LOOKING at the early works of Chipperfield artist Graham Boyd, currently on display at Bushey Museum, there is a stark contrast between the cool-toned pieces hanging on the walls and the vivid hues depicted in the booklet of his contemporary collection, which is housed at the Campden Gallery in Gloucestershire. Examples of Graham’s work can also be seen at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool and he has exhibited at the Royal Academy and other major venues.

Graham’s paintings are all of a time and a place. His exhibition in Bushey titled Visual Metaphors: Early Works deeply reflects when and where they were painted.

“They are a record of the light and impressions of the time,” says Graham. “I wanted to explore the energy you can’t see but can feel. I was moving towards abstractism but then there’s no such thing as abstract painting, it’s always about something.”

Born in Bristol, Graham was stationed in the Middle East from 1948 to 1951 while doing National Service. He went on to study at Watford School of Art before spending time with his fiancee’s family in Africa which had a marked influence on his work. When the relationship faltered, Graham returned to live in the studios he had glimpsed while at art school.

By the 1950s, Meadow Studios in Bushey, was a kind of creative shanty town. In their heyday, in the 1800s, the bright and roomy studios were established by Sir Hubert von Herkomer to accommodate his art school students. By the time Graham moved in, they were condemned. They were demolished in the 1970s.

The site is now occupied by several blocks of retirement flats known as Meadowcroft.

“My tutor Bernard Church, introduced me to the place,” says Graham. “I went over there and met Bertrand Stevens, who was taking tea with his model. He claimed to be the only man who knew anything about colour.

“The studios were all in a row connected by a rickety corridor but the light from these huge north facing skylights was amazing.

“Walking into the studio was a fantasy come true. There was a great sense of freedom. I can’t imagine my life if that hadn’t happened.”

Not that the building was without its drawbacks – there were rats and starlings, water ran inside the walls and local builders refused to go up on the roofs.

“When the skylight leaked, I had to fix it myself,” Graham recalls. “The ladder I used was rotten at the bottom and it collapsed. I came tobogganing down the corrugated iron roof but because I thought I was a dead man, I was quite relaxed about it.”

Alongside the paintings, there is a small photograph of Graham in his studio with Gwyther Irwin, who went on to represent Britain in the Venice Biennale exhibition in 1960, and several drawings by Graham of characters from the artists’ enclave. The most arresting is a caricature of Frank Goulding posed with a shovelful of coal, apparently he was a bit of a character.

“He was the doyenne: “I’m an impressionist, ya know”, mimics Graham. “He frequented the Fisherman’s Arms in Clay Hill and did these murals on the walls of the pub on brown paper.

“In the pub, there was a man who’d done time for manslaughter and a gent from a respectable family who had a shed at the bottom of his garden for his girlfriends.

“Then there was the Bohemian Markova, dubbed the Venus de Willendorf, who lived in the studios, she was a serious drinker. There were numerous other scallywags, inebriants and hangers-on and you’d get the drugs squad come round kicking the doors down.”

Despite this turbulent atmosphere, Graham spent his first year of married life in the studios having met his wife, a dancer, while teaching at Campions School in Borehamwood.

“It was the fierce winter of 1962. We kept a goldfish in a tank on the top of the stove because it was the warmest place in the room, but we still had to break the ice on the top of the tank every morning. We must have been crazy, but we managed to save enough to put a deposit down on a house.”

In the years following, Graham taught extensively, he held a Fulbright Professorship in America and was Head of Painting at the University of Hertfordshire’s College of Art and Design from 1976 to 1993.

Seeing his eyes light up as he talks about these early works, I can feel the urgency and discovery of the time.

“I used tubes of neat colour and I’d move across them with a palette knife, eating up the space. Kickabout took three days to complete because the paint stiffens as you work. I spent two months working on Compulsive Dreamer. I was using a Cubist palette working in greys, but it didn’t work so I put a rag in turps and made a flat grey surface. I put dots over the top in a pattern of light on dark, that’s when I discovered you could get colour to glow and emanate light.”

The show runs until April 11 at Bushey Museum, Rudolph Road, Bushey. Graham will give an informal talk on his work on Saturday, March 13 at noon. Visitors might also like to pay a visit to the museum's Frobisher Studio, which is an example of a similar studio set-up to the one in which Graham lived and worked.