Weak sunshine glints off the glass of the small porthole in the door of the studio. The wood burner is roaring now and I gaze around at the eclectic collection of prints and miscellanea covering the walls.
“I don’t think of myself as anything really, I’m just me. You know, steering my way through life and engaging with things I enjoy.”
I have just asked Simon Bradley how he sees himself. As an artist, a fisherman, an escapologist or a retired policeman. He didn’t really like the question. It would have meant pinning himself down, giving in to classification, interpretation. But he is, or was, all of those things.
That morning driving towards the Lizard, England’s most southerly point I felt like I was driving towards the ends of the earth. As I turned off towards the village of Cadgwith the road gradually grew narrower and narrower, dropping steeply towards the sea. The sky was grey with bright daubs of blue showing through the cloud and the autumnal russet coloured hedges reached out towards the car.
The tiny studio that Simon calls his den is perched on a bank just above the road leading down to the harbour. Painted a jaunty blue and white it has the obligatory floats and buoys hanging against its walls and a noisy seagull called Derek on its roof. This is where Simon Bradley is carving out a niche, or many niches in fact, for himself in a tiny fishing cove hidden on the wild Cornish coast.
Simon was born in 1967 in Northleigh in east Devon, a village with a population of less than 200. From childhood he was drawn to the sea.
“When I was a youngster I used to swim all year round. I went out on the mackereling boats in the summer, going out for free and helping out. Nice old wooden boats and we’d sometimes take out day trippers for an hours fishing or whatever. I just love being on the water.”
His love of the sea is tangible. It seems as if it is a part of every object that surrounds him, it’s in his choice of living, in his weather-worn face and perhaps most affectingly in his art. His linoprints conjure scenes of the salty ocean and his Gyotako work pays homage to the magical creatures of the deep.
And magic has always played a big part in Simon’s life. As a young boy he watched David Nixon on the television and then later discovered that one of his masters at Colyton School was a part-time magician. “He used to do illusions and Russian roulette with explosives and I’d chat with him about it, I thought it would be cool.”
It was through their friendship that Simon began training for an unlikely career as an escapologist. His passion for swimming meant he had an excellent lung capacity so he specialised in underwater escapes and eventually became the youngest fully-fledged member of the Magic Circle on his 16th birthday. But magic was never meant to be a serious career.
When Simon left school, as you would expect, his life took an unusual route. At first he busked around Europe eating fire and swallowing razor blades then he returned to England and bizarrely joined the Police. That was in 1988 and he stayed in the MET for the next 25 years.
“Nothing I have done through life has been a natural progression. Life happens and you must choose to engage.” Simon speaks with a relaxed and easy manner, partly perhaps because he is very tired. He has just returned from an all-night fishing trip searching for cuttlefish and squid and he’s not been to bed yet. “A normal office job was not something I could handle.” He says smiling as he rolls another cigarette.
It was in the Police Force that Simon met his wife, Lorraine, and it was also the Police that in a round-about way helped him to become an artist. He worked his way up through the ranks, walking the beat first as a bobby then for vice and intelligence. But there was always the call of the sea. “I asked to [work at] Paddington Green because it was the train station I knew I could use to get down to Devon again.”
He also spent a difficult period working in a fledgling unit specialising in sexual assault cases. “I know that I did help many people at a stage for them that was just horrendous . . . but then as time moves on you realise that it is not something that you can continue to do.”
His last position was as Detective Sergeant in the Burglary Unit. Then he broke his back in a serious car accident while on the way to a routine call.
“I had quite a lot of problems, the car was a write-off. I needed rehab, hydro, physio to help with walking to start with.” It was a long, painful recovery and while Simon was learning to walk again he began to sketch.
“I’d always enjoyed painting and sculpture but I never imagined I’d be doing them.” He stands and begins to show me some of his work. Bright, bold primary colours on soft white paper. Scenes of boats, flowers and fish mostly made using lino-printing.
When I ask about the direct printing he has been doing recently he smiles broadly, deep creases appearing around his eyes.
“Gyotaku, which is literally fish rubbing. Gyo is fish, taku rubbing. It was actually Lorraine, it was an old Japanese technique she had come across on the internet [for] documenting fish. And it really was more for documentation than art.” He holds up his hands, shoulder width apart in front of his chest, it’s the classic fisherman’s pose. “Recording their size, basically saying this is what I caught, it was this big.”
Gyotaku is a form of monoprinting. Ink is directly applied to the fish and an impression taken on paper by rubbing the surface with your hands or alternatively by using a press. Not only does the impression give a shape and size of the catch but the fish’s finer details, their fins or the pattern of their scales, is recorded too. What started as a method of measurement and recording in the mid-1800s quickly developed into a delicate art form in Japan.
“There was lots of trial and error for me. The Japanese use a kind of ink wash, black or sepia. I tried with acrylics, oil paints but I found the best that works for me is oil based block printing ink which was developed for etchings. For me it works great, I love the results.”
Simon uses cod, wrasse, megrim sole, hake and octopus to make his prints, usually in deep red or cobalt blue. The results are striking. You feel like you are looking at not just a simple print but a captured creature. Their essence on the paper somehow.
Simon uses fish he catches himself and in a way his art is just an extension of that world of fishing. He bought his beloved boat, Stargazy, two years ago from a young fisherman in Mevagissey.
“It was a creel boat, it’s 16ft, a pup-pup diesel, I have enormous fun, I don’t do it to make money but it does make money which is great.”
Usually he goes out fishing alone, leaving and returning with the tides. He gone throughout the night, enjoying the solitude of the ocean. His niche catch of cuttlefish and squid is then sold to some of the best restaurants in London.
“I just love being on the water. It is a very special place that interface between land and sea. When you go out off the beach, it’s like the whole horizon kind of just opens up and wraps itself around you as you go out, it’s just awesome. And as soon as you get that crunch when the bough hits the pebbles again, at that second it is like a switch. You are back in a different world.”
Derek, his five month old tame gull, is squeaking insistently outside and Simon gets up to see what the fuss is about.
Derek the seagull is a new edition to Simon’s world. He found him as a tiny chick when he returned from a fishing trip early one morning. The fluffy ball of feathers was lying in the road outside the studio so Simon picked him up and reared him by hand. Derek has now become a local celebrity, joining other fishermen on their boats, visiting lifeguards along the coast or going for a ride on tourists’ kayaks. He even has his own Facebook page and hundreds of followers.
When I ask Simon what the future holds for him he replies simply, “Fishing, I really enjoy it, so yeah I’ll carry on fishing and fish printing.” The immediate future however is bed going to in the middle of the day and enough sleep so he can make it down to the pub for a sing-song later this evening.
“I’ve no desire to potter on anywhere else, I’ve found it, I am happy here,” Simon has now furnished Derek with a furry yellow tennis ball to play with on the wooden floor of the studio. “It’s fabulous, the village feels like the one I grew up in, except that sea, one of the best playgrounds in the world right here.”
As I stand to leave Simon starts to roll a last cigarette and for the first time I notice that his hands are stained black. I walk away wondering if it was paint or squid ink, or both.
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