BY PETER MORTIMER
My first interest in the North Shields painter Victor Noble Rainbird came in July 2015 and the exhibition of his work at The Old Low Light Heritage Centre in his home town of North Shields.
There was also, at the same venue, a talk on the painter given by Dave Young, Rainbird aficionado and the man mainly responsible for the renewed interest in the artist.
Young raised more than £6,000 to give Rainbird a proper headstone at Preston Cemetery in North Shields where he had lain in a pauper’s grave for more than 80 years. A beautiful monument it is too, created by the sculptor Neil Talbot and containing images from many scenes and objects which Rainbird knew and painted so well.
So who was this man? And why the upsurge of interest? And why am I moved to write a full length play about him?
Rainbird’s life was poignant, even tragic. He was born in the tough fishing port of North Shields in 1887 and such was his early creative promise as a young artist at school and college that in 1911 he was the only northerner to be accepted for the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he went on to win several awards. A glittering future seemed to lay in store for Rainbird. But it didn’t quite work out that way.
He served in the Northumbrian Fusiliers in World War One, which he survived, though at a cost, suffering both from shell shock and mustard gas poisoning, part of that doomed young generation indelibly marked by the First World War. Rainbird was never the same again and though he continued to paint some fine work, his deteriorating health saw him turn to alcohol. Returned to his native North Shields he would often knock out quick paintings on pieces of card or whatever was at hand to fund his drink.
So prolific was he that many of the pubs in Shields – which in those days numbered hundreds – had a handful of Rainbirds under the bar counter – a witness to his ‘trading’.
It was this prolific nature of his work, his need to churn out the paintings to supply his ‘basics’ that partly explains his meagre reputation thus far. He was seen as a jobbing painter, though his best work is much more than that. Also, there was the much vaunted Cullercoats school of painters only three miles distant up the coast. That small fishing village’s reputation as ‘Little Bohemia’was boosted by the famous US artist Winslow Homer living there for two years .North Shields’ artists tended to be overlooked.
Rainbird later developed cancer, his marriage fell apart and he died at the young age of 48 in 1936. In his final years he was living in Sunderland and two of his paintings had to be sold to pay for his funeral and bring his body back to his native town, after which he was condemned to his eighty years of obscurity in a grave, of two roughly stuck together pieces of wood bearing his handwritten name.
Rainbird painted in oils and water-colours and created many pencil drawings.. His subject matter was varied; North Shields scenes, European cities, biblical stories, seascapes and Greek mythology. One Northumbrian millionaire boasts of owning more than 300 of his paintings. He also created stained glass windows in several churches here and abroad. Newcastle has a school named after him. During the war he was commissioned to do drawings of enemy positions and peace time also brought him many commissions. Ironically, given it was the war that changed his life drastically, his last commission was
a portrait of Earl Hague, wartime commander of the British forces.
Writing the play will, I hope help establish Rainbird’s rightful reputation as a painter of real quality, one who was also often forced to, as it were, sing for his liquid supper.
Part of the process of creating the play involved me going to art classes the better to get inside the head of a painter – a unique experience.
Rainbird has lived inside my head for more than two years and I suspect will be there for a good while longer. To write a play about anyone, real or fictitious rarely works I find unless that same person can haunt you. It is a haunting a writer should welcome.
Peter’s painting (above)
The play Rainbird will be produced by Cloud Nine at The Exchange Theatre, North Shields in April 2018.
To see examples of Rainbird’s work, just Google Victor Noble Rainbird.