one day pursuing his passion. He still has ‘Christmas Lunch’ somewhere in his house, too.
After leaving school Peter embarked on a number of odd jobs in a quest to find his true calling, from brick-laying, to forestry and several years as a fisherman. His first job out of school was as an apprentice printer and he eventually went on to become a master printer before enlisting in the air force. He was deployed to Hong Kong where he learnt to speak Cantonese and worked as an interpreter for the police force. Peter has an ear for languages and managed to pick up the ‘street’ version of Cantonese. “Chinese is a very hard language because it’s all about tones. The police inspectors could all speak the language but they’d been trained in England and couldn’t be understood whereas I spoke a more guttural version of Chinese.” Peter is currently teaching himself to speak Arabic, saying it’s going to be the “language of the future”.
After four years abroad he returned home with a taste for the outdoors and packed in the printing job to take on a variety of jobs outside. One of these jobs was as a fisherman. Peter worked as a deckhand on a friend’s 30-foot trawler for several years. “We got along very well as we both called a spade a spade. Aside from that he was a very good fisherman and could catch fish when no one else could in all kinds of conditions.” Peter left this job to fish on his own after completing a 22-foot boat that took him six and a half years to build. He also built a 34-foot boat for a friend around this time. When asked to explain how he knew how to build himself a boat, Peter replies simply, “At ten years old I could tell you every rope and rigging on a four-rig ship. I built my first dinghy very young. That’s just the Isle of Wight – boating knowledge seems to bring more boating knowledge.”
The turning point for Peter came when his wife Sally called his bluff after growing tired of his complaints about the state of maritime art. “I was always grumbling at works of art I saw and saying how rubbish they were, especially marine pictures. Sally bet me I couldn’t do better and bought me a set of oils, canvases and brushes. She said ‘there’s the paints, paint me a picture’. The rest, as they say, is history. Peter produced a flurry of about 40 paintings in quick succession, “I just painted and painted and painted.” These were gathered into an exhibition at the public library in Ryde on the Isle of Wight in 1972 after the owners, the Jacobsons, suggested he display his new works. Much to his surprise, the paintings flew out the door with every single work sold in just six days. “It really amazed me and luckily most of the people who bought my work were in the marine industry. If those kinds of people liked what I’d done then I obviously had a place to carry on.” This confirmation of his talents was enough to catapult Peter’s artistic career skywards and he is now considered one of the world’s premier maritime artists.
Some of the feedback Peter received from the exhibition was that his depiction of the sea, sky and sailing ships was remarkably accurate. One ex-navy man who bought one of the biggest pieces, a three by four-foot painting told him, “That’s exactly what a real sea looks like”. He regaled Peter with tales of being torpedoed off the Russian coast during the war and how the rough and ominous seas in the painting transported him right back to those heady days of war. “He also told me he went back and re-joined the merchant navy and would you believe it he got torpedoed again. Most of all his comments meant a lot, because they said people who knew what they were talking about liked what I’d done.”
In another twist of fate, Peter was approached by the Shipwrecked Mariners’ and Fishermen Royal Benevolent Society wanting to film the exhibition for South Today. The show was widely viewed and from this Peter was able to secure several commissions from all over the world, including Australia, New Zealand and Canada.
As well as the exposure on South Today, Peter was invited to create an artwork for the Society’s annual Christmas card. The rights to the art were bought by the society for £25 and the Christmas card went on to sell out all of the 250,000 copies produced. As a token of its appreciation, Peter was sent an additional £100. “I thought it was going to be a very good advertisement for me, which is why I sold them the rights, and it was. From that I got more commissions. They’re a very good society of which the Queen is a patron. One year I was presented to her at the fishmonger’s hall at London Bridge. That was quite an occasion for me.” Peter continued to produce the art for the cards up until the 1990s. In 1990 a record 700,000 cards were sold.
This “crash, bang, wallop” start to his career set the tone for the rest. After the success of his first exhibition Peter began to paint full time. Painting out of his studio at home, he produced hundreds of works depicting pre-steam fishing vessels, coasting crafts and harbour and commercial river scenes. These remarkably life-like creations took hours of research, for which Peter has a vast number of reference books. His collection of 39 Encyclopaedia Britannica was invaluable for the street maps of every town and harbour in England. These were used to recreate harbour scenes, and Peter added people by meticulously copying photographs of fisherman and yachties in boats. Sally was often required to dress up in oilskin and pose for Peter while he sketched her, a task she patiently agreed to! Another source of maritime inspiration came from the excellent books of another Isle of Wight resident Edgar J March. “He wrote a lot of books about trawlermen and fishermen of this country and the days of sail and oar,” remembers Peter.
If Peter Leath has a trademark, then it is his impressive, often ominous skies. Peter says he’s not sure why people say it’s his trademark. It may have something to do with the fact that every Peter Leath work has a breathtakingly realistic sky that hangs above an equally impressive sea. Peter’s trick is to use a different palette for the sea and sky so any colour that appears in the rough waves or calm ocean will not be used to paint the sky. “It seems to work,” says Peter, “and if it seems to work then that suits me.”
Many of Peter’s illustrations have appeared in books. His brother John, through his role as a book designer for Barry & Jenkins, procured Peter several illustration jobs for his firm. As well as this, a small profile appeared in Denys Brook Hart’s 20th Century British Marine Painting, of which Peter says, “When he wrote to me to ask if he could include me I thought ‘oh how nice that he’s heard of me’. I had a couple of paintings in black and white and a note about me in the back, not all that much, but quite enough for me in those days.” Peter featured alongside long-admired fellow artists Montague Dawson and W Wiley, a Portsmouth-based artist.
One artistic endeavour he came to regret was his involvement with a reproduction of a book called A View of the Isle of Wight by John Sturch, which was accompanied by 12 watercolour illustrations. The book featured Sturch’s three letters to a friend detailing his experience of the Isle of Wight that date back to the 1700s. “These so-called publishers approached me to see if I would paint 12 watercolours so they could reproduce the book as a limited edition,” says Peter. He was never paid for the pictures, nor were the book binders paid. The last update Peter got on the shady duo was that one ended up in prison and later died of a heart attack, and the other was found to be on-selling signed books that he bought cheaply off unsuspecting old people. Peter still has edition 27 of the 300 that were produced and signed by Peter himself.
Another colourful period of Peter’s life was the eight and a half years he spent teaching art at Pankhurst Prison. He took on this daunting task to supplement his income from painting at the start of his career. The inmates were mostly well behaved and Peter was surprised at how much they valued their lessons. “They were very good students. Of course they were dying for something to do. Some of them were 23 hours in a cell with nothing to do – not even a radio to listen to. Some of the students were very good - one went on to become a member of the Hibernian Art Society and exhibits with them every year.” Crass humour came with the territory, with one inmate cracking a joke about a man known to be killing and eating homeless people. Peter retells the joke: “He said, ‘oh did you hear we got Nielson? Did you know they put him in the kitchen? At least we’ll get a bit of meat in the soup now’. You’ve got to laugh don’t you?”
Recently Peter suffered a stroke and is no longer able to paint, a fact that is both devastating and frustrating for him and his many fans. The stroke he suffered in 2003 did not affect his movement or speech, but it has left his spatial awareness skewed and he finds it impossible to plan a picture in his head. “I’ve tried drawing and it’s just impossible. Before I’d get an idea in my head and I just had to put it on canvas and to me it was easy. But now I can’t even plan it in my head. It is quite devastating. I would have liked to have painted more.”
Nearly 20 years ago Peter’s wife Sally thought he’d gone mad when he decided to start building a 34-foot yacht at his home in Carisbrooke with plans to sail it around the world. He abandoned this pursuit when his funds became too tight, having sunk 2200 man-hours into the build. “Looking back I wasn’t well. I think I had two minor strokes while working on the boat and I later found out that I should have been wearing a gasmask while sanding because iroko wood is quite poisonous.”
He may not have achieved his lifelong dream of sailing around the world in his own boat, but he can be very proud of his many artistic achievements, including being honoured by the Senior Rates Mess of HM Victory with a medal and the book Sailing Ships of War by Dr. Frank Howard, as well as creating the extremely popular annual Christmas card for the Shipwrecked Mariners’ and Fishermen Royal Benevolent Society and raising thousands of pounds in the process. Most of all it’s the paintings that now hang on the walls of discerning buyers all over the world that speak volumes about the accomplishments of this prolific maritime artist