My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying
Last night I heard the cry of my last companion
The roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone
I thought of the days gone by when we were thousands
But I know that I soon must die the last leviathan
This morning the sun did rise crimson in the north sky
The ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sigh
I rose for to take a breath it was my last one
From a gun came the roar of death and now I am done
Oh now that we are all gone there’s no more hunting
The big fellow is no more it’s no use lamenting
What race will be next in line? All for the slaughter
The elephant or the seal or your sons and daughters
My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

‘The Last Leviathan’ by Andy Barnes

INTRODUCTION

The first time I met Samuel Bassett was at Tremenheere, a sculpture garden in his native Cornwall. I liked him straight away. Most artists tend to be a bit buttoned up, but Sam was easy to talk to. With his broad grin and his boyish good looks, he could have been the lead singer in a garage band. The next day, I went to see him in St Ives, a few miles from Tremenheere. “I really hope I like his art,” I thought, as he led me into his studio. There’s nothing worse than liking someone, then finding you can’t stand their work.

The small room was full of paintings. Big canvases, six feet across, stacked in piles against the walls. Sam dug out a few out to show me. I was amazed. This was like nothing I’d ever seen before, yet I recognised it straight away. You know how the best music sounds unique, yet strangely familiar? Well, it’s the same with painting. A true artist creates his own world – but once you step inside it, it feels as familiar as your own.

The people in Samuel Bassett’s paintings are precise and delicate, etched with draughtsman-like finesse. The forces that surround them are enormous, brutal, elemental. His characters are submerged in vast dark seas, battered by savage storms. He attacks the canvas with angry splashes of vivid colour. The fragile figures in his paintings often look a lot like him.

It usually takes an artist a lifetime to find their own voice. Sam has found his already, and that’s what gives these pictures their raw power. He speaks from the heart, about the things that move and trouble him. He paints the language of dreams and memory. His paintings describe his hopes and fears. There are echoes of others artists in his work (Bacon, Baselitz, Schiele…) but these fleeting similarities are coincidental. His work is utterly his own. His artistic training has given him a mastery of paint and an eye for detail, but he hasn’t been stifled by art history. There’s nothing self-conscious about his work, no attempt to be like or unlike other artists. It’s autobiographical, expressionistic. It’s about the way he feels about the world.

I met Sam again in London, a few months later, at the Saatchi Gallery, where he was showing a selection of his work. Talking to him again, I realised I’d slightly misjudged him. I realised his happy-go-lucky attitude was only part of who he was. It wasn’t the whole story, of course it wasn’t – the paintings told you that. They had that sense of human suffering which all great artists share. Looking at these paintings made me see him in a different light. There was some sadness behind that broad grin, some suffering behind that breezy manner. You could hear it in his laughter. You could see it in his eyes.

He was man enough to admit that life’s experiences often overwhelm him. A lesser artist shirks crisis. Sam confronts it in his painting. He paints the good times and the bad times. Whatever happens in his life, it happens on the canvas, too. Painting is his secret diary, his confessional, his raison d’etre. ‘For me, making art is a need and a must,’ he says. Look at the paintings. It’s all there.

Samuel Bassett was born in St Ives, in Cornwall, in 1982. If you already know Cornwall, you can skip this bit – but in case you don’t, you need to know that Cornwall is a place apart, as different from England as Wales or Scotland, and that St Ives is one of the most historic and atmospheric towns in this wild and lovely land. A long, narrow peninsular, jutting out into the Atlantic, Cornwall feels separate from the rest of Britain, and Penwith, where Sam grew up, feels separate from the rest of Cornwall. A few miles from Land’s End, surrounded on three sides by open water, it’s like an island. London is a day’s drive away. With the rest of England so remote and distant, its people have always looked beyond Britain, out towards the wider world.

Artistically, St Ives is unlike anywhere else in Britain. Perched on the edge of England, you’d think it’d be a sleepy backwater, but for a century this little seaside town has been at the cutting edge of modern art. In 1920, the great British ceramicist Bernard Leach established his own pottery here, and in 1939 Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson came here to escape the Blitz. They were joined by some of the best British artists of their age: Terry Frost, Patrick Heron, Roger Hilton… Francis Bacon came here too (he actually painted in Sam’s old studio). Even Mark Rothko dropped in. Sam is now part of this grand tradition, but with one important difference. Most of those famous artists were outsiders, Londoners looking for a great escape. Sam’s Cornish roots go a lot deeper. His father comes from St Ives, his mother comes from Newlyn, and his family have been in Penwith for at least 300 years. His father was a fisherman, sailing all the way to Ireland and the Bay of Biscay. He was a miner too, before Cornwall’s ancient tin mines closed. For Sam Penwith isn’t just a pretty place to paint – it’s part of who his is. He loves the wildness of the sea, especially in winter. ‘The sea’s very black – it’s almost like oil,’ he says, as he talks me through one of his latest paintings. Most artists come to paint Penwith in summertime, and depart when the weather turns. This is what the sea really looks like on winter’s day, as darkness falls, after the holidaymakers have all gone.

Sam isn’t the sort of artist who stands in front of a canvas for hours on end. He works in short concentrated bursts, focusing all his energy into intensive sessions. This emotional intensity is reflected in his art. “I’ve been married, I’ve had a child, I’ve been divorced – I’ve had no money, I’ve had good money…” But whatever else is going on, his art is always there. “I’ve had a good year,” he says. “I’m excited about the next steps within my painting.” He never knows where it will lead him. It’s a journey into the unknown, a voyage of discovery. Who knows where will it take him next?

William Cook, 2017

William Cook is a writer and arts journalist for The BBC, The Spectator, The Independent, Christies Magazine, The New Statesman, The Guardian and Apollo Magazine.

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