Justin Tew’s compelling seascapes offer a nostalgic view of the ocean but, as he tells Janet Menzies, his concerns surrounding conservation are now informing his work

Justin Tew captures compelling and nostalgic seascapes but now his concerns for marine conservation are starting to inform his work, as he tells Janet Menzies.

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Who knows the origin of the phrase, ‘the call of the sea’? But we all know exactly what it means. It’s the feeling that Justin Tew captures in his nostalgia-dappled seascapes. Bathers wade out into Mediterranean shallows; umbrella pines shade the shoreline. Everyone will supply their own special location but for the artist, it is the French Riviera. “My favourite hunting ground is the Côte d’Azure – Villefranche and Cap Ferrat. It’s in my DNA. My father started to go to the South of France back in the 1930s and he loved it. So as children we all went back every year. Where I live now in Bedfordshire you are as far away as possible from the sea – but there is something about being beside the sea. And I can’t get enough of it.”

Justin Tew

Cap Ferrat 1.

Riviera-lovers will certainly recognise particular views but Tew doesn’t want to pin down his work to postcard scenes. He stresses: “I try not to be too representational, it is the feeling that I want to communicate. I am interested in our emotional response and the escapism that it conjures up. The nostalgic element just seems to occur as part of the seascapes.”

That nostalgia is rapidly becoming all too well-founded as the plastic tide threatens the world’s most beautiful seascapes. The challenge is leading Tew’s work into new areas. “I was in the Maldives 10 years ago and even then I noticed the plastic waste. This time it was so much worse. We went out as a family earlier this year with our son and ended up doing a project with him and just trying to collect as much plastic as we could. It made me realise that I needed to do something in my art. So I was painting Maldives seascapes but I also started to do just the fish and to paint them big. I am painting them bigger than they are in reality but I think the fish have to be big. It makes them speak.”

Justin Tew

Painted Sweetlips.

Tew’s first art project, while still at university, was also conservation-linked. “I read biology at university and during my degree I ended up in Zimbabwe in the bush working on a black rhino conservation project and did some studies of the rhinos then. I continued to paint African wildlife but at first I was quite conflicted about whether to pursue art. I came back to the UK and did estate agency and hated it. Then I discovered Venice and loved the magic of the bay and the light. My mind was made up when I did some limited-edition prints and sold them to John Lewis, which gave me the security to concentrate on painting.”


Revisiting his childhood haunts on the Riviera, Tew began to paint the scenes he knew so well, with instant success. “I painted this hotel, it’s on the coast between Monaco and Nice, with this amazing swimming pool looking out over the Mediterranean. I saw it and knew I had to paint it. I wanted the interplay between the man-made pool and the natural sea – with the sea ending up as 95% of the painting. And that was sold through a London gallery.” Then, by chance, Tew met the owners of the hotel on a recent visit to Monaco and has now been commissioned to recreate his original works.

As we read this, Tew will be at work on the cliffs of the Côte d’Azure. “It feels a bit cheeky. I will be working making lots of images but it is a bit of a justification for a holiday.” This time, however, the trip will have some longer-term plans at heart. “I will be doing commissioned work, so it will be two weeks of absorbing, soaking it up subconsciously and getting the feel and eventually the feeling will come out on the canvas. I have six or eight seascapes under way at the moment and two big fish. But I very much want to do an exhibition in aid of marine conservation. So I am trying to sew the seed in Monaco. We were staying at the Yacht Club earlier this year and Prince Albert is very passionate about marine conservation. It would be wonderful to create a gala dinner where we could capture people’s attention – and, of course, get them bidding to buy paintings to raise money for marine conservation charities.”

Justin Tew

Bathers near Cap Ferrat.

Tew adds: “Ideally, I want to get an exhibition going here in the UK as well. I am hoping to work with Philip Collier of the Collier & Dobson gallery in Fordingbridge. I want to build up a stock of fish and seascapes that can be exhibited so that I can then donate the proceeds.” Tew should easily be able to get people to contribute their money – but, equally, he may succeed in creating a donation of feelings, an emotional investment that is every bit as important if we are to save the scenery we all love.

To see more of Justin Tew’s work, go to: www.justintew.com

You can also see his work at Collier & Dobson, 24 High Street, Fordingbridge, Hampshire SP6 1AX; www.collierdobson.com

Other galleries showing Tew’s work include: Norton Way Gallery, Letchworth, Hertfordshire (www.nortonwaygallery.com); the Mosaic Gallery, Woburn, Bedfordshire (www.woburnmosaic.co.uk)