Delaware artist Peter Sculthorpe brings American landscapes to life in new show

Bringing the American landscape to life is what makes Peter Sculthorpe unique.


Sturdy fieldstones, old trees with ageless character, and lovely time-worn architecture have often been the brick and mortar of Peter Sculthorpe’s meticulous watercolors and richly painted oils that for the past 37 years have captured the essence of the Brandywine Valley. 

The Rockland artist also travels extensively to gather inspiration and subject material for his works. His sharp eye and gifted hand have captured the glacial seaside ledges of Monhegan Island, the primal coast of Newfoundland in Canada, and the rugged Oregon coast  where he seizes the enduring raw power of the waves crashing against the rocky shoreline.

“I’ve been fortunate to get to know these coastal destinations, from vast open regions to the fierce rugged coastlines,” relates Sculthorpe, 66, sitting in his home and studio in Rockland.  “Storms roll through, the seas and winds, it’s all fantastic.”

Powerful, evocative and poetic, “New Works” showcases 19 Sculthorpe oil paintings that celebrate the artist’s  30th anniversary with Somerville Manning Gallery that is perched on the banks of the Brandywine in historic Breck’s Mill in Greenville. The show runs from Nov. 21 through Dec. 20.

“When I met Peter three decades ago he was doing amazing watercolors. Big scale, I mean four, five, even seven feet tall,” recalls Vicki Manning, owner of Somerville Manning. “In watercolors what you put down stays, so that was very impressive. Plus, there was his keen sense of observation. He did this massive painting of Lake St. Regis in the Adirondacks. You felt like you were at the lake, standing on shore looking out.”

Telling stories

A tall and athletic man with an unassuming manner, Sculthorpe paints in a high-ceilinged second floor loft overlooking the Brandywine. Clusters of brushes, partially squeezed tubes of oil colors and drawing materials are scattered across a pair of hefty worktables. Easels hold pictures of landscapes, misty seascapes, and village-scapes.  Canvasses, some of size, others small, rest on the floor.  His paintings present a dialogue on man and nature. Even the smallest details convey messages, telling stories to the viewer.

Two years in the making, the current show includes those powerful coastal scenes of Maine and Newfoundland, but Sculthorpe also returns to the landscapes of his former home on the old King Ranch property in Chester County. He has long been an admirer of the late 19th century landscape artist William Troste Richards whose meticulous works were imbued with a delicacy and atmospheric quality that were extraordinarily beautiful.

“While on my bicycle I’ve frequented many of the places Richards painted,” Sculthorpe notes. ”I see the landscape one pedal stroke at a time and that allows me to take it in and then go back and work with it. Chester County is ingrained in me so it’s easy to fall back to it. These days I see it with a more mature eye, so I’m able to capture even more than the past.”

Sculthorpe uses his brush like a pen, blocking in, or sketching, the dark shapes of pine trees and the outline of a barn and stream that twisted across the bottom of the hilly landscape. It is the artist’s small strokes that really build up depth, color and his exquisite detail. 

His Chester County paintings include old farm outbuildings, post-and-rail fences, stone walls, rippling streams, winter scenes of snow covered fields fringed with dark trees, a foxhunt, or a lone rider in the distance. In “Crossing the Buck Run” the composition draws viewers into an inviting landscape.

“I find it so appealing,” observes Manning. “I can almost hear the stream flowing. See the light moving across the field in the middle plain of the painting. It creates all these shadows. It  so intriguing. It speaks to me. I want to put myself there. “

Moonlight pieces coveted

Sculthorpe tells stories with his brush about the way light peeks through a stone wall, forewarning its demise.  Some of his most coveted works are moonlight pieces.  Moody and atmospheric, they are often accompanied by snowy pastures.  After seeing moonlight scenes by the 19th century Dutch artist Caspar David Friedrich, he started painting them decades ago. 

“I was captivated with Friedrich’s moonlight paintings and they became a great inspiration to me,” Sculthorpe says. “It’s a different moment in time. You’re using a different palette, more experimentation. It’s about the super illumination of a full moon, but also figuring out the surrounding sky. Clouds that are illuminated across the fringes of the moon.”

Dennis Gleason showcases the artist at his Boothbay Harbor, Maine gallery.  

“You can lose yourself in those skies,” Gleason observes. “It’s very tough to balance those levels of hue and tone, to capture the nuances of moonlight on snow-covered terrain or in an autumn field.”

“I put these colors together on the paper and they cook,” Sculthorpe explains.  “Putting orange and blue in a solution and spreading it on the canvas to form the atmospheric cloud patterns. It creates this luminous green, a fantastic color.  It’s scary how luminous it can be.”

“Alone with the Moon” is one of the highlights of his current show.

“You see clouds moving across the sky during the day, it’s the same at night,” Sculthorpe remarks. “By using a snowy ground I’m able to present all sorts of shadow patterns which really sets the nighttime scene off.”

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Sculthorpe’s family moved to West Chester when Peter was 14. Back then his first ambition was to become a professional cyclist and race throughout Europe.  But more often, he was spending time in his room sketching.

Canadian roots

“The drawing process just got more and more intense,” Sculthorpe recalls. “Much of my work today has its foundation in what I used to draw as a kid. When I had nothing to do I was mesmerized sketching architecture and landscapes.”

On a summer trip to his uncle Gord’s studio in Toronto, the youngster experienced his eureka moment.  Paying the bills as a commercial artist during the week, his uncle flourished as a landscape painter on weekends.

“When I walked into that small studio I saw Uncle Gord’s sketches on a bulletin board, and the room had that linseed oil smell,” the artist recalls with a small smile. “I said, ‘this is what I want to do. This verifies the fact that you can do this.’ From then on, as an artist, I never looked back.”

A graduate of Henderson High School in West Chester, Sculthorpe received a scholarship to the Hussian School of Art, and subsequently studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art.  He sold his first painting in 1970 for $800.  Continuous experimenting and study brought freshness to his works and lifted his national reputation over the next decade. 

An admirer of the New Hope and Hudson River Schools, Sculthorpe’s paintings have been acquired by prominent private and corporate collections, and have been exhibited in an array of galleries across Canada, Europe and the U. S. His masterful oils and watercolors are included in the permanent collections of the Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine Museum of Art, the Butler Museum of Art in Ohio and the Frye Art Museum in Seattle. His paintings in the current exhibition range from $7,500 to $40,000.

Travel adds a new dimension

An avid cyclist and kayaker, Sculthorpe traveled to the Georgia Bay region of Ontario, Canada last summer where he hired a guide and went kayaking for a week.

“My parents took me there as a child,” he says. “Being Canadian, it’s important to me to return. It’s a land of rugged wilderness and solitude, a magical place with vistas in every direction. It was fabulous.” 

Every trip adds a new dimension to his works. Cascade Head, the wild foggy headland on the central Oregon coast, earned its name from the cascades that fall off its cliffs into the Pacific. It is a haven for plants and wildlife, including the Oregon silverspot butterfly. It’s where he painted “South of Cascade Head” in the Somerville Manning exhibition.

“Being next to the largest ocean really can enhance the colors, or make the colors softer,” Sculthorpe relates. “There is a warm light along the coast in that suspended atmosphere. It has long been a favorite destination for California impressionists.”

Sculthorpe is continually revising his artistic directions. His creations were recently recruited by an art gallery in Vail, Colorado and he will be travelling to there to paint. In the next few years his goal is to build a loyal following of patrons in the western states.

“I’ve really have been going after different stuff over the past decade,” he says. “Heading west definitely  pumps me up with excitement. I figure I’ve got 15, maybe 20 years left. I’m on the move. As they say, so much to do, so little time.”

Somerville Manning Gallery is in Breck’s Mill, at the foot of Brecks Lane off Route 52, Greenville. Reception for the artist, 5:30 to 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21. Gallery hours, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday through Dec. 20.

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