'I’m drawn to this face, to the determination and the unflinching stare. The confidence.'

William–Labourer, 2010, by Peter Burns (b. 1944), 31½in by 23½in, Collection: Ann Cleeves

Ann Cleeves says:
Peter Burns’s portrait of an unnamed shipyard worker represents home for me. When we first moved to the North-East in the mid 1980s, ships were still being built on the Tyne and I know people who once worked on them. I’m drawn to this face, to the determination and the unflinching stare. The confidence. We can tell from the crumpled clothing that this is a man who takes more pride in his work than in his appearance. Vera, my fictional detective, would understand and admire him. My response to the painting might be tinged with nostalgia, but the sitter is clear-eyed and unsentimental.

Ann Cleeves is a writer and winner of this year’s Diamond Dagger, awarded by the Crime Writers’ Association. Her latest novel, Cold Earth, has recently been published in paperback.

John McEwen comments on William–Labourer:
Peter Burns was born in rural Gilsland during the war. His father, after wartime service in the Royal Navy, was a clerk in Newcastle. His parents encouraged his talent for drawing and painting and, from the age of 11, he was determined to be an artist.

At 15, he joined the swan Hunter shipyard on Tyneside as an apprentice and worked in shipbuilding until the yard’s closure in 1991. ‘I actually liked to go to work. I sketched at lunchtime and the men were very obliging to sit for me. Working in the shipyards was vital for my imagination and subject matter.’

Regular appeals to Northern Arts proved fruitless but his illustrations for a history of Wallsend, ‘WHERE THE WALL ENDS: RECOLLECTIONS OF A TYNESIDE TOWN’, led to an 18-month artistic secondment from swan Hunter to British shipbuilders. The work was shown at Northumbria University and led to commissions from Shell. He illustrated the 1984 company calendar, Shell and the community, which won the top award at the Business Calendar exhibition in Stuttgart and later featured in That’s Shell That Is at the Barbican.

William—Labourer shows an odd-job man. He wears the tweed cloth cap, a convention that began to disappear in the 1980s. today, Mr Burns’s work is represented in several public collections, including the Laing Art Gallery and Discovery Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne and the Shell Heritage Collection in Beaulieu, Hampshire.

He lives in Gateshead, is currently working on a landscape of his favourite Lindisfarne and is deciding on a suitable venue for a retrospective exhibition. His advice to young artists is: ‘Don’t ever give up, keep trying, apply for any financial help available—and never lose your sense of humour!’