Andy Parker: musician & painter

11 Feb

Everyone has a story. Is it strange to have been born in Covent Garden and become a landscape artist? Probably not if your major influence is Turner whose home was round the corner… just over 200 years earlier. Andy Parker, who’s lived in Islington since 1980, talks about early morning painting trips, walking around London and his 2015 plans to visit and paint at 15 of Turner’s most popular seascape locations, in-between promoting his new band – Andy Parker and the Internationales. Interview by Nicola Baird.

Andy Parker: xxxx

Andy Parker at work outside Somerset House. Photo by Jan Kotkowski. “Jan is dead now but we used to paint on Hampstead Heath.”

“I had a number one airplay single in Spain, Dead Letter File, playing with Steve Lake in The Relatives.” For a moment Andy Parker, sitting in Kafeteryum cafe by Caledonian tube seems to grimace – and I’m reminded of that moment in About a Boy by Nick Hornby when Hugh Grant’s character admits his income comes from an Xmas number one he doesn’t love. Here’s the song on YouTube (see Andy’s note below*).

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Barnsbury Wood. (c) Andy Parker

Barnsbury Wood. (c) Andy Parker

“I’ve got my own band now: Andy Parker and the Internationales. We call it that because everyone’s foreign – Jamaican, French, Mexican and German,” says Andy explaining that Burn a Brighter Flame, his fourth instrumental album will be out in February 2015 and is a mix of Latin, blues and reggae [find them here]

However much Andy, 57, loves the band it’s landscape painting that has him getting up at 5am in spring and out of his home behind Pentonville Prison on Vulcan Way.

He’s a prolific walker of the borough – making it from Cally tube to Angel’s Chapel Street market in 10-15 minutes – but he’s good at stopping too.



Andy Parker: “Snowman – canvas painted from my window, looking on to the estate, in the snow a year or so back.” (c) Andy Parker

“My day starts when the sun comes up. I don’t mind painting outside ever, though I’d rather the weather was ferocious than grey,” he says wistfully looking at grey sludgey London through the café’s windows towards a block of flats that he remembers used to be a vast bingo hall.

Although not formally qualified as an artist, Andy spent two years at St Martin’s as a mature student. “I didn’t start doing art properly until my late 20s/early 30s,” he says. But by then he’d also acquired 10 years experience as a sound recording engineer at Pyramid Arts Development in Dalston, worked in PR, sub-edited for magazines, contributed to music magazines and even put dead bodies in the fridge at the Royal Northern Hospital on Holloway Road (where he met Lesley, his son Otis’ mother). “Crappy jobs are not so crappy if you’ve got something else to be doing – like art or music,” he explains.

Andy Parker: artist and musician with a lino woodcut he's working on and flyer from his recent Barbican show.

Andy Parker has had exhibitions at Voluntary Action Islington on Pentonville Road, Rowan Arts at the Nags Head and Islington Arts Factory. His most recent collaborative venture in December 2014 was contributing music for Revelation – Art of the Third Age – an arts project organised by Islington artist Chris Avis as part of the Barbican’s open lab scheme.

    • Places Andy Parker likes in Islington
    • The original street market at the Nags Head (now gone) had duckboards laid over a muddy car-park and plastic sheeting overhead – guaranteed to drip rainwater down your neck.
    • Chapel Market used to run the full length of the street, selling everything from apple doughnuts to sad-looking boiler chickens hung on a stall, with a row of market lock-ups opposite the side of Sainsburys. It’s still great for fish, fruit and veg.
    • The run-down streets and lock-ups around White Lion Street, also now redeveloped, were where I saw the London showing of radical 80’s artist Judy Chicago and her famous Dinner Plates show – in a place that then became an electrical warehouse for many years.
    • The first time I remember coming to Islington, I have a recollection of rows of steps lining the main street, where we sat one early morning in Spring to take a breather after walking from Manor House, heading back to the West End. By the time I moved here, all those steps were earmarked for change and only a few of the originals at the Angel still remain.
    • Kafeteryem just by Caledonian Road tube is opposite a block of flats that used to be a vast bingo hall.

      Kafeteryem just by Caledonian Road tube is opposite a block of flats that used to be a vast bingo hall.

      “Now my relationship with Islington has much to do with food and the local traders! When we were kids my mum never cooked on Saturdays and bought us food from the Soho delis, a tradition I kept with my son growing up. As the old Italian delis have largely gone, with the exception of the excellent KC Continental Stores near King’s Cross and many of the butchers have disappeared, new businesses have sprung up and in places like Caledonian Road a rich diversity has allowed all sorts of ethnic groupings to supply their own local needs – all this in a street over a mile long that still doesn’t contain a bank and hasn’t for 10 years.”

    • We used to eat smoked meat, fish and chopped, pickled veg in brine when I was growing up, bought from that last wave of white emigrants: Polish, Italian, French and Jewish who settled in Soho after the war. At my first primary school I was in a minority of English speakers – kids who didn’t want their parents to understand what they were saying at home spoke to each other in English!
    • I really like Yasar grocery – a Turkish store – just after the railway bridge on Caledonian Road. Moonlight on Holloway Road has a good bakery, and Macius, the Polish deli down by the Tarmon on Caledonian Road, has a fine selection of delicacies.
    • The Draper’s Arms in Barnsbury is a pleasant place to sit and have a pint. My son likes Arsenal, his Mum was Man United and I was a Spurs fan, so I’m not going to be standing around amongst loads of cheering Gooners when I have a drink.
    • The Estorick Gallery has some great Italian art and like the Screen on the Green is an occasional expensive indulgence.

Turner tour 
The result is that his work rings with intent, and is more often than not inspired by Turner’s loose brushwork and quest for drama. This tendency is going be tested to the limit when he starts his Turner tour to discover what our connection still is with the sea.

“Turner’s prints of the sea made him famous with the public. We’re no less an island but do we still have a connection with the sea? Almost all those sea pictures are painted looking back at the land, rather than the usual perspective of looking out to sea. I’m going to 15 locations, almost all are sill working ports or harbours, except Margate. But I’m not convinced that Turner painted much on boats. He didn’t paint on the spot. He drew fast and then went back to his hotel room, and he experimented with staining papers. There’s a pier in Deal he may have drawn from looking back at the town, and perhaps in some paintings he stood in a bay when it was low tide then added the big waves and sunsets.”

Not only is Andy challenging the established view that Turner was recreating what he saw, he’s also challenging the idea that those dramatic red skies had anything to do with the popular theory that it was down to Krakatowa* exploding. “No one else saw them. Constable was painting at the same time, was meticulous in recording the weather conditions and though he made his painting look fantastic he never experienced them. One aspect of Turner’s greatness was to make things up. It’s not what’s in front of you, it’s what makes a good painting that counts.”

Andy’s also going to be having fun – by doing the trip on his motorbike, although he points out this is also a practical option with all his kit.

Andy Parker: "In the church gardens by Ironmonger Row."

Andy Parker: “Dans le jardin – in the church gardens by Ironmonger Row.” (c) Andy Parker

From Soho to Cally Road
“As a child my mum would say to my sisters ‘if you ever get accosted on the way home, go to the working girls on the corner and get help, they won’t take that crap’. I think it was sound advice! People don’t expect people to live in central London, but I grew up navigating the way to the bus stop and my primary school by strip clubs and the theatres,” says Andy.

“We lived adjacent to what is now Stringfellows. My parents split up in the late 1960s so my mum brought us up above the saddlers’ shop my family had run in Covent Garden since 1850 [for the 50 years before that the family had traded in Soho]. The only shops left that still remain from my childhood of a similar vintage are Beales the chandlers at the end of Neal Street and Smith’s umbrella shop at the top of Shaftesbury Avenue.

Andy had immense freedom as a child – there were even bombsite playgrounds in the West End back then – and as he grew older he spent a lot of time in the National Gallery. Not only has it made London his village, it’s also ensured that he has a tough core.

Andy Parker: "Alleyway - that little passage at the end of Almeida St leading into the square beyond." (c) Andy Parker

Andy Parker: “Alleyway – that little passage at the end of Almeida Street leading into the square beyond.” (c) Andy Parker

Life in Islington
“People say ‘Islington? Isn’t Upper Street marvellous!’ But then there’s Caledonian Road. There’s a big divide. When I was in short life housing (Andy had around 11 moves as a short life tenant in the borough) we were looked down on by the council tenants and also by the people who own their own nice houses. There are quite a lot of villains in Islington, too: it’s a profession in some families. I’ve seen kids with their hoods up throwing rocks, torching cars or stealing scooters and it makes me wonder if they are being mischievous or just doing their apprenticeship?”

It’s said good humouredly – Andy’s a great talker – but he’s good at making character judgments too, thanks to his habit of making pen sketches. “I worked as a studio assistant for an artist who had mental health issues so his social worker said get him doing something outdoors. We’d go to exhibitions regularly or paint at Russell Square.” Even now Andy often walks over to Russell Square to paint – the result is a series of more than 70 paintings of people sitting, relaxing, having lunch, talking on the phone – and they do sell.

“I do traditional landscapes as well but this is a chance to put figures against landscape so I can use this green, that green, against a shaded green and a lit green – nothing in the way of fencing or even trees – just the way I see them.”

It’s this single-mindedness and clarity of vision that Andy will take on his Turner tour and what was needed to get the new album recorded.

“There are always so many ways to waste time,” he says draining his black coffee, thinking back perhaps to some of the horrors that life has thrown at him – a baby son dying at just three months, and the years when he was stressed and ill with ulcers that put paid to his studio career and then his ex-partner’s unexpected early death from similar causes to their son. But his enthusiasm for the spring project is clear – a time when he looks set to create even more paintings than his usual brilliant bursts. Do share what you think of Andy Parker’s paintings on the comments below.

PS: If you like Turner, have a look at Cyril Mann’s Islington art published on islington faces blog here.


From Andy Parker: I’ve no idea who put it up the first Relatives single on YouTube. It is incomplete – should it be of interest, the second Relatives single can be found, in a complete form on:
Krakatoa is an Indonesian volcano which famously erupted in 1883 – one of the most violent volcanic events in recorded history according to Wikipedia here.

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via at Thank you.

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This blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or jobs to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola


2 Responses to “Andy Parker: musician & painter”

  1. andrew browne February 24, 2015 at 10:50 pm #

    I was on a working holiday from Sydney, when I met Andy Parker in London in 1988. He was working in sound engineering and as a musician, always drawing, always talking. A compendium of facts and observations, anecdotes fascinating and copious. Some years later he showed up in Sydney and at that time I was venturing tentatively and naively into the world of songwriting. Andy was inspirational, encouraging and wholeheartedly supportive. I’ve not looked back and have evolved into a more complete musician since those formative years. His influence and guidance were immense. I keep an eye on Andy’s activities via his regular electronic posts and have watched with fascination the progression of his work. I’m moved by his art, conjouring up the England I feel more than know, by way of dampened light, slow-moving landscape and muted figures. Thanks for this insightful update on this fine artist / musician / human. I look forward to tagging along with Andy as he revisits the footfalls of Turner.

    • nicola baird blogs February 25, 2015 at 9:05 am #

      Hi Andrew, how good to hear this. Thank you for sharing and good luck with your music too. Nicola

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