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Lockdown artist: ‘Humanity has been humbled’

Louis Vause took a huge personal risk venturing out to capture the capital. But, he tells Dan Carrier, it is ‘an extraordinary blessing’

09 July, 2020 — By Dan Carrier

Louis Vause’s lockdown painting of Hampstead Heath. All images: © Louis Vause

FOR Louis Vause, opening his front door was an act of bravery: the artist and musician had been warned by medics he was in danger and should stay at home – advice the liver cancer and transplant survivor has ignored just four times during the past three months, and always at daybreak.

The Camden Town-based pianist and painter set off on his bicycle to see a deserted city – and the result is a series of paintings that capture as personal experience of London in lockdown.

“The only time I have been able to leave my flat has been early in the morning,” he says. It heightened the experience.

Louis Vause

“Those four rides in 100 days have affected me profoundly and the only way I could think of that would convey that sense of wonder was to attempt to paint it – to capture the deserted streets, the sound of nothing but birdsong, the freshness of the air, the sense that nature had been given a chance to thrive.”

Edinburgh-born, Louis attended the University of East Anglia in 1977. His peers included comedians Paul Whitehouse and Charlie Higson and he would go on later to appear in the Whitehouse/Harry Enfield BBC comedy series, The Fast Show.

Mr Vause’s lockdown painting of All Souls, Langham Place. © Louis Vause

“We were all interested in music,” he recalls. “It was the year of punk. We were in bands. Paul Whitehouse is a great guitarist – he was in a group called the Right Hand Lovers. I played in The Higsons – with Charlie Higson.”

After graduating, he and his peers moved to London.

“I got a job in a warehouse on Holloway Road,” he remembers. “I never had any ambitions to be a musician or painter. It just did not occur to me. Where I had grown up, your career options were working in the mill, or if you had ideas, then it would be Boots.”

He would join another Whitehouse-led band, Hackney Five-0, and through them met Madness bass guitarist Mark Bedford.

“We formed a band called Butterfield Eight and had an album out,” he says. “I played the piano because I’m quite good with my ears and picking things up.”

It prompted thoughts that music could be more than a nice hobby.

Aged 30, he decided that instead of working 40-hour weeks for jobs he did not like, he would take six months to put the same time into learning how to play the piano properly.

“I thought I’ll play for eight hours a day,” he says. “I’d do a key a week. In the evening I sold brushes at people’s front doors to make a few quid.”

It paid off – he joined ex-Madness saxophonist Lee Thompson and guitarist Chris Foreman in The Nutty Boys.

Farringdon © Louis Vause

“It changed my life,” he says. “We did a lot of rootsy ska stuff.”

Like his piano playing – he would only later study music at undergraduate level, earn a first class degree and teach piano – his art is essentially self-taught.

“I used to keep a sketch diary when I was a teenager,” he says. “I then did it again when I became a father. I wasn’t very good at it – but I enjoyed it. I completed a couple of part-time courses at the City Lit – but otherwise I’ve never had any formal training.”

His music and art have helped him through tough months of self-isolation, he says. His daybreak sojourns saw him take photographs and then create the images he had captured in watercolour and ink – a medium used by one of his influences, illustrator Edward Ardizzone.

“I felt I captured the experience with my 16th sketch: my bicycle silhouetted against the rising sun on the summit of Parliament Hill,” he adds. “Looking at it, I can relive the tranquillity, the freshness of the warm breeze.

“No hum of traffic. A sky free of aeroplanes. A horizon as clear as a Himalayan mountain. I was left with a sense of the startling beauty of the planet, and the fragility of the eco systems we rely on.”

Seeing a city at enforced rest has also provided a shocking comparison to pre-lockdown society.

Hanway Street © Louis Vause

Cycling past the Parliament Hill Running Track that morning, he was shocked by the litter on the slopes.

“As I stood on the summit in the dawn light, it occurred to me that this was a perfect metaphor for the way humanity is trashing this Earth. The filth, the pollution, the foul poisonous air, the plastic in rivers and seas and beaches, the floods, the fires – and now the plague.

“Lockdown has caused immense suffering: death, bereavement, domestic abuse, loneliness, unemployment and penury.

“But I don’t believe I am alone in feeling a profound sense of an awakening – to nature, to our own personal histories and to a questioning of our priorities in life.”

Being able to capture this moment of spring 2020 has made him introspective about what the future holds.

“I hear the words ‘back to normal’ and feel increasing dread,” he says. “Back to what? To the deep inequalities that have become the norm – therefore apparently acceptable – in our society?

“As I painted that glorious dawn I wondered whether the lockdown was an extraordinary blessing, as well as a warning. Humanity has been humbled. The extraordinary circumstance we find ourselves in has created a sense of possibility for a new beginning. Sometimes paintings talk.”

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