Tumour prompted career change for Leyland engineer whose solo art exhibition opens in Manchester this week

Michael Ashcroft painting in Venice
Michael Ashcroft painting in Venice

Michael Ashcroft was diagnosed with a brain tumour 20 years ago at the age of 28. The father-of-two told Fiona Finch how he changed career and is now an award-winning artist.

A brain tumour transformed Michael Ashcroft’s life and career in a way he could never have anticipated.

Michael Ashcroft sketching

Michael Ashcroft sketching

The former engineer from Leyland, now an acclaimed artist, recalls the moment in a Manchester hospital when he caught a glimpse of a new path ahead.

Michael said: “I ended up having a big operation at Manchester Royal in 1998. I was 28 years old. I was an engineer.

“Just out of the blue there was a big tumour behind my left ear.”

The after effects of the operation affected his speech, his hearing and other parts of his body. But he recalled: “I shuffled to the window one day... I couldn’t walk very far. I used to like looking out of the window and watching people go about their everyday business in Manchester. I saw my reflection in the window, half was in the light and half was in the dark.

Close up of part of 'Night and Day' Manchester  painting by Michael Ashcroft

Close up of part of 'Night and Day' Manchester painting by Michael Ashcroft

“ I thought it was so representational of how I felt at that minute. I just felt I ought to record it somehow.”

The seed of his new career as an artist was sown. Michael was diagnosed with a rare condition called paraganglioma which has meant more tumours have grown in his body.

Fast forward to 2018 and Michael has changed occupation and is a highly acclaimed painter with a prestigious solo exhibition, which chronicles his love for Manchester, opening on Thursday in the city where he was treated.

He said : “When I wasn’t so well in 1998 Manchester was building itself back up and so was I.ended up loving the city and it became a part of me. It is my favourite city .”

G-Mex Manchester by Michael Ashcroft

G-Mex Manchester by Michael Ashcroft

His show ‘This is Manchester’ is at independent city art gallery Contemporary Six for the next fortnight and features 32 streetscape oil paintings, as well as 30 ink concept drawings from three of his celebrated Manchester series of paintings - 'After the Rain', 'Painting My Favourite Pubs' and 'Manchester From Afar'. Painting prices start at £800.

For Michael, who was recently accepted into the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts and who appeared on the BBC show ‘Show Me The Monet’ in 2013 it is just the latest step in an art career which has already brought many accolades and awards

He has exhibited in The Royal Institute of Oil Painters, Royal Society of British Artists, The Howard De Walden Exhibition, and The Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London.

Recalling the recuperation from his first tumour operation, he said: “It took me a good 12 months to get back to normal. I had started sketching again and enrolled in a painting class. I was mostly (using) acrylics, pastels and charcoal. It was later I got into oils.”

Early Start, Cross Street, Manchester  by Michael Ashworth

Early Start, Cross Street, Manchester by Michael Ashworth

Michael returned to his engineering job, aware that with a growing family and mortgage he needed to earn a living.

A year later he was made redundant and began the search for a new job.

“I stayed (in engineering) for a few more years. But in the mean time I was concentrating on trying to become an artist. I became more passionate about it."

He said : "I always fancied going to art college but I never quite got round to it. “

He was told instead that his Dad had got him an apprenticeship in engineering and he became a welder.He said: “I ended up doing that. It was a good job and it set me up.... It was never really me. ”

He was brought up in Croston attending Bishop Rawstorne CE school and recalled: “They had a good art department there. We had art on Friday afternoons - I loved Fridays!
“My mum was always into art and the house was always filled with art materials and that kind of thing. I was always interested. I was always more creative.”

Throughout his treatments and regular return visits to hospital art has remained a joyful thread.

He purposefully combined visits for medical treatment with visits to Manchester City Art Gallery and the Whitworth gallery.

He explained: “It was a nice end to the day. The passion for art just grew and grew. It got to the point I was still an engineer but I was really struggling.
“I had been diagnosed with more tumours. I had learned I had this condition that creates multiple tumours. I couldn’t carry on really.”

He left his job at Leyland Trucks on the grounds of ill health, but found art offered him solace and a new purpose.:“I had won a few awards, I had been in a magazine or two and a gallery had picked up my work in Ambleside.

“It was like fate. It was bizarre how it happened.”

The inspiration for the current exhibition came through a need to paint and a suggestion from wife as he recuperated after another more recent operation.

“I wasn’t so well. I had been in critical care for a week and I was struggling to get back in the studio.
“My wife said ‘why don’t you just go and paint something you love?' What I love is Manchester and the pubs and the city. I thought I would just go and paint for myself and that’s what I did. That’s really where the exhibition started.”

In all he has had six tumours and recently had his adrenal glands removed.

But he is adamant: : “I wouldn’t change it. It’s a funny thing. Maybe if I wasn’t ill I might never have become an artist. Maybe it was the catalyst ... I’ve always looked for the positive in the negative. I want to keep working. I’ve always looked for something good to come out of it

"It‘s not an easy job. I think it’s really hard work but I’m doing what I love. What more can you ask for?”

While Manchester remains his favourite city, Michael, who lists American painter Edward Hopper as a major influence, has also painted in London, Venice and New York and his next ambition is to have an exhibition in New York.

* The show has its official opening on Thursday evening and then runs until November 14 at Contemporary Six gallery at 37, Princess St, Manchester. The gallery is open Tuesday–Friday: 10.30am–6pm, Saturday:10.30am–5pm and Sunday: 11am–5pm.

*Michael's awards include: Royal Institute of Oil Painters - Winner of the Frank Herring Easel Award 2017
BoldBrush Award 2017 Winner
Buxton Spa Prize 3rd Prize 2015
BoldBrush Award, Finalist 2014
Artist of the Year 2013 Highly Commended
Artist of the Year 2013 Finalist
International Artist Finalist
Brownedge Art Festival Winner
West Lancashire Open Commendation
South Ribble Winner and People’s Prize
Harris Museum -Pize winner 2009
'Show Me The Monet' Finalist