The Staffordshire artist’s misty landscapes of urban France, his rugged depictions of life in the Cannock coal mines, and his familiar landmarks with a new twist have gained worldwide recognition. But now he’s back, with his first UK exhibition in a quarter of a century.
After spending most of the past two decades focusing on Paris and the United States, the 79-year-old is back in the West Midlands and holding an exhibition at the Heath Hayes Library. This is his first time exhibiting in the UK since 1996, when he hosted an event at Donegal House in Lichfield.
There is a bit of ironic humor in his latest exhibition, with several of his paintings featuring familiar landmarks like you’ve never seen before.
Lichfield Cathedral features in several of his new works. In some, it forms the backdrop to battle scenes during the English Civil War, surrounded by horsemen on horseback and soldiers firing cannons. In another, it’s given the Gallic treatment, with an elegant miss sheltering under an umbrella, while a 1940s Citroën walks past lush green trees.
“I spent 25 years painting for Parisian galleries, so my photos have a lot of French influence,” he says.
The painting of a coal miner leading a mine pony under the ground is a nod to his Staffordshire home – while the scenes of downtown Spain, showing immaculately dressed senoritas on the balconies of distressed-looking apartments, are influenced by the time he spent in Spain.
“I took a lot of pictures of the Cannock coal mines,” he says. “I do a lot of pictures of balconies, when you go to some cities in Spain the buildings are very tight. The balconies are very close to each other, and you see people sitting on their balconies about 6 feet away. one on the other. They’re nowhere specific, they’re pretty generic, I’d say Santander looks a lot like that. “
A Parisian nightclub scene, with Can-Can dancers and an orchestra is also presented, as well as a classic scene from Venice.
Cavan regularly exhibited his work in Cannock and Lichfield from the 1970s to the 1990s, and scenes around Lichfield, including the city’s famous cathedral, were a large part of his early works. But Cavan also became fascinated with capturing the desolation of France’s tourist traps during off-season times, and some of his paintings began to reflect that.
In 1993, his work caught the attention of a central Paris art gallery, which offered to hold an exhibition, and Cavan decided it was time to move.
“For the next 25 years, Paris was the hub of my work, then the United States as my paintings went global,” he says.
“It has been a successful quarter century, but the Parisian gallery closed when the owner retired, and Brexit restricted further work in Europe, so I chose to relocate to the UK.
Cavan was born in 1942 in Barnard Castle, the small market town in north-eastern England made infamous as the place where former government adviser Dominic Cummings went to “test his eyes”.
At the age of seven, his parents noticed his talent for drawing and sent him to a local art society. It was there that he came under the guidance of Douglas Pittuck, a renowned painter whose paintings are part of the Queen’s collection.
Pittuck remained his mentor until he left to study fine arts at Durham University. Cavan has shown an aptitude for capturing people in his work, and numbers have remained a vital focus in his work since then.
After obtaining a baccalaureate specializing in fine arts, he became an art teacher in 1964. He began to visit Spain with his wife and son, then found inspiration in the Camargue, in the south of France.
After working for 12 years as a teacher, Cavan decided he wanted to paint full time, and by the 1990s his work was gaining attention in France.
His work is influenced by the cities and landscapes of Europe, the spontaneity of the Impressionists and the Camargue action. “Inspiration is everywhere, even in the drollness of everyday life, there is something unusual or humorous to note,” he says.
The exhibition at the Heath Hayes Library runs until October 27 and is open Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., Thursdays and Fridays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and Saturdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.