Bryan Pearce was born in St. Ives, Cornwall, which remained his home for the rest of his life. His father, Walter, was a butcher in St Ives, played rugby for Cornwall, and was later mayor of St Ives. His mother, Mary Warmington, was a painter from another local family.
Pearce suffered from the congenital disease phenylketonuria, which affects the normal development of the brain. He attended a special needs school in the 1940s and 1950s and then, encouraged by his mother and, later, by other St. Ives artists, he began drawing and painting in watercolours in 1953 before moving on to oil paint on board and, later, conté crayon. He attended Leonard Fuller’s St. Ives School of Painting from 1953 to 1957.
Symptoms of phenylketonuria
PKU symptoms can range from mild to severe. The most severe form of this disorder is known as classic PKU. An infant with classic PKU may appear normal for the first few months of their life. If the baby isn’t treated for PKU during this time, they’ll start to develop the following symptoms:
- tremors, or trembling and shaking
- stunted growth
- skin conditions such as eczema
- a musty odor of their breath, skin, or urine
If PKU isn’t diagnosed at birth and treatment isn’t started quickly, the disorder can cause:
- irreversible brain damage and intellectual disabilities within the first few months of life
- behavioral problems and seizures in older children
A less severe form of PKU is called variant PKU or non-PKU hyperphenylalaninemia. This occurs when the baby has too much phenylalanine in their body. Infants with this form of the disorder may have only mild symptoms, but they’ll need to follow a special diet to prevent intellectual disabilities.
Once a specific diet and other necessary treatments are started, symptoms start to diminish. People with PKU who properly manage their diet usually don’t show any symptoms.
Pearce specialised in paintings of his home town, and the surrounding Penwith area, drawn in typically flat style, with areas of bright colour surrounded by heavy outlines, like stained glass. His learning disabilities gave his art, in the words of Peter Lanyon, an “awareness more direct” than pure observation. Lanyon also said that “Because his sources are not seen with a passive eye, but are truly happenings, his painting is original”, and “It is necessary to accept these works as the labour of a man who has to communicate this way because there is no other.” His art has been compared to that of Alfred Wallis.
Guided by Denis Mitchell, he joined the Penwith Society of Arts in 1957, and the Newlyn Society of Artists. He had his first solo exhibition at the Newlyn Gallery near Penzance in 1959, and his first solo exhibition in London at the St Martin’s Gallery in 1962. Retrospectives were held at various venues from 1966 to 2004, particularly at Penwith Gallery in 1966, the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford in 1975, the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro in 2000, and the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath in 2004. Examples of his work are held by many public galleries. His business affairs were dealt with first by his family and ultimately by trustees, enabling him to concentrate on his art. In the second half of his career a good deal of his work was produced and sold in the form of prints in relatively small signed, numbered editions. Some of these were small hand-made etchings, with which the artist had a ‘hands on’ creative involvement; others were full size screenprints made by printer-craftsmen ‘after’ works in other media. The latter certainly render just over twenty of Pearce’s original images, with their pure, expansive areas of specific colours, extremely convincingly. Two of the earliest screenprints, ‘St Ives All Round’ and ‘Newlyn All Round’ (both 1976) were printed in black line only. A number of one-colour lithographs also exist.
Bryan Pearce’s mother, Mary, died in 1997. He died peacefully at home in St. Ives, and his funeral was held at St Ives Parish Church on 22 January 2007. An exhibition was held at the Tate Gallery, St Ives from 3 February – 13 May 2007. It had been planned as a retrospective but became a memorial show.
The Bryan Pearce Estate gave a collection of his works from the 1950s to 2006 to the Royal Cornwall Museum. These were shown 17 November 2007 – 5 January 2008, at the Museum. Meanwhile, on 12 March 2008, an auction record for a painting by Bryan Pearce was set at Bonham’s New Bond Street auction rooms in London when the work “St Ives Harbour 1″ (1965), 20″ x 46″, realised a hammer price of £28,000 (with commission around £33,500). This record was soon broken as, in the following May, Pearce’s largest known oil painting, ‘Penzance Harbour (all round)’, oil on board 20.5″ x 60.5”, sold for £39000 (with commission around £47,000) at a Penzance auction house, and was destined for the permanent collection at Penlee House, Penzance. In October 2011, his St. Ives (all round) 1977, oil on board 24″ x 45½”, exceeded the pre-sale top estimate at Christies three times over, selling for £55250 (including buyer’s premium) making it the most expensive Pearce to-date.
Several biographies have been published, including Ruth Jones’s The Path of the Son (1976), Marion Whybrow’s Bryan Pearce: a private view (1985) and Janet Axten’s The Artist and His Work (2004).