A Yorkshire artist inspired by nature

A SELF-TAUGHT painter whose love of art was sparked at Ripon Grammar School has launched a new exhibition.

Landscapes From the Heart of Yorkshire runs at the Village Gallery in York until March 4.

Yorkshire Dales-based artist Jonathan Smith paints exclusively in oils and focuses on Yorkshire and Northumberland landscapes.

Art was always one of his favourite subjects when he was at Ripon Grammar School, where he received his only formal training.

Jonathan left RGS after GCSEs to go to art college, but found the course too restrictive, so took A-levels the following year instead.

After years as a hobby painter Jonathan turned semi-professional in 2019.

Since then, he has held several exhibitions in the Yorkshire region including Doncaster, Ilkley, Harrogate, Skipton and  Leeds and his paintings hang in private collections throughout the UK and US.

He also received a Wild Card place on Sky’s Landscape Artist of the Year in 2022.

He explains: “After finishing A-levels I continued painting but couldn’t settle on a career path.”

He worked in care and retail before gaining a first-class degree in archaeology from the University of Bradford in his mid-twenties, finishing top of the year, and winning a prize for the most distinguished dissertation.

Having had enough of university life, he set up his own business as a dry stone waller: “After some training and three hard years of struggling to get work, the business was established and very successful by the time I was in my thirties.

“But being outside in the Yorkshire Dales reignited my love of painting and I would take a sketchbook with me wherever I went and continued to paint and learn.

“I still keep my hand in at dry stone walling when clients need me.”

The highlight of his painting career was his first sale: “When the buyer paid for the painting and walked out with it, I was completely elated. It still gives me a massive thrill to know that my work is hanging on someone’s wall.”

He adds: “The best bit about the job is working for myself doing something I genuinely adore. I equally love the science and the technical side of painting and love the opportunity to study techniques, processes and skills.

“The worst bit is when you think you have a masterpiece on your hands and it turns into a disaster – very disheartening.”

His biggest challenge has been personal: “It has taken a massive leap to start this business and without the support of my wife and children, I am not sure I would have had the confidence. It is incredibly stressful to pour your heart and soul into something and then let the general public see it and have their say – for good or bad!

“It can really feel personal when someone doesn’t like your work, or just glances and moves on but, of course, it isn’t and you need a thick skin. Setting up the business as a dry stone waller has taught me a lot about patience and perseverance.

“Two of the essential qualities I learnt from being at RGS were self-reliance and resilience,” he adds.

Looking back on his time at school, where he played cricket and chess in addition to writing songs and playing guitar in a band, he says: “My dream was to be an incredibly successful and famous musician – it did not occur to me that no-one would want to listen!

“My biggest disaster was my first ever gig. We played Ripon College on a Friday night. My guitar strings nearly all snapped, the microphone became unplugged, the drummer dropped his drum sticks twice and then he and the bassist had a fight on stage. I should have taken it as a hint.

“When I finally gave up on a stellar music career it felt pretty depressing but I wished I’d known that life is not a linear progression from beginning to end.

“There are dead ends, twists, turns, highs and lows and they all occur for a reason – just because your plan doesn’t work out it doesn’t mean you have failed. It merely says that you have gone as far down that path as you can and now life has something new in store.

“Besides this, if I gave one piece of advice to a budding artist it would be to keep working, keep faith in yourself and take every opportunity to get your work seen.”

He recalls two favourite teachers: “One is SA Smith, who taught art. We didn’t see eye to eye on most art matters but he had respect for my opinions and always tried to open my eyes to new ideas and thoughts.

“The second was Dr Petchey who taught history. I loved history as well and his enthusiasm was all encompassing. His love of the subject shone through, and he taught me so much about critical thinking and analysis. These two teachers were my inspiration at school.”

He last lived in Ripon 30 years ago: “What I really miss are memories of times gone. I had a great childhood, roaming the fields around Hell Wath and Studley, and great fun as a teenager when I discovered pubs! The time as a family unit is what Ripon means to me and I miss that most. I am fortunate that I now live in Otley which is similar to Ripon – a small, market town (sorry, city!), beautiful countryside, pleasant atmosphere and its own share of characters.”

Influenced by the 19th century English Romantic painters, the French Barbizon School and the Russian Itinerants, who drew inspiration from nature, he describes a typical day.

“A morning will consist of grabbing my bag of sketching materials and heading out to see what I can find. This may be on foot or I might drive to a specific location that I think might provide useful source material. The afternoon is spent uploading any photos, dealing with emails and social media output and, finally, getting some work done on whatever painting I am on with.”

He says his greatest success was persuading his wife to marry him: “Truthfully, because all the good in my life stems from her.”

Looking to the future, he says: “My hopes are that my children go on to live happy and fulfilled lives. My daughter runs her own successful business and my son is a teacher. We are to be grandparents later this year, which is another turn in the road.

“Oh, and I hope to sell a heck of a lot of paintings!

*Jonathan's oil on canvas paintings, from top: 

Woodland Track

Dunstanburgh Castle in the Mist

Forest Pool, Timble