Transports of delight for artist Malcolm

Quitting your job to chase a dream is a big gamble, especially when you've got a young daughter and a baby on the way.

Steven Russell

Quitting your job to chase a dream is a big gamble, especially when you've got a young daughter and a baby on the way. But Malcolm Root hasn't looked back - and he tells Steven Russell why inspirational teachers are worth their weight in gold

ARTIST Malcolm Root rummages in his studio and pulls out a picture more than 50 years old. Depicting Tower Bridge, with the Tower of London alongside, it's accomplished work for a youngster then aged only seven-and-a-half.

It's one of several childhood drawings kept for posterity by his proud parents. A label on the back records it was drawn in crayon at Halstead County Infants School. Even then, it's clear Malcolm was fascinated by all things transport-related.

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“The teacher was instrumental and encouraged me to draw. I owe a lot to her. Rose Spurgeon was her name. The really nice thing was she even took an interest in what I did in recent years; always asked me how I was getting on.”

Further encouragement came from a BBC programme for children called Sketch Club. Artist Adrian Hill, he remembers, could bring a picture to life by adding a few seemingly-simple white marks on a grey sheet of paper.

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“Dad wrote to him and said how much we enjoyed the show, and got a handwritten letter back by return. I think all these things add up during life and give inspiration.”

As a schoolboy, Malcolm also watched the steam trains from his bedroom window and listened to the whistles. Locomotives haven't rumbled through Halstead for more than 40 years now, but the magic of the railways has stayed with him forever.

You can see it in one of his paintings hanging on the living-room wall. As a train trundles past Halstead Town's football ground, which was at the end of Malcolm's road, a wee lad peers over the green, corrugated-iron fence for a free view of the game. He's not based on anyone in particular, but could so easily have been the artist himself.

For young Malcolm was no stranger to the well-trodden if slightly hazardous unofficial path across the railway line to the stadium perimeter and the fields beyond. The top of the fence took on a razor-like edge over the years as numerous people clung on for a buckshee glimpse of the action.

He was about eight when his family moved across town from the Tidings Hill area to Stanley Road in 1958. He had a brother about three years older “and from our point of view it was great. You were never short of things to do. Unlike now, virtually every day of the school holiday was spent outside, in the fields and things”.

The family didn't have a car, so excursions were invariably by rail. There were many enjoyable trips to the coast - Clacton and Walton on a Sunday, for instance - and the seeds of interest were sown. Travelling had an element of magic.

“In those days, the travel was as much a part of the day out as actually being there. You looked forward to the journey, because every trip was exciting in itself. The minute you got on the train, the day started. There were always things to look out for; even going over a level-crossing and seeing the cars waiting. Things tend to be that way when you're younger, anyway. Everything's a new experience.

“Nowadays, people are blasé about it and your day out starts when you get there.

“We had some good days out, and holidays were usually spent with relatives. Such was the case with us; we had some relatives in Southend. We used to go on the bus.

“We also had relatives in Winchester. It was on the main line, so we saw the railways, and my brother and I used to go to the station and watch the trains quite a lot. We also used to go down to Southampton docks, looking at the ships” - the majestic passenger liners.

“Once you've stood there and looked up at these things, it's a sight you marvelled at and never forgot. Once you've seen them, you're awestruck - such graceful things.”

Malcolm took art O-level at secondary school and then signed on for a printing apprenticeship when he left in 1967, later specialising in typography.

“A lot of people who enjoy art stop doing it once they leave school - other things get in the way - but I was lucky. They were getting rid of all the steam locomotives on the railways, and I found it a way of carrying on my interest.”

Art helped celebrate the past. At Halstead, for instance, the final passenger train had run at the end of 1961 and the last freight service in 1965, but Malcolm had plenty of memories he could commit to canvas.

Malcolm, now 58, worked in the printing industry in Colchester until 1981. “I'd still been painting railway pictures and it got to the stage where I'd got quite a few orders. They then had some voluntary redundancies and we were faced with a decision: Is it worth having a go or not? Me and my wife had one young child and another one on the way. You think 'Yes, this is OK,' but it's a little bit risky, really. But if I don't take the chance now, there might not be another one. And I'm terrible at making decisions, as well!”

“But I had the support of my wife Meryl, which was the main thing. If she hadn't wanted me to do it, then I wouldn't have risked it. Without the support of her and both girls, Georgina and Josephine, we couldn't have done it, and they've probably sacrificed quite a lot.

“So we had a go. All right, we wouldn't have much money, but we'd be there when the children were growing up. So we took the plunge and I decided to paint full-time.”

The family had a three-bed semi in Halstead but moved to a smaller house, cutting the mortgage by half. They were there until 1990, when they upped sticks to another home in the town.

“When I started doing it, times were really tough, financially, and it was quite hard going - very hard in the first few years, when the girls were young. But, luckily, along the way, things have happened; we've met people and things picked up. At least we've got enough money to live on! And the children are grown-up now.

“I suppose I'm a bit selfish in some ways, because I've indulged my hobby. Then, on the other hand, as a family we're all close. And now I'm really pleased that we did do it. You don't want to get to 60 and think 'I wish I'd tried that when I was younger . . .' and, of course, by that time it's too late.”

Although he's painted modern icons such as Concorde and the Eurotunnel Shuttle, Malcolm is best known for transport-related oil-on-canvas scenes from the 1940s, '50s and '60s - the late '50s and early '60s, of course, particularly evocative of his childhood. Indeed, there is a strong nostalgic feel to much of his work - reminders of a time when life had a slower pace.

And does modern transport have the same aesthetic appeal, or is it just a bit too slick and characterless?

“It's still quite a challenge, because you've still got to make an interesting picture of it.” So if someone asked him to paint their Sinclair C5 - the battery-powered tricycle from the mid-1980s, and a commercial flop - he'd happily pick up his brush?

“I don't know about that!” he laughs.

Actually, he's happy to consider any commission. It's a bit of a “how long is a piece of string” question, but Malcolm reckons he probably produced about 15 or so paintings annually in the early years and 10 or a dozen nowadays.

Paintings cost between £3,000 and £4,000 and commonly take anywhere between two and four weeks to complete. The shelves of his cosy studio at the back of the garage are full of reference material there to be consulted or provide inspiration for a new scene.

“Before you start painting, you can spend 4-5 days working out what you're going to paint and what you're going to show in it. That's probably one of the hardest parts: making that first move. After that, one thing tends to lead to another.”

Early in his full-time career, one-off commissions made up a larger proportion of his output than now. Today, he seeks to make each new painting work hard: by selling the same image for calendars, jigsaws, collectors' plates or cards, for instance. “So you're careful about your picture choice. That's key. To sell the actual original artwork is a bonus!”

The smart thing to do is select an image that will have wide interest and also interest him personally. That way, the artist's passion is likely to be reflected in the finished work.

Another yesteryear painting on the living-room wall shows the port terminal at Southampton as it used to be, with a steam locomotive in front of the Queen Mary ocean liner and an old vehicle in the corner. “That way, you'd hope to appeal to enthusiasts of all three modes of transport!” laughs Malcolm. “I suppose it's just hard commercialism, really!”

A number of books have been published featuring his paintings, complemented by text from Ipswich-based transport enthusiast Tom Tyler, too.

Transforming his hobby into a business did make it a slightly different experience, he admits.

“Don't get me wrong, I really enjoy it, so bear that in mind. But when you start a painting, you know people are going to pay quite a lot for a picture, and you know you've got to come up with something they'll want, so from that point of view there's quite a bit of pressure. Also, the more pictures you do, in some ways the harder it becomes - a) because expectations are greater, and b) you've always got to come up with something new. So there is a bit of pressure, but I'm very lucky; I know that.”

Don't want to tempt fate, but does anything ever go awry?

“Sometimes you do something and think it's too big, and then you have to rework it. My 'disasters' seem to come when colours don't go well together.

“It's strange, really. I remember doing a picture of some London trolleybuses - obviously red - and there was an area of green grass behind them. When I did the picture, it was horrible! The two colours just didn't sit well together at all. In the end, the only solution was to change it from a summer to a winter scene and cover the grass with snow!”

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