'I enjoy it all'

Bill Toop's artistic talent is matched by his zest for life.
John Newth has been to meet him.
Dorset Life May 2005

Hambledon Hill in Summer, painted by Bill Toop  1977
Converted outbuildings in the courtyard behind his cottage in Broadmayne form the studio and gallery of one of Dorset's most popular and successful artists. Now in his early sixties, Bill Toop has run his own gallery, taught painting, designed buildings and created TV costumes, as well as producing watercolours which can be found everywhere from Dorset sitting rooms to the Sultan of Oman's palaces.
Bill's roots are firmly in Dorset, although as a child his family moved around the county, following his father's work as a policeman. Born in Bere Regis Bill lived successively at Sandford, near Wareham, on Portland, in Weymouth arid in Sturminster Newton. 'Portland was a wonderful place to grow up', remembers Bill although they lived in the house attached to the police station at Fortuneswell, where the kitchen was a former cell! Bill passed the eleven plus to Weymouth Grammar School, which meant no school when flood waters came over the Chesil Bank, sometimes cutting off Portland for as much as a week.
When his father was promoted to sergeant and moved to Sturminster Newton, Bill transferred to Blandford Grammar School, travelling down each day on the Somerset & Dorset Railway.
It came as something of a shock because the school at Blandford was so much smaller than Weymouth's but it was during this time that Bill met the fellow-pupil who would be his future wife, Elizabeth.
Bill's first artistic success came at the age of eight when his painting of a ginger cat won first prize in a national competition run by Fry's Chocolate. He remembers encouragement from Miss Stickland at the school in Sandford but he says 'Watercolour painters mostly tend to come out of nowhere'. As a teenager he won several certificates on 'Sketch Club', a TV programme presented by Adrian Hill. One of them was in a competition to design a pub sign and Bill tactfully called his 'The Artist's Head', illustrating it with a picture of Adrian Hill!
When Bill arrived at art college - Bath Academy of Art at Corsham - he found that the entire emphasis was on modern art, 'which I love but which I simply don't do. I found painting abstracts interesting and enjoyable and I learned a lot about printmaking which proved useful, but the experience confirmed that watercolours were what I wanted to do'. Bill did find one kindred spirit in Lord Methuen, a keen amateur painter and owner of the land on which the college stood, who invited him into his glass-houses to paint the plants there.
Bill continued his energetic courtship of Elizabeth while at Corsham, coming home every weekend, either by hitch-hiking or by bicycle 'my record was two and a quarter hours he remembers proudly and returning on the 5.30 am Blandford & Webb seed lorry to Bath on Monday morning. They would marry in 1967 and have two children, Lucy and Oliver.
'When I left Corsham recalls Bill, 'the Principals parting remark to me was that I would never make a living out of watercolours. Taking him at his word, I got a job with Salisbury City Council, doing architectural illustration and model-making, but I continued with my painting and in 1970 had my first exhibition at Gallery 24 in Bimport, Shaftesbury. I was also doing some freelance architectural illustration.
As if all this was not keepinq him busy enough, Bill was playing in a blues band, the Bohemians which built up quite a reputation in the Salisbury area and appeared on the same bill as more famous names such as Brian Poole and the Tremeloes, the Troggs and Cream. They also played a gig with Long John Baldry whose diminutive pianist, Reg Dwight, is today better-known as Sir Elton John. Music has been important to Bill ever since he was head boy of the choir at St John's Church, Portland, and there is still always a guitar to hand while he is working in his studio.

Oliver at Kimmerage  1996

Beach Cafe, Cornwall  2004

Bill Toop at work in his studio
 In 1976 he opened his first gallery and in the same year had his first exhibition at Salisbury Playhouse, which had just opened and for which he had done the architectural modelling. He has had an exhibition there every other year since then, usually at pantomime time. The business grew steadily to include picture framing and painting classes. One of Bill's pupils - unknown to the others in the class - was his own father, who had always had the ability to paint but not the chance to develop it; now he became a very competent artist who exhibited in the Dorchester Library among other places.
In 1978 Bill left the council altogether and in the same year was elected, at an unusually young age, a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. Continued growth in both the business and his reputation meant a move to a larger gallery in the 1990s, but he and Elizabeth always planned to return to Dorset as soon as they could. This mean waiting until their son, Oliver, had finished his career at Bishop Wordsworth School and won a place at Oxford, but in 2000 they moved to Broadmayne.
'We loved Salisbury but it is too far from the sea', says Bill. 'l like being by water, and rivers or the sea feature in a lot of my paintings. Perhaps it has something to do with having lived on Portland. When we were at school, Elizabeth and I would sometimes take the train down to Bournemouth and the bus across the chain ferry to spend the day at Studland.
Although a Bill Toop painting is very recognisable, his style has changed over the years. 'An artist must always be moving on' he says. 'You start by looking at other people's work - I wanted to be Sir William Russell Flint or Rowland Hilder -but you must then develop your individual style'. It is noticeable that Bill's own paintings have changed since his return to Dorset; he thinks that the reason might be his emergence from a period of ill-health.
Another change is that Bill always used to paint on the spot but now he is more likely to do a pencil sketch and work on the painting in the studio. 'I also use photographs, but look at them, turn them over and, using the pencil sketch as a basic reference, paint the scene from memory. As well as his paintings he keeps limited edition prints and greetings cards at his studio, which is open from 11.30 to 5 on Sundays and at other times by appointment. Commissions still account for a large part of his work: 'I like doing things to a brief', he explains. 'It's satisfying to be in touch with the realities of commerce and it's a challenge to get it right. I enjoy it all'.

 

 

Bill Toop WRA
5 Knighton Lane
Broadmayne
Dorchester
01305 854274
Sport has also been an integral part of Bill's life. His father played in goal for Chelsea in wartime matches and Bill himself played football for Sturminster Newton and cricket for Dorset under-19s. For all his artistic achievements, one senses that one of his proudest moments was leading Salisbury to victory in the South West division of the NALGO cricket competition. To this day he maintains a level of fitness to put many younger men to shame.
As well as painting around Salisbury every lunchtime and evening, Bill found himself being asked by a friend at the BBC to create three-dimensional costumes for the BBC. This involved anything from 'Dr Who' monsters to animal heads for dancers to wear in light entertainment shows. Often Bill would find himself working on these in the early hours.
The candle can he burnt at both ends for only so long, and Bill took advantage of local government re-organisation in 1974 to go onto a three-day week with the council.