“There are so many people in the world and yet everybody has a different face, a different expression,” says Bill Rees. “For an artist, it is a never ending source of inspiration.”

Next week, two days after Bill celebrates his 90th birthday, he opens his first major exhibition in decades entitled Expressions, which is full of faces.

There’s the face of actress Emily Blunt, the face of a ferryman from Leeds, and the face of an extremely soulful orangutan in Perth zoo in Australia who stares straight from the canvas at the viewer, asking knowing questions from beneath his flowing gingery-orange locks…

Bill, who signs his paintings with his Sunday best name “William”, is from the Albert Hill area of Darlington but has been around the world with his art, his icing and his supersize sculptures. He is now exhibiting in the stables of Sedbury Hall, a peaceful oasis of countryside just a mile or so away from the millions of cars spinning madly around Scotch Corner roundabout, which is an area he first became acquainted with during the Second World War.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Work by William Rees at the Sedbury Hall stables. Picture: Sarah Caldecott

“My father worked on the railways at North Road and my mother was one of the Aycliffe Angels, getting the train every day,” he says. “I went to Gurney Pease school, and one of the teachers there took us along as ten-year-olds to the Darlington & Teesdale Naturalists Field Club. We were out for dawn choruses, rambling round all over the place, and I still have a sketch I did of a folly in the grounds here when we must have approached it from Skeeby – although I didn’t then know where it was.”

A teacher at his secondary school, Eastbourne, had a connection with Thomas Wood’s art gallery in Blackwellgate and so instead of joining his schoolmates in the forges and foundries of Albert Hill, he started work at 15 as an apprentice picture restorer, repairing a Reubens from Wycliffe Hall in Teesdale that had been caught in a fire.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Work by William Rees at the Sedbury Hall stables. Picture: Sarah Caldecott

“I always felt a bit of an oddball because when I was going down to do my job from my home in Lucknow Street, usually in a suit, everyone else was going to the works in their overalls and they took the mickey,” he says.

At 22, already married to his childhood sweetheart Sheila, he was called for National Service, and he ended up doing more than 20 years in the RAF – as a chef who specialised in pastillage, making show-stopping centrepieces out of icing. He made edible models of buildings, planes and animals and birds during his time on Christmas Island, in the Maldives and in Cyprus and Gibraltar and they took centre stage during VIP occasions.

“I’d done a big thing with an eagle on top and game birds around the side, and the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were talking to me about it but I was a bit tongue tied in my Albert Hill accent,” he says.

After leaving the services, he and Sheila visited Australia.

“We went for a holiday and it went on and on and on,” he says. “My paintings were selling well in Perth, and then I began getting commissions for sculptures.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Work by William Rees at the Sedbury Hall stables. Picture: Sarah Caldecott

“One day, my son rang me to say he’d just been talking to the landscape gardener from Botany Bay and he’d told him his dad could make a lifesize elephant in bronze – I told him he must have been drinking, but I couldn’t miss that opportunity, I couldn’t turn it down.”

Sir Joseph Banks had been a botanist on Captain James Cook’s first expedition to Australia and he’d help design Botany Bay as a reception centre for convicts. As Sydney grew around the Bay, a park was named after Banks, and it included one of the first zoos. To commemorate the zoo, Bill was commissioned to create 16 full size sculptures of camels, tigers, elephants etc that children could climb on. Now they are a local landmark.

From there, the Sultan of Brunei commissioned him to make two lifesize, rearing horses in bronze – “I said I’m not going in the same plane as them as they were so heavy!”

When Sheila became ill in 2012, they decided to return to Darlington, and bought a house near the hospital. “We always had two children in Australia and two here in the UK, so I never felt at home anywhere,” he says.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Work by William Rees at the Sedbury Hall stables. Picture: Sarah Caldecott

He lost Sheila six years ago, and has since immersed himself in his art. “It has been a Godsend,” he says. “I paint every day. It has helped me grieve and I’ve made lots of friends through it. I had a studio built on and I eat there, sleep there, work there, teach there.”

One of his pupils put him in touch with CM and William Baker who are creating an art hub in the 200-year-old, Grade II listed stables block at Sedbury. They have four resident artists, plus a beauty salon, and space for Bill to put on his first solo exhibition for decades. Although it includes some of his landscapes, still lifes and equine paintings, it is really all about his faces.

“I get them mainly from the television where the studio lighting is usually so good,” he says. “If I see an expression I like, I put it on hold, transfer it to the computer and paint from that.

“I don’t know who many of them are. They often come from films – I love Ridley Scott stuff, what he does with characters is amazing.”

But Bill also captures these characters in amazing ways, from filmstars in their smiling finery to a cheeky guide in Tangiers who, in his slewed cap looks as if he knows how to squeeze every last dollar from a tourist to, centre stage, the orangutan with the soulful eyes asking his knowing questions…

  • Expressions, by William Rees, is open at Sedbury Hall Stables from Saturday, November 18, to Friday, November 24, from 10am to 4pm. The entrance to the stables is about half-a-mile west of Scotch Corner off the A66 and then follow then long lane through the woods.