As a boy it was up on Ilkley Moor, on walks with his Grandfather that he learned to use his eyes, nose and ears and watch with concentration both animal life and death and the passing of the seasons and it was at Ilkley Gammar School during the Second World War that his talent was recognised and nurtured. He himself said that it was a large reproduction of Bruegel’s 'Hunters in the Snow' on display which aroused his interest. However, It wasn't landscape alone which inspired him, with one memorable sketching trip where he found a live grenade, caked in mud and missing its pin, and “cycled all the way back down from Langbar Moor with the grenade bouncing about in the basket on the front of my bike”; it was also a boy's interest in and accurate drawing of a Spitfire Mk IX which was rewarded by Dad with a sixpence.
'a star in his sky', followed by two years National Service in the RAF based in Norwich where he managed to take a part-time course at the School of Art. It was in Norwich that he discovered and admired the watercolours of John Sell Cotman in the Castle Museum.
In 1954, at the age of 23, London and the
Royal College of Art beckoned and supported by a 'J Andrew Lloyd Scholarship for Landscape Painting' he initially studied printmaking and although he soon moved to painting, the precision of line required of an etcher remained with him and central to his subsequent practice.
It was now that he was influenced by the colour-blocked landscapes of John Nash who had used the phrase genius loci – spirit of place – to describe the inherent energies of particular locations. Having graduated in 1957 he obtained a postgraduate fellowship for a year which saw him employed him as editor for three issues of the RCA's Journal 'ARK' which was making a significant contribution to postwar British art.
At the age of 26 he was already veering away from the mainstream and like Peter Lanyon, who he admired, favoured the abstract expressionists over the emerging American popular culture. In 1959 he started his teaching career at Kingston School of Art 1959 and married Rosamond Rockey the following year and became a father to Sally two years after that and in 1964, leapt at the opportunity to take the family to his beloved Yorkshire when a teaching post came up at Leeds Polytechnic.
In the years that followed at Leeds hundreds of students benefited from his generous, quietly spoken advice and from the connections he wove with other art forms, especially dance. It was here that he collaborated with the mime artist Lindsay Kemp and with the poet Ted Hughes. Although he settled with the family in Collingham, near Wetherby, it was moors which he had known and loved in his youth which drew and inspired him and in 1975 at the age of 44, he bought a 17th-century farmhouse called 'Barker' in Bishopdale. It could only be reached by a precipitous and deeply rutted track and clung to the moor edge. From the window of his makeshift studio he could see curlews and swallows passing at eye level and was thrilled by the sudden appearance of RAF jets from the nearby airbase, which reminded him of his 1940s wartime planespotting. It was here that he later recalled he "tasted another life, another time and history.”
"A delight is when I am sitting at my window and something clicks – a wall shape and a cloud shadow – and with a felt-tip pen and pad I can work through twenty or thirty variations. The idea comes and goes. It's really a mental exercise; you test how far your mind can discover yet another variation. Into the unknown. A game for one."
He thus proceeded to paint : the surrounding hills, the dry stone walls, the eerie moorland and the curlews and owls passing his window. For him, Andrew Lambirth in the 'The Spectator' noted, painting was 'not a record of appearances, but an investigation into the mysterious heart of things'.
"This is where I used to work in Bishopdale. A farmouse on a thousand foot contour and you look down into Bishopdale. This is Bishopdale Beck and this is the whorls, steep side, whorls going down. Curlews passing my window. Marvellous interactions. Movements."
Grey Rain and Signs (Malham)
"This is a painting of something that happened to me in Malham. It began to rain and I sheltered under a rock, an overhanging rock. And a wire came down from the rock and there was a big raindrop hanging on the wire, glistening like a jewel. That was the centre of the universe for now. That was special and unexpected. And all these other things came off it. Oh, what a moment. What a moment. This is just a moment when there's a wire fence, when there's this and this floating, and this and there's just a moment. And then there's a figure. Strange figure. One legged figure. A figure balancing on top of this creature. The limestone landscape is full of incredible shapes - the clints and the gripes where the limestone is worn away. So you're living in a landscape where things are worn away and little clues are wedged in the cracks and the crevices."
Owls over Reva Cross
"Reva Cross is a big carved cross set into a drystone wall on Rombald's Way which is the packhorse route across the Pennines and I used to go there every wednesday at 11 o'clock and always something was happening around : the day of the Red Bull; the day of the Snowstorm; the day of the multiple rainbows. From a distance I'd seen two shapes circling round the cross. and realised there were two short eared owls doing their mating display round each other. Round each other. And I thought : 'Oh. never see that again. What an event. What a marvellous event and I think the best thing to do to remember it is the mime it with my hands. To play it out. To mime it like Lyndsay Kemp might do.' These owls were circling round each other. The male under the female. Circling round underneath almost touching. I'd never see that again. The owl. The nest. The egg. The bird. The entrance. Suggestions. The bracken. Another shape. And the shape balancing, just about to fall over. The shapes of the birds. The sun. The moon. The planets. Death. The threat. Whatever this is."
Lunar Eclipse, Reva Cross
"I've suggested a figure on it. That position, which is a strong traditional image of a figure on a cross. I'm not religious, it's just the idea of a figure at the mercy of the elements. 'I am at the mercy of what happens'. Above it I've got spheres and these are suggesting an eclipse and I imagine it's a special time. There was an eclipse. If you were a magician or a shaman you could foretell there was an elipse coming. If you could say : "Tomorrow I will darken the moon" or "tomorrow I will darken the sun." What power that would give you over the tribe or group of people you were with. So there's something of that in it. There's something of bracken in it. There's something of a man hiding in the bottom. There's something of the green man. The green man is an image which we see in churches and it is a man looking out though vegetation. It is a man with vegetation growing out of his mouth. And this must have been a key image for these small tribes in prehistoric times, seeing a man in the undergrowth. "A Friend or foe ? 'Is it a foe who will steal my women and steal my crops, steal my goods ?' Is it a threat or is it a friend ? Do I recognise it as someone who will help me through a bad day ?" A face looking at him is part of the image."
"I think paintings should be touched. I think you should look at them and I think you should talk about them and you should dream about them and tell youself stories. And there no right answer. My answer isn't any better than yours.".
Derek had his work presented on a 'BBC Your Paintings' slide show :
"The landscape enters our bodies
....we dance its life"
What better epitaph for an old shaman-artist ?