About Peter

Peter Adams N.D.D., Cert. R.A.S.

Peter began his fifty year career with bonsai as a 12 year old student at art school in England.  After seven years at provincial college, he gained entrance to the Royal Academy Schools in London – one of twenty two admitted from several hundred applicants.

After gaining his degree from the Royal Academy, Peter worked as a portrait artist, an advertising art director, animation film maker, in TV as film director, and illustrated for the UK Ministry of Defence.

His bonsai nursery and school were well known for thirty years and were attended by many of the prominent figures in European bonsai. Peter has exhibited regularly with the Royal Horticultural Society in London at the world famous Chelsea Flower Show and advised the RHS on judging selection for the show. He also taught the staff of the RHS Gardens at Wisley as a foundation for their present bonsai interest.

Peter has continued painting and his work is in many private collections. His ability as an art critic has led him to provide various art related services for bonsai collectors everywhere. One form this takes is instruction in bonsai design as a graphic program tailored to the needs of the individual and their trees. Part of this package is a very detailed future state tree drawing. These drawings are eagerly sought after for framing. He is also much in demand as advisor to private collectors of bonsai.

Peter and his wife Kate now live in Washington state. They spend time traveling and teaching bonsai throughout the world. As well as being the most prolific western author of books on bonsai, he now writes for journals such as Bonsai Focus on a regular basis and also illustrated Kate’s book ‘Bonsai Easy Steps with 21 Species‘.

His work has been a major force in the progress of western bonsai. This was acknowledged most recently by the Association of British Bonsai Artists with their award for “raising the standard of British bonsai to that of an art form“.

One quote about Peter says it all: “there were no teachers till he became one and there were no books till he wrote one.”

Jan 2012

BONSAI STUDIO

This blog is mostly about using readily available plants for bonsai instead of the splendidly aged trees we currently see so much.  For many years I imported old specimen, semi-specimen and collected raw trees from Japan, now known as ‘WOW‘ trees.  You know the sort of thing: fabulous material that you have to be pretty stupid not to get a good bonsai result with!

I am having more solid enjoyment with my young American collection than with the old imported/collected trees I had in England and I suppose because it is more satisfying to make something happen using everyday plants.  I also seem to have developed a taste for smaller trees and often regret unpacking imported shohin/chuhin specimens and throwing them aside!

It was quite an experience leaving forty to fifty years work behind and I actually had no bonsai for four years after emigrating.  Then people started giving me trees.  That’s the same as a cigarette when you just quit.  So here I am again with forty to fifty younger trees and I wanted to share some thoughts along the way as I develop them.

I still automatically look at bonsai in terms of their sculptural form and colour.  I began that way as a kid at art school and stuck with it over the years and it seems to work, for me at least. I learned about the art of Japan along with the art of everywhere else but it was the connection between Japanese wood-block prints and Impressionist painting that focused my attention on Japan.  As a left-handed person, asymmetry seemed always the natural way to be, and here suddenly, was art that embraced all that.  What finally did it for me was looking over a friend’s fence who had some green bent things in pots called ‘bonsai‘.  Here were MY ‘wow’ trees!!  A defining moment indeed!

As this same pal was at art school with me and was no mean potter, I got to know about the connection between England and Japan through the pottery of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada and so entered bonsai and bonsai pottery through the general stream of art.

What days those were!  Total bonsai fever with zero knowledge and nothing written in English to constrain us!  It wasn’t until we met a self-taught Romany botanist called Bill Archer, that we even considered not taking the plants out of their pots every week to check for roots!  Amazingly, some plants survived even our hunt for knowledge and one was a Dunkeld larch that I grew and developed for many years.

Bill was crazy about witches-broom pines and there are still some plant strains he raised circulating in the plant trade.  Scots pine var. ‘Doone Valley’ is one example.  He taught us about ‘fingernail-ensis’ (our term for his technique, not Bill’s!) a type of congested plant growth caused by disbudding pines in late autumn.  The following year growth is retarded as side buds are formed and when these grow, shoot and needle size is reduced.  Repeated every two years or so the back-budding is difficult to tell from genuine dwarf growth – so, ‘finger-nailensis’.

It became obvious that Scots pine was an unknown and under-used plant as bonsai and I had a lot of fun collecting and developing these.  In the south of England you seldom find heavy trunk Scots pine of bonsai size, but there are a lot of superbly aged literati trees to be found on swampy ground.  Sadly, I have no records from those early days in pine growing — I was no photographer.

Life went on and I found myself running a school and nursery and teaching a lot of familiar faces about bonsai from an artist’s perspective.  Among these were many well-known potters and the shared input definitely helped the progress of European bonsai although at the time we were too close to see it.

Among these was Gordon Duffett who visited one winter when I was baby-sitting the late Ruth Stafford-Jones collection and we admired an old, dull-yellow glazed rectangle together.  Gordon brilliantly re-created the feeling of the old pot in series of containers that showed similar kiln-stresses and that wonderful imagery which is now so famous, came from that period.

Largely related to the art process in painting, I began teaching development of bonsai as a three phase program: development of mass; then structure and form and finally, refinement of image.  This approach really brings material on in a hurry.  By first driving the tree to bulk it up, then shaping it approximately and eventually refining it, you gain fast results that the tree is perfectly happy to provide.  There is no stripping the tree down to nothing to follow a ‘bonsai by numbers’ approach.  There is instead, a healthy, vigorous plant that appears entirely natural as branches and trunk are developed in synergy with each other.

I suppose I was among the first westerners to style bonsai to emphasise their tree nature where a pine looks like a pine and a maple looks like a maple and so on.  I certainly had a lot of visitors who seemed to agree/imitate what I was doing!  The important thing to remember is this trend towards appreciating natural bonsai was current in England even in the 1960’s.and that is a long time ago.  Since that time, certain themes/trends have blurred the appreciation of simple plants and their care and I hope the blog helps regain some of the real atmosphere and fun, of the subject.