The Colourful World of Winston Branch
A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning is a 15th Century painting by Peter Paul Rubens that hangs in London’s National Gallery. It depicts a countryside idyll. Sunlight spills across a fertile landscape, rolling hills and cattle grazing, a small wooden bridge crosses a stream and clouds build softly in a hazy distance. “Look, look,” says Winston Branch, gently grabbing my elbow, tracing invisible lines across the canvas, showing how the Flemish master was able to depict scale, depth and the illusion of space using oil paint. “See here. Look.” I do… and I don’t. It’s a bit like having a kick about inside The Bernabeau with Zinedine Zidane. I try my best to keep up.
“Sir, sir!” A security guard has noticed that Winston’s lesson in theory is perhaps getting a bit too close to the priceless work for his own comfort. “You can’t go over the rope.” “Oh don’t be ridiculous!” comes the reply.
“Come on,” says Winston, “You said you wanted to see the Turners.”
Now aged 76, with a shock of white hair and eyes the colour of antifreeze, impeccably turned out in charcoal grey Drake’s made to order tailoring, Branch moved to England from St. Lucia as a teenager. “I had an aptitude for art, and so I was sent off to study and become an ‘Englishman’ as my father said.”
“When I was in England, I decided to put every ounce of my energy into becoming what I am now, a painter. I had the facilities to go to the Wallace collection, look the Boucher ladies; the National Gallery, look at Rubens; Kenwood House. I spent lots of time drawing at the British Museum. I went to every museum in London.”
Attending the Slade School of Fine Arts, Branch had his first solo show when he was still a student. In 1971 he won the British Prix de Rome, and later on received a Guggenheim Fellowship. He’s worked everywhere from Berlin to Belize and appeared in more than 25 solo shows and 75 group exhibitions.
He has paintings in the permanent collections at the Tate Britain, the Legion of Honor De Young Museum in San Francisco, and the St Louis Museum of Art in Missouri. He’s taught at UoC Berkely, Goldsmiths, and The Slade, amongst other venerable art institutions. As the critic Carlos Diaz Sosa states, “Branch paints abstract canvases in cool, cloudy colours that have a quality which allow the viewer to explore the depths of the mind. Branch uses paint like a symbol, a purely aesthetic language, an illustration of spirit.”
In person his paintings are very beautiful. Controlled detonations of colour.
After briefly dabbling in figuration, Winston moved into abstraction after living in New York in the late 70s, his pathway shaped by late nights drinking whisky with fellow artists and a fateful trip to the Met.
“There was an incredible exhibition of Clifford Stills, it blew me away, the paintings were covering the whole wall. I thought, 'this is it,’ I'm going to do this. This is where I am going, I am part of the new world. And it was just colour. I mean, to put pigment on the surface and get excited—it's the sweetest thing I have ever experienced."
Zachary II (1982)
Dodging through the crowds of summer tourists in backpacks and comfortable shoes, we scale the steps of the National Gallery, the sky grey and cumbersome overhead, joined by our friend, Cedric Bardawil, who earlier this year displayed an exhibition of Winston’s work at his Soho gallery titled Fragments of Light.
“About two years ago we ran into each other at the club,” says Cedric. “I recognised Winston and introduced myself. We chatted and he ended up inviting me for lunch. And what a lunch it was, we spent the next two hours together, not a moment of silence. I left feeling as though I’d made a new friend. When I opened the gallery in June 2022, Winston was one of the first people through the door.”
“I believe in talking to everybody, you never know what will happen if you talk to people,” says Winston. “My entire life has been accidents. I take the moment, carpe diem, and seize it, whether it works or not. Only by going for it do you get anywhere. That's the whole basis of how I happened to be going to Europe and travelling to different parts of the world. I had to be out there, put myself on the world map. I wasn't lucky, I just was very persistent.”
Speaking to Tate Etc, the gallery’s printed publication last year year, Branch expanded on his approach to work. “Well, first of all, no-one asks you to paint. If you take on a difficult career, you have to bear the consequences. Hard work, sweat and perseverance get you to where you want to get to. And I had to find my way.”
We head to Duke’s for a very important meeting with Alessandro Palazzi — the master. A martini made by the table, No. 3 gin and lemons from the Amalfi coast, then onto a reservation at The Wolseley, a grand old dining room, the echo and din of conversation and a good time, even if it is a Monday evening.
“Let me tell you something,” says Winston from across the white table cloth, a twinkle in those glacial eyes. “You can’t dwell. Never, ever dwell. You have to keep moving forward, don’t get stuck in the past.
“That’s the only way through it all.”