Artist David Bellamy’s ‘Arabian Light’ exhibition illuminated the region
06 Jul 2022
David Bellamy’s view of a Cairo street at dusk.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
David Bellamy, world traveller and internationally renowned artist and author, hosted an exhibition titled ‘Arabian Light’ May-end at the Osborne Studio Gallery, London. He has published a book of the same title, his twenty-first.
Having extensively travelled South Arabia, the Swahili coast, Jordan, Lebanon, Dubai and Oman, his works, as forwarded by email to Gulf Today, undoubtedly taste of the special flavours of the region.
He had no formal art training, but loved drawing from earliest childhood. Educated at a prestigious grammar school in Wales where he won ‘first prizes for drawing and painting every time’, he first visited the Middle East in 1963. He says he acquired mastery of watercolour by sketching ‘en plein air’ in the ‘most trying circumstances’.
Royal Air Force service in Aden kindled his interest in the Arab world. Subjects of the 50 works of art as shown in the ‘Arabian Light’ show included ancient cities, mountains and deserts, Arab street life and its cafes, souks, card players, music makers and belly dancers.
For Bellamy, the Middle East is not a region to be observed objectively, but a place to immerse himself in. Here is what he says in his book about Oman (The Call of the Canyons): “We sat sketching, mesmerised by not just the view but the sound of many muezzins, the poetic calls blending harmoniously in unison, adding to the mystique and romance of the Arabian night till they faded into the mountain silence.
“I touched the warm rock to see if this was real — yes, every sense induced a strong feeling of contentment. I knew I would remember these moments for the rest of my life.” Here are his views on Orientalists: “My travels sketching and painting the Middle East inevitably drew me into studying the work of the Orientalist painters.
“These, at times much maligned artists formed not so much a movement, but a varied and fascinating group of mainly male artists, whose work has given us a rich and detailed window into the region during the 18th and 19th centuries.” He said only ‘mainly male’ — which indicates the presence of women Orientalists. Here is how he tips his hat for them and his reverse kick against the male gaze (Women Orientalist Painters).
“Little has been written about female Orientalist painters. Henriette Browne (1829-1901), whose real name was Sophie De Saux, visited a harem in Constantinople in 1860.
Urn Tomb in Petra, Jordan.
“Her resulting painting of several ladies visiting a harem has a strong air of authenticity … Polish-born Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann (1819-1881) married a Danish sculptor, and despite male prejudices made a successful painting career … Some of her work featured Oriental paintings, and she even painted in several Turkish harems.
“Unlike the fragile marble-white females of the seraglio painted by most Orientalists, her women embodied strong personalities and confidence. By comparison the women portrayed by her male colleagues were mainly obsequious, pale flowers, often as erotic as an artists’ wooden lay figure.” He explains his working life in the region thus: “In the Middle East one of the joys of alfresco painting is the constant and reliable light. To suggest the brightness of the light on paper involves painting fairly strong contrasts of tonal values between sunlit and shadow areas.” Which inter alia speaks of the pangs of a light-starved life in north Europe.
Bellamy was born in Pembrokeshire and brought up in a small village within sight of the Prescelly Hills. An avid reader from a young age, he loved drawing — but post-war art materials and paper were in short supply, and often he found himself having to tear out the endpapers of books in order to draw on.
His service career in the air force took him to Aden, where his interest in the Arab world was kindled. In an interview (Ken Bromley Art Supplies Blog, KBASB), Bellamy describes his Middle East Grand Tour thus: “Arabian Light covers my many adventures sketching, hiking and exploring in the Middle East.
“A colourful and exciting place where engaging with the local people is both rewarding and entertaining. The mountains and canyons of Oman took my breath away with sensational cliffs, moody twilight scenes and romantic castles; the effervescent humour of the Egyptians shone through everywhere, especially in the souks and streets of Islamic Cairo; an expedition deep into the heart of the Sahara brought outstanding new desert compositions; the ruins of Petra in Jordan blew my mind away, and sketching in Hezbollah country in Lebanon was not without its comical moments.” According to KBASB, “‘Arabian Light’ documents this renowned artist’s journeys through the deserts, mountains and souks of the Middle East. David examines the history, culture, customs and geography of the region, all documented alongside his stunning watercolour paintings.
“Filled with David’s own anecdotes and humour, this book is an entertaining and inspiring read, demonstrating the incredible beauty and fascinating culture of the region.” The greatest influence in Bellamy’s painting is undoubtedly J. M. W. Turner, especially his work on the natural scenery in the wildest atmospherics, and also John Sell Cotman, Thomas Girtin, Thomas Moran, the German Romanticist Caspar David Friedrich and more recently, Edward Seago, among others.
He is inspired by their honest response to the beauty and wildness of nature, the challenges they faced and their determination to capture the moment.