Free from the constraints of commercial interests, Reuben Colley is now pursuing his own creative vision, as well as assembling a group of aspiring artists via his Moseley-based gallery. His art is uncompromising, refreshing, and much of it focuses on his hometown of Birmingham
Without wanting to be unkind, Reuben Colley doesn’t really look like an artist. He doesn’t really look like a ‘Reuben Colley’. As I went to meet him at his eponymous gallery in Moseley, I half expected a flamboyantly dressed libertine in a long shirt and scarf, with a goatee and an affected manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. Plain speaking and dressed in jeans and jumper, Colley has no obvious airs or graces. Pretentious he is not, and neither is his painting. Described by one critic as a “real painter”, he creates gritty, uncompromising cityscapes, avoiding romance or “anything twee”. Birmingham is his prime inspiration and where he feels most at home.
The 37-year-old grew up in Hodge Hill, and later attended Handsworth Grammar School. He was spotted by his art teacher, James Byrne, who recognised his potential and gave him support. “He saw that I took things seriously and was dedicated. He treated me in a serious manner, gave me a part of the art block and resources, which at age 15 was great. I did my first ever oil piece for my GCSE exam and that was me set then,” says Colley. Colley then attended Bournville Art College and, later, Wolverhampton University. The latter was a mixed experience, as Colley “didn’t see eye to eye” with his tutors, but he knew he’d found his calling. “They just put us in a derelict building and told us to get on with it. It gave us tremendous freedom, and we formed a small art group, bouncing ideas off each other. It was my first experience living as an artist, and it was great.”
Following university, Colley spent a decade under contract with Washington Green and the Halcyon Gallery. He established a following during this time, but soon felt the urge for greater independence. “It was great for exposure and building reputation, but they don’t look after the artists as much as they should. Big companies try to mould artists in a certain way and advise them on what will sell. I think that’s really dangerous.” Colley’s work was becoming grittier and darker, and he wanted to pursue his vision free from commercial constraints. He also wanted to paint his home city, rather than creating London-based pictures, which typically drew a larger and wealthier buyer. “I wanted to paint Birmingham and not London. I was fed up with going to places that didn’t mean much to me and having to paint them. “When I left the contract, I thought I would be able to work with other galleries but it just didn’t work out that way. You still come up against the opinion of the gallery director, and it was too controlling. I didn’t want to come out of one controlling environment and into another. Eventually I thought: ‘enough’s enough – I am going to do it myself’.”
In 2010, Colley established the Reuben Colley gallery in Moseley as a place for his own art to be displayed and sold, and for others in his circle. He is now the centre of a new group of artists (see Meet the Unromantics), which includes his old art teacher, James Byrne. But Colley says he doesn’t interfere with their vision, believing in freedom and responsibility. “Artists need to be responsible for what they want to produce, and that’s what we echo here. We can help and advise the artist on production, but we want them to be responsible for it. I am now picking up things from other people in the same way as I did when I was in the derelict building in Wolverhampton. It works because it’s not forced or contracted. Artists benefit from that kind of environment.”
Going it alone was a major risk. Most major galleries are in London, where the art buying market is so much larger. Also, paintings of Big Ben sell more than those of the Rotunda. “I got to the point where I thought, if the audience isn’t out there then I am in the wrong game, anyway,” says Colley. “This was last chance saloon, and a lot of galleries wrote us off. In fact, a lot of Birmingham artists wrote us off in the first night. They said they admired what we were doing but gave us two years.” The strain of running the gallery and working as an artist was initially very hard, but now Reuben has proven the critics wrong. His latest exhibition, some of which is pictured here, is selling well. “For the first two years I was a nervous wreck. I was working so hard, both painting and running the gallery. But now I am in a much happier place, and I think it’s reflected in this new line of work.”