My dad Brian Sefton was born in 1938 in Batley, West Yorkshire. Like many boys of the 1950’s, he developed an obsession with steam locomotives and made trips far and wide to satisfy his trainspotting hobby. This love of steam would stay with him for a lifetime.
Following his school days where he excelled in art, he graduated from Durham University with a degree in Fine Art and went on to become Head of Art and Applied Studies at Sunderland University (then Polytechnic), where he worked for 40 years until his retirement.
Throughout my childhood he passed on his love of steam to me, building an enormous model railway layout that circled the walls of his studio, and the two of us visited pretty much every steam railway in the country. At this time his art was about as far away from his later steam paintings as you could get, with large abstract paintings covering every inch of wall space at our home in Sunniside, just outside Gateshead in the North East of England. His work from this time is represented in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle, as well as many private collections.
His steam obsession had taken a back seat in the early 70’s as a young family and a demanding career took over. The Cavalcade at Shildon in 1975 that we both attended, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, rekindled his interest and as we were fortunate to live less than a mile from Tanfield Railway, the world’s oldest steam railway, my dad began visiting Tanfield to make many drawings and paintings, becoming an almost permanent fixture in the engine shed and sidings. He donated some of this work to be auctioned to generate funds for the railway’s restoration projects.
It was during this time he began making regular trips to the birthplace of the restoration movement, Woodham’s Yard in Barry, Wales where, following the government’s “Modernisation Plan” of the mid-1960’s signalling the death of steam, nearly 300 locomotives had been sent to be scrapped. He visited Woodham’s Yard many times in the 70’s and 80’s, often sleeping in his car, where he took hundreds of photographs and made many preparatory drawings for the paintings which would become The Barry Collection of over 120 pieces. He was endlessly fascinated by the vast graveyard of decaying locomotives and his paintings captured both the sadness of their demise and the hope that one day they would be brought back to life. In later years he would produce nearly 50 paintings of restored locomotives, many of which he had already painted at Barry many years earlier before they were saved.
He got up every single day, 365 days a year at sunrise to paint in his studio and did so right up until his death in November 2019. His work fell into two distinct areas – his, for want of a better word, “serious” art, which you can see @brianseftonartist on Instagram, and his hobby and passion, the steam paintings. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of UK steam railways and amassed a huge collection of books, magazines, videos, photographs and technical literature to ensure that his work was accurate down to the very last rivet!
He was a very modest man and didn’t publicise or seek recognition for his work, an exhibition at Shildon many years ago being one of the only times his steam paintings were seen in public. He painted purely for the love of it. He would complete a painting then wrap it in plastic and store it away in his studio alongside hundreds of others. My dad didn’t sign his paintings, believing it was “pretentious” and that people should appreciate the work on its own merits, not because of who painted it. He simply wrote his name on the back of the canvas with the date the painting was completed.
He died on 24th November 2019 at the age of 81 following a heart bypass operation that sadly he didn’t survive, leaving us all heartbroken. An unfinished painting of a carriage side at Tanfield Railway stands on the easel in his studio.
He was truly a special person and in the words of my mum, “he saw beauty in everything”. I see it as my duty to publicise his incredible paintings and finally get him the recognition he deserves as, in my opinion, the finest steam railway artist in the world.
Matthew Sefton, June 2020
"I first saw an example of Brian’s work when I was looking for paintings of my locomotive 61306 ‘Mayflower’. His representation of the locomotive at Shildon in 1975 was a stunning introduction to his amazing paintings. The photographic quality of the images of Barry take me right back to the times I went there and walked up and down the rows of locos waiting to be rescued. I am delighted that his work is now available for everyone to enjoy."
“I came across Brian's paintings during a search of images from Dai Woodham’s scrapyard at Barry. I was immediately amazed at the sheer quantity and quality of his work, which were by far the most accurate and detailed paintings of the scrapyard I had ever seen. He was an extremely talented artist and captured the vivid colours of engines that had been in the sea air at Barry for so many years.”
“Brian’s work is truly outstanding! I have followed his work for many years and he was a keen supporter of the Tanfield Railway. His artworks capture the essence of steam, both working and unrestored. They provide an insight into our heritage.”
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