Denny is the real inspiration for artist Lesley

22-03-2013. Picture Michael Gillen. STIRLING. Smith Street Art Gallery. Artist Lesley Banks, ahead of the opening of her new solo exhibition.
22-03-2013. Picture Michael Gillen. STIRLING. Smith Street Art Gallery. Artist Lesley Banks, ahead of the opening of her new solo exhibition.

Venice is the inspiration for Lesley Banks’ new exhibition, but her career as an artist can be traced back to her childhood in Denny.

The 50-year-old is recognised as one of the UK’s leading figurative painters and her work has been exhibited at both the National Portrait Gallery and Royal Academy in London.

Her latest solo show, entitled ‘Beyond the Grand Canal’, has just opened at the Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Stirling.

It’s a colourful look at some of the Floating City’s less well-known corners.

The 30 oil paintings featured capture Venetians at home and at work.

But it was in Denny that Banks first announced to the world that she would become a painter.

“No one in my family was artistic,” she said. “But from the age of four or five I declared that I would become an artist when I grew up.

“I was an only child until the birth of my brother when I was seven, so I used to spend a lot of time on my own drawing and painting.

“I think a lot of artists benefit from being only children, as they are forced to make their own entertainment.”

Banks certainly wasn’t short of things to do in her youth, especially once her family moved to a new home in Denny.

“Braes View was great,” she said. “Back then there wasn’t that many houses there, so it felt quite rural. You could be in the countryside within five minutes. We could run about wild.”

Her childhood interest in painting was nurtured when she became a pupil at Denny High School in the mid-1970s. At the time the school had a forward-thinking art department led by teacher Jimmy Dunn.

Pupils were encouraged to treat the subject seriously and those that displayed talent were actively encouraged to apply to the prestigious Glasgow School of Art.

“I don’t think I could have attended a better school,” said Banks.

“In that era, private schools did not consider art to be a subject worthy of much time or effort. It was the comprehensives that had the best teachers.

“I was very lucky to have passionate teachers such as Mr Dunn and Mr Mitchell. They would arrange extra classes and regular visits to galleries. They always went that extra mile.”

Banks was offered a place at Glasgow School of Art in 1980, but admits that she initially struggled to fit in.

“I was just a wee lassie from Denny”, she said. “I really floundered in my first year and lost a lot of confidence.”

Thankfully her talent was spotted by teacher Barbara Rae - an acclaimed artist in her own right - who examined Banks’ portfolio and decided she should be admitted to the extremely competitive painting and drawing classes.

Banks says it was the Falkirk-born Rae who restored her confidence to follow her chosen path. “I didn’t want to be shunted into textiles,” she added. “I wanted to paint!”

It was on an inter-rail trip across Europe following her graduation that the painter began the love affair with the country that has provided a continuing source of inspiration to her art.

“I visited Italy and just loved it. We were staying at camp sites, and I remember visiting Florence for the first time and thinking: ‘I am definitely coming back here and staying somewhere nice’.

“I just love the sights and the colours of Italy and also its people and so when I got the chance to spend some time in Venice I jumped at it.”

Banks made two trips to the city to paint in 2011 and 2012, when she stayed as a guest of Lady Romilly 

“I got in touch with the British Council and explained I was looking for somewhere to stay. They put me in touch with Lady Romilly. I was delighted to be invited, but her house isn’t exactly representative on most people living in Venice!”

After being put in touch with another resident, Banks began painting in earnest. The results, which are now on display in the Smith Art Gallery, are a mixture of interiors and landscapes that give a unique insight into one of the world’s most famed cities.

Asked how she would describe her style to someone not familiar with her work, Banks said: “I suppose I’m quite traditional. I paint with oils on canvas or board. What I like to do with by paintings is build a sense of narrative.”

There’s certainly plenty of stories attached to her latest exhibition, which tells the story of ordinary Venetians - those who live away from the Grand Canal.

In 2009 Lesley held a successful exhibition at the Park Gallery in Falkirk to celebrate 25 years as an artist.

One of the paintings featured was of a young Fran Healy, who is better known as the frontman of the hugely successful indie rock band Travis.

“I knew Fran when I did some teaching at art school and he was a student there,” explained Banks.

“He agreed to let me paint him. His mum now has that painting, which she kindly let me borrow.”

Banks, who now lives in Bishopbriggs, is looking forward to welcoming many friends and family members from Denny to her new show.

And she’s always willing to offer advice to young artists looking to start their own careers.

“It’s a hard route to choose - if you are not good at self-motivation, it’s the not the job for you.

“I have my studio at home, and I can’t wait for my partner and children to leave in the morning.

“You need to like your own company.”