James Wilkinson reflects on art career which has taken him on tour with Rolling Stones
Art can lead us to all kinds of places ... relaxation, fulfilment, inner peace and, for some, commercial success. Few could claim it has taken them on tour with the Rolling Stones.
But that was where James Wilkinson found himself after impressing the band with his artistic talent.
Not that he did any painting during an exhausting few days with the rock legends in America. Fair to say he discovered the Stones really knew how to party.
Having just toured with Oasis - themselves no lightweights - he found the veteran rockers were in a different league. As he puts it: “They’d had 40 years of practice”.
Since then his art has taken him in many directions including teaching, staging exhibitions, charity fundraising, curating, collecting and, most recently, opening a gallery.
But another constant thread has been music. James has painted a galaxy of stars including David Bowie, Ed Sheeran, Tinie Tempah, Amy Winehouse, George Ezra, Jools Holland, and, of course, the Stones.
“I try not to make my portraits photographic,” he says, “because if you do you might as well have a photo. I always try to hide something in there.”
He is the only artist to have ever been appointed to the V Festival - capturing images of the stars both on and off stage.
“My art has led me to meet most of my heroes and most of them lived up to expectations,” he says.
“It’s afforded me quite a lot of opportunities. My whole life has been music and art.”
And he has long been a trailblazer for wider appreciation of the artwork connected to the music scene.
He is an avid collector, but the thousands of items he has amassed stayed under wraps until he and his wife Dawn came up with a new business idea.
In December 2020 they launched Pop Nouveau, an art gallery that celebrates the talent, skill and imagination behind the album covers and promotional material.
The gallery in Sudbury opened with an exhibition of John Lennon artwork that coincided with the 40th anniversary of the former Beatle’s death.
Less than a month after opening - and with plans underway for a David Bowie exhibition this January - another lockdown closed the doors again. But they are continuing to operate online and have now set up a walk-around of the Bowie show on their website.
They hope to reopen on April 12 when restrictions on non-essential retail could end, and also do some private views with small invited groups.
“We have the Rolling Stones exhibition in the window, and we will be putting our Sex Pistols window up soon to advertise a forthcoming Punk New Wave exhibition,” said James.
”After April some of the online exhibition will be shown again for the public, as well as a full year of bi-weekly exhibitions.”
His love of art began in childhood. “I was doing portraits of my father - who was a quantity surveyor - and his colleagues when I was eight or nine.
“I used to do caricatures. He would take them in to work to make them laugh.
“When I left school I became a commercial artist. I went straight from school at 16 to an advertising agency and became their resident artist.”
But what seemed like a great opportunity ultimately led to disappointment.
“When I left school I thought I’d get a chance to do film posters ... but I was doing pictures of people washing up, and screwdrivers.
“I went freelance for a couple of years, but then I hated it so much I didn’t pick up a paintbrush for ten years. It put me off and I became a bond trader in the City.
“In the end the stress of that got me painting again - I started painting to relax. That led to my first exhibition - 80 portraits of rock musicians.”
His artwork brought him into contact with some of the biggest names of the time.
He also met the Rolling Stones - bonding especially with Ronnie Wood who is also a talented artist.
“Ronnie and me talked a lot about art. He lent me his club in London to do an exhibition there.
“After that I was invited out on the Stones’ Forty Licks tour in 2002. I had some hair-raising times on that tour in America. At the last concert I was standing up asleep.
“I thought Oasis were bad but the Stones had had 40 years to practice. I didn’t paint at all. I was just invited to have fun.”
In 2009 James became artist in residence at Hylands Estate in Chelmsford. He was then made the official artist for the V Festival, held annually at Hylands Park.
“Every year I’d create an exhibition - sketches, finished paintings, photos, videos. I’d also get people like Ed Sheeran to do selfies,” he said.
Fans snapped them up raising £20,000 over five years for charities like Little Havens Children’s Hospice in Essex and the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity.
“Ed Sheeran’s really into art,” said James. “When I went into his compound at the V Festival , he was the first person to walk over. He posed for me and was very, very cool about it.
“My son was with me - I always take a young person in case I can’t identify any of the musicians.
“At my first V in 2012 my son wasn’t there, but I’d asked him if there was anyone he would like me to paint. He said D J Fresh.
“I didn’t know who that was, but I found his dressing room, and a guy came to the door and said come in, so I took some photos of him.
“Turned out it was his driver. It must have given them a really good laugh. After that I always took a young person with me.”
He quips that makes him sound “like an old grandad,” then adds that as well as five children aged from eight to 37, he does have eight grandchildren.
James and Dawn, who live in Stoke by Clare, came up with the idea for the Pop Nouveau gallery during the first Covid lockdown.
“We have an extensive catalogue of original album artworks - one of the largest, if not the largest, in the world,” he says.
“Dawn loves it as much as I do. But it was all archived. People didn’t get a chance to see this stuff.
“Lockdown was on. We thought we can either sit here and do nothing, or get on with it instead of sitting at home and pondering.
“The response to the gallery was crazy. We’ve been really encouraged. People have written lovely things in our guest book, and have bought some of the stuff.
“Most of the Lennon artwork hadn’t been seen since 1974 when it was originally made.
“It was kept at Capitol Records in America, who decided to get rid of it a year ago.We decided to take charge of it.
“We don’t think everyone who comes through the door can buy, but it still deserves to be seen.
“Not all of it is a bank-breaker. There is promotional artwork as well. It’s a chance to own a little bit of history.
“We have 2,500 covers and original artwork and we’ll change the display every couple of weeks
“I’m standing in front of original artwork for a Bros album. We also have Van Morrison’s Have I Told You Lately That I Love You.
“I’ve been saying for years that this is the missing link in the pop art chain. It was created by real artists. They created some really iconic artwork.
“Pop art is art for the people, not for the elite. The art establishment hated Lichtenstein and Warhol until they started to make money.
“What they did was ignore all this. For 10 years I’ve been saying we have missed a trick here, because all this beautiful artwork was being thrown away.”
He points out that this year the original tracing by artist George Hardie for the Led Zeppelin album cover sold for £260,000.
“I think my view has been vindicated a little. It’s part of our culture and a very important part of our culture.
“If I say to people in the street what are your top five album covers, they’ll probably be able to tell me.”
Last year James also gave himself a new name to go with a change of direction in his own work.
“During 2020, I decided that my art would move away from classical portraiture and more into the Pop Nouveau genre to compliment the cover artwork and so I needed a name,” he said.
“I was driving a Citroen Picasso and its number plate was STORMY, and so Stormy Picasso became the pseudonym for the paintings.”
With the gallery currently during lockdown, James and Dawn continue to post updates on Instagram and Facebook at popnouveaugallery, and run a click and collect service using the website paintpop.com.