Bryan Pearce (1929 – 2007)

Bryan Pearce (1929-2007)

Dafodills and Ginger Jar 1991 screenprint
Dafodills and Ginger Jar 1991 screenprint

Bryan Pearce was born in St Ives, Cornwall in 1929.  His father was a butcher and a rugby player, and his mother was a keen amateur painter.  Nature and nurture are a theme that runs through his life.   Pearce had the genetic condition Phenylketonuria,.  In 1929, the condition was unknown, and as a result, Bryan experienced intellectual impairment and other health problems, and so attended a school for children with special needs.

St Ives has a long tradition of fine painting, and was the home of the naïve artist/fisherman Alfred Wallis (1855-1942).  As a teenager, Bryan was encouraged by his mother and other artists to paint.   His  talent recognised,   he attended the St Ives School of Painting during his twenties.  Importantly, Leonard Fuller’s School welcomed both novice and professional artists, and had a commitment to inclusion.

Bryan Pearce

The turning point in Bryan Pearce’s career came in 1957 when he started painting in oils, and he began to exhibit soon after. Two years later he had his first solo exhibition at the Newlyn Gallery.    Although he painted slowly, producing perhaps one picture a month, he had a long and very successful career, exhibiting throughout England.  Late in life, he made etchings and his work was also sold in the form of  limited-edition screen prints.  His work has been bought by both major public collections and private collectors.

Mostly Bryan Pearce painted his own home town of St Ives.   He would take long walks around the area, and come back to paint sunny scenes, full of vivid colour, reminiscent of Matisse or perhaps of modernist stained glass.  However, Pearce himself did not study other artists, and his style was his own, not the result of external influences.   Nor was he bothered by art-world politics.   One obituary suggested that he was:

“a visionary artist of a quite particular kind, whose distinction had to do with the solitary nature of his artistic experience and the use he made of a profound creative solitude in the midst of a world experienced with preternatural vividness. That enforced and productive apartness is not to be confused with social solitude or loneliness; it was, rather, the necessary condition of his imaginative freedom and his peculiar talent.”

BP St Ives BP washing



Whereas other St Ives artists sometimes struggled to achieve authenticity, his mentor Peter Lanyon said:

 “It is necessary to accept these works as the labour of a man who has to communicate this way because there is no other.”

Bryan’s mother abandoned her own work to support her son. He was also guided by other significant figures, such as the art historian Sir Alan Bowness who said of him:

 “a therapy has become a profession… This has given his work particular innocence that, in the nature of things, can’t be corrupted by self-consciousness”.   

Bryan Pearce was undoubtedly provided with the security and support that he needed to become a major painter.  He remained in the family home for the rest of his life, supported by full time assistants after his mother’s death in 1997.  Benefiting from shelter, and the support of a local artistic community, he was able to devote himself to his art for fifty years, dying aged 77 on 22 January 2007.  The following month, a major exhibition of his work was held at Tate St Ives.

His art and talent were fostered by the unique community within which he grew up, and that recognized him as an artist like any other.  His painting made him happy, and has made many other people happy as a result.

Bryan Pearce earned his fame more for what he did than for who he was.  One of the leading naïve artists of the twentieth century, his oil paintings now hang in the Tate Gallery and at Kettle’s Yard, and he has been the subject of no less than three biographies.

Of particular interest is the Bequest he left to the people of Cornwall

Bryan Pearce Bequest

Sir Ferrers Vyvyan, Chairman of the Royal Institute of Cornwall’s Board of Trustees, formally accepted a bequest by the late Bryan Pearce on Thursday 6 September, 2007 in the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro.

Sir Alan Bowness, one of Bryan’s Trustees and an executor of his estate, said: ‘Bryan was very aware of his Cornish ancestry, and proud of the fact that his family had always lived in St Ives. From an early date his mother, Mary Pearce, kept back some of his best pictures in the hope that they would eventually be given to the people of Cornwall for their enjoyment. Bryan’s Trustees and beneficiaries are delighted that this now substantial collection of his work has been accepted by the Royal Institution of Cornwall.’

The collection reflects the artist’s work from his earliest watercolours made at the St Ives School of Painting in the early 1950s to the present time, including the last oil painting that he was working on in December 2006, only a few weeks before his death in early January 2007.


It comprises nine watercolours, twenty-seven oil paintings, two pen and ink drawings, three conté crayon drawings and eleven etchings. Also included in the bequest is a portrait of the artist by Jason Walker painted from life in 2005 and a bronze head made by the Australian sculptor Barbara Tribe in 1976.

At the same time the bequest includes several photographs of Bryan as well as a few objects that he used regularly in his still-life drawings and paintings.

‘We are delighted that Bryan Pearce made this bequest’, said Lucinda Middleton, the Royal Cornwall Museum’s Fine and Decorative Art Curator. ‘It is a very important body of work which, thanks to his generosity, will now be accessible to members of the public

(taken from news page)


Further reading

Ruth Jones, The Path of the Son (1976)

Marion Whybrow, Bryan Pearce: a private view (1985)

Janet Axten, The Artist and His Work (2004)

Some parts of this post are taken from with thanks to


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