The fond childhood memories behind Harland Miller’s most scathing paintings
The artist reflected on a different era before the pandemic hit
Around the beginning of the 21st century, Harland Miller started his Pelican series, paintings that took their design aesthetic from Penguin Books’ old factual imprint, Pelican, and their words from an old, slightly dispiriting view of England.
The works were, in part a reaction against the way the county had changed. “I think it was in the 1980s; there was some kind of move to rebrand Britain in a more positive – perhaps more international –way his was great,” Miller explains in our book, Harland Miller: In Shadows I Boogie, “but my heart went out to those with the job of reimagining the weather, especially in the North, and the ‘Pelican’ series derived from there.”
Indeed, Miller has greater affection for that inclement climate than his Pelican painting, Bridlington – Ninety Three Million Miles from the Sun, would suggest.
Speaking to his old local paper, The Yorkshire Post, following the opening of his career retrospective at York Art Gallery, Miller explained, “I made the first of the Pelican series 17 years ago when my wife was pregnant with our son Blake. I remember thinking, ‘I am about to become a father, but my son is going to grow up somewhere completely different from where I did’. I suppose it made me feel nostalgic for my own childhood.”
Miller’s childhood memories included holidays in Yorkshire coastal towns such as Whitby Bridlington and Staithes, which might not have been especially luxurious or exotic, but retained a certain charm.
“For me those holidays are a reminder of simpler times,” he said. “My mum’s family were from Staithes and we often used to go up there on weekends. Dad’s Austin Healey [car] was forever breaking down and mum would be panicking about negotiating Devil’s Elbow, a notoriously tricky bend on the coast road, even before we passed the Rowntree’s chocolate factory near the end of our street.
“The whole journey took on mythic proportions, wondering whether we’d make it or not. It wasn’t helped when my brother Baz insisted on driving and Dad made him hand-drawn L-plates with a felt tip pen which was running out.”
That’s one work of art that doesn’t make it into Miller’s retrospective, though the Pelican paintings are in there, alongside plenty of other works that evoke Britain then and now. To see more of them, and to hear more from Harland, order a copy of Harland Miller: In Shadows I Boogie here.