Peter Brown: The Reality of our Times by Dr Claudia Milburn

It is not every day that a painter receives a commission from one of the most well-known contemporary British artists of our time, let alone one whose identity remains undisclosed. Banksy’s approach to plein air painter Peter Brown (‘Pete the Street’) with a request for him to paint the aftermath of one of his secret street artworks being installed is a sign of significant respect. On this occasion, the Banksy mural ‘Valentine’s Day Mascara’ was located on the side of a house in Margate, Kent and appeared in February 2023. Peter Brown set up his easel in the early morning light and, over a series of panels, painted the ensuing activity that unfolded throughout the days that followed as the mural was discovered and attention soon mounted.

Why Banksy values Brown’s work is a question that cannot be answered directly by the artist for obvious reasons. However, parallels between the two artists’ work can undoubtedly be drawn. Both operate on the fringe of the art world, away from the mainstream but with a directness of approach that taps straight into society. Reporting on Banksy’s GoMA exhibition ‘Cut & Run’ which featured Brown’s paintings of the Margate mural, Marissa MacWhirter wrote: “If world-renowned street artist Banksy is like an outspoken newspaper columnist, then plein air painter Peter Brown is like a reporter recording the daily happenings of city streets.”[1] Banksy’s street art engages with social activism; Brown’s street art engages with social activity. Both artists respond to the context and energy of life in the moment.

The ‘happenings’ recorded by Brown in this new series of work evidence his zest for discovery with subjects familiar to his eyes and others encountered anew. The paintings are divided between a series on London and works that have taken place outside the metropolis – home and abroad. Having recently completed his term as President of the New English Art Club (NEAC), this latest body of paintings is testament to a new phase in Brown’s work. The London series shows glimpses of the city from 2022-23, recorded first-hand through the eye of an attuned observer, portraying the bustle of life offered by the capital city on a daily basis. The paintings are grouped according to location, for example Ladbroke Grove, North End Road, Notting Hill Gate, Primrose Hill – the chosen streets where Brown has set up his easel. They include a record of events that have taken place over recent times which have captured the imagination and drawn crowds together. These have included royal occasions from the Platinum Jubilee of the late Queen Elizabeth II to her state funeral and the Coronation of King Charles III, while other paintings reflect everyday life in the capital city. He is as interested in painting the everyday as the momentous event. The selected views are chosen based on the atmosphere of the occasion or the artist’s emotive reaction to his location. All the paintings are produced in situ, whatever the time of day or weather conditions. These new images of London are rich in intense detail and observation conveying a frank realism.

While the London paintings reflect life in the city, the images in the ‘Country and Countries’ series are more of a visual journal depicting scenes around Brown while he ventures through life. There are paintings, for example, from a trip to Sidmouth for a talk, from Mothecombe beach on a summer half-term break, Glastonbury Festival and the Cotswolds in the snow. Other paintings reference trips abroad including to Rome, Montpellier and the ski resort of Aussois. Brown takes pleasure in connecting with place and the serendipitous happenings of life unfolding around him – both through his paintings and his conversations. He is always more than happy to engage with passersby. This for him is an essential element of the place portrayed, and thus is core to the work. ‘Life’ and its reality is the magnet for Brown’s painting. He describes: “I work entirely from life using the cities and the countryside as my subjects. I start with what tickles me, and this is likely to be a certain play of the light, weather, space and everyday life.”

There is an almost cinematic element to Brown’s work; while he continually paints a scene something can happen which may or may not be added into the image. Thus, the work reflects not one moment, but a particular place over a period of time, often comprising several hours over the course of a day. He initially approaches the picture surface loosely laying out elements, creating an armature that enables the fluidity of his painting to follow. He paints with the clarity and confidence of an impressionist and the paintings combine the refinement of detail with a light touch, pinning certain elements down while keeping his mark-making free and flowing. The registration in his eye and mind connects with the directness of his brush enabling immediacy in translating the fleeting moment. Everything is informed by Brown’s intense observation which seemingly belies his relaxed, approachable persona.

Brown is an artist who fundamentally deals with unadorned observation. His subject is life, as he sees it and as he experiences it. In this way, Brown continues the great legacy of Western painting tracing back to the Dutch masters of the seventeenth-century Golden Age with artists finding different approaches to gain proximity with reality, true to their perception. In the nineteenth century, the rallying call for ‘Realism’ in painting championed by Gustave Courbet, challenged the the role of art in its reflection of the world. In 1861, Courbet’s proclamation that painting can “only consist of the presentation of real and existing things[2] was a call for an honest approach to art by which means the facts of reality would be faithfully represented, moving away from narrative painting of the past. Since this era, artists have pursued ‘the real’ in a multiplicity of ways, finding meaningful approaches to confront the reality of their world and translate it through marks on the picture surface.

So, how do Peter Brown’s paintings relate to our reality of today and what relevance do they hold? It is the authenticity of a place that Brown wishes to portray, its intrinsic character and spirit. Brown has no preconception of what he will paint and essentially wants to capture the veracity of what he sees, when he sees it. The reality he paints is that with which people can readily identify. He is painting our world, and our world is one that is changing at a pace faster than ever before. As such, it is a world constantly looking to be redefined. What is truly ‘real’ has come into question, not least with the rapid advancements in virtual reality and AI. Brown brings us back to life on the streets, to people, to the images and condition of our everyday lives; his paintings offer an honesty reflective of our time.


Dr Claudia Milburn, September 2023


[1] Marissa MacWhirter, “Meet the plein air painter featured in Banksy’s Cut and Run Glasgow,” Glasgow Times, July 18, 2023

[2] Gustave Courbet in Linda Nochlin, Realism (London; Penguin, 1971), 23.

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