An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
Here is the second stanza of W. B. Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium (1928) poem from which Dave Pearson’s exhibition Return to Byzantium takes its name. Inspired by Yeats’ words and the city of Manchester, this series of paintings offer the viewer a chance to take a transcendental journey to an otherworldly place.
Like Yeats’ poem, Pearson’s work has a mystical quality about it. Images emerge, fall back, and re-emerge with new detail as your eyes dart across the paintings and attempt to decipher their message. You fall into a lucid dream-like state where the bizarre characters within the works develop narratives of their own: ‘Hi Pink Antler Guy, where are you asking to take me?’
Pearson’s Byzantium paintings were first exhibited at the Turnpike in 1994 and were made specifically to fit the gallery. This rehanging of the works gives the Turnpike the chance to celebrate its history of bringing great artwork to the small town of Leigh, as well as further emphasising its recent resurrection* as a noteworthy regional, public art gallery by linking its past with its present.
Pearson, who died ten years ago, was an obsessive worker whose life was dedicated to making art. Alongside the paintings is a video interview with a friend and former student of his (Pearson taught at the Manchester School of Art). This short film takes you through Pearson’s former live-in studio, a three-story town house in Haslingden, whilst recounting tales of his working habits – he rarely slept and would often live off custard-creams and lemonade rather than stop for a proper meal. This house is packed full of the artist’s work.
The Byzantium paintings had been lying in storage in the house and are but a small fraction of this artist’s work. Being able to see these fantastic canvases back at the Turnpike is a rare chance to be enjoyed. Pearson cared little for recognition and as such has missed out on being properly celebrated.
I cycled to Leigh from Wigan along the canal and past the beautiful Flashes – Scotsman’s, Pearson’s, Turner’s, Horrock’s and Pennington. These lakes and reservoirs are the result of mining subsidence and remind you of the area’s industrial heritage. With the past always present, particularly in Leigh, which is without a train station, leaving it somewhat isolated as a struggling victim of austerity and before that, post-industrial decline; Return to Byzantium takes on a greater meaning in this current rendering of the exhibition. Thinking about Yeats’ poem, looking at Pearson’s images, contrasting Leigh with imagined ideas of the Byzantine empire, was a rather strange but great experience.
Dave Pearson: Return to Byzantium at The Turnpike in Leigh, 21 June–4 August 2018
*The Turnpike Gallery closed in 2013 as a result of a nationwide programme of cuts. It was re-opened in 2017 as an independent arts organisation.