Marks of Passage – on the art of Peter Joyce

An extract from the essay Marks of Passage 

Though Peter Joyce retains a house in his native Dorset, for the past decade he has lived and worked mostly in La Vendée, a somewhat remote and not much visited region of western France. Formed from reclaimed land, this is a flat landscape of marshy fields and pastures interlaced with canals, dykes and creeks. Its small communities are sustained by arable farming and by much-diminished fishing and oyster farming, whilst the relics of a once-important salt harvesting industry can be seen in the region’s salt pans; some now home to wading birds and aquatic life whilst others, with the forlorn air of abandonment, are left empty.

Joyce is a man of passionate interests, chief amongst them a longstanding fascination with wildlife. In this La Vendée is especially rich, and amongst its animal population are hares, rabbits, muskrats, coypus, small lizards, snakes and eels. There is also an abundant birdlife, the choreography of its movements and plaintive cries bestowing a perpetual drama to this quiet and mysterious landscape. Harriers and daytime hunting short-eared owls swoop over the land, as redshanks and lapwings try to divert them from their nests. There are white egrets, herons, kites, spoonbills and hoopoes, with black-winged stilts and storks amongst summer visitors. Beneath the expansive skies of this place, one becomes acutely aware of space and distance, of atmospheric change and subtle shifts in light and reflection. And here, walking and driving in Joyce’s company, one relates to the place through the prism of his painting, constantly noticing echoes of its textures and colours. There are clues to its formal vocabulary everywhere; in bleached wooden posts entangled in rusted wire; in the skewed timbers of a dilapidated barn; in the bend of a dyke; and the telegraph poles which line the region’s roads, defining distance and perspective, their loping cables, ‘stitching the landscape together’ as the artist puts it.

Surrounded by fields, the house Joyce and his wife Jo share is just two hundred metres from the Atlantic, whilst the artist’s studio – a former oyster factory – is within walking distance, and only five metres from the beach on a road that runs along the coast beside an earth bank built as sea defence. He paints Mondays to Fridays, in a space designed to ensure no visual dialogue with the outside world, for although his painting is inspired by nature, he in no sense works directly from it, and is keen that it provides no distraction whilst concentrating on his work. Hence, the studio’s few small windows are glazed in frosted glass, with much of the light source coming from the relatively low-level fluorescent overhead lighting Joyce prefers. Paramount to his essentially abstract painting is its formal, compositional aspect, for as he stipulates: ‘Ninety-eight-percent of my time in the studio I’m thinking about formalism… that and the mechanics of painting.’ Asked what informs his work: the physical environment, atmospheric conditions, time, memory, he states that ‘memory plays a massive part’. And memory surely operates on various levels here, both consciously and subconsciously, intuitively and subliminally, not only of the visible world but also of sensory and emotional experience. More prosaically, the artist describes how, during the walks he and his wife undertake each day he will occasionally alight on something that might trigger an idea from which to start a new picture; it might he says be as simple as a bit of red plastic thread caught in a wire fence.


• Essay commissioned by Jenna Burlingham Fine Art for inclusion in the catalogue of the exhibition Peter Joyce: Marks of Passage, Gallery 8, Duke Street St James’s, London, 2 – 6 May 2017.
From 9 May the exhibition an be seen at Jenna Burlingham Fine Art, Kingsclere, Hampshire.

• The full essay is accessible within the online catalogue:
Printed copies of the catalogue can be obtained from Jenna Burlingham Fine Art.

• The works shown here represent a small selection from the exhibition ‘Peter Joyce: Marks of Passage’.

• For more on Peter Joyce, visit the artist’s website:

Painting: © Peter Joyce, 2017.
Words © Ian Massey, 2017.

Posted in: Essays