YES, the Umbrian green heartland of Italy is a rolling vista of vineyards, olive groves, palazzos and lonesome pines.

But not for Dave Barden the cliched pictures that do a roaring trade among tourists.

No, the visitors to the next exhibition he has planned, in Hexham’s Queen’s Hall, will see the place he calls his second home the way he sees it.

For this retired university fine art lecturer, the beauty is in the detail... and the inspiration all around him when he and his wife, retired Corbridge First School head teacher Ali Barden, are in Italy.

They have had a house there for several years now. “Ali and I had been going to Italy on holiday for many years,” he said. “We liked it so much – we felt so in tune with the culture – that we started to think seriously whether we could afford to buy something there.

“We eventually found an old run-down house that was part of a palazzo in a place called Lago del Trasimeno

“It’s in Umbria, but the famous hill town of Cortona is only a 20-minute drive away and that’s in Tuscany. It’s just a wonderful place – it’s got everything you would associate with being in Italy.”

Including all the possible inspiration an artist could wish for, too, of course.

While he loves those classic rolling vistas as much as the next person, it is the architectural details of the oftentimes faded heritage and the nuances of colour – in all their Umbrian/Tuscan glory – that have him reaching for his paint brushes.

The aspect of interlinked arcades, receding into distant gloom; a window framed by ornate medieval architraves; the last hints of a fresco that continue to speak of wealth, privilege and a life lived long ago.

One of his pictures, hanging in the lounge of the couple’s ‘first’ home, back in Hexham, appears, at first glance, to be simple in its execution.

But take a step closer and the shadows a tree has cast over the rich red tones of the ancient tiled floor depicted come into focus.

“I’m interested in the shadows that are cast as much as anything,” said Dave.

“Sometimes you aren’t sure whether you are looking at the structure or its shadow and there’s an ambiguity there I like.”

Mainly working with acrylics and collage, he does enjoy building in the additional layers of texture that, on closer inspection, become the ‘subtleties revealed’.

He said: “I work on a whole range of different materials – canvas, board, card – because surfaces and the way you build up an image produce their own individual results.

“I have always made the surface dynamic so when you are close up, there is something else to look at.”

Already well known for his paintings of Olympic sporting events and jazz musicians, this Italian phase is the third evolution in his life as a professional artist.

For a decade or more he concentrated on depicting athletes in action and at their best.

Some of his early pictures still hang in the entrance foyer of the Wentworth Centre in Hexham, the results of a year-long residency in which he was commissioned to reflect the type of activities the leisure centre nurtured. Pictures of a swimmer, a gymnast and a thrower did just that.

That in turn led to a commission to produce similar studies at the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

His work is always a very personal reflection of his own interests, he said. “I’m always looking around for subjects that have some shade of personal connection.

“I was a runner and a coach for Tynedale Harriers, with a strong interest in athletics in general, so that’s where my career as an artist began.”

By the turn of the Millennium, he felt he’d exhausted that particular subject though and it was time to move on.

A pianist and a guitarist himself, he loved jazz music and its luminary characters. Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis were but a few of those who duly appeared in his studio.

Dave says now that getting off the treadmill of full-time employment, working for somebody else, was the best thing he ever did.

He took the plunge when he was in his early fifties, when their two children were still at school.

“It was a big risk at the time,” he said. “Ali was in work, so we weren’t completely dependent on my salary, but after 30 years in the security of teaching, it was a serious step.

“The thing is, being full-time employed absorbs all your energy, all your creativity. I can look back now and say that I have never regretted my decision for an instant.”

Dave’s exhibition, Beautiful Ruins, begins on Saturday March 16 at the Queen’s Hall.