11. "Even if you had no formal training, did you manage to attend any art-classes, or join any groups?"
By the time I had three children, and had spent a lot of time looking after sick parents-in-law, as well, I became determined to make a small space for art in my life each week. I was thrilled to be a wife and mother, and had no desire to rush out to do paid work, as I said: but I knew it would lift my spirits if I could find a secure place where I could occasionally paint without interruption. I never painted at home with the children around, except for 'fun' things such as family murals, or carnival monsters - or large 3-D models, in a cardboard box, of famous fairy stories. It seemed wrong to 'shoo' the children away, if they wanted to chat, whether they were infants or teenagers; so I painted, if possible, when they were at school; or I sometimes gave up painting for months at a time when things were hectic, through a mixture of illness, and social events, and various unexpected crises.
The reason for all this 'background material' is to answer the question about training. I enquired about life-classes at a local school of art, and was accepted as an external student for a fortnightly two-hour session of painting. A kind young art-teacher used to stroll around, peering at our work; but he gave no direction whatsoever, seeing it as his job only to answer queries; and since I asked no questions, and just painted at top speed for my blessed, uninterrupted hour or two, I cannot say that I was taught or trained; but it was good discipline, and exhilarating. My soul was enlivened merely by being in the same room as other people who made pictures and loved painting. For about a year and a half I carted my tool box of oil-paints to the art school, and my home-made canvasses. I worked hard, and learned a lot through sheer effort, observation and persistence.
As far as I can remember, the only other training I've had was a ten-minute chat with a local stone-merchant, who once told me how to carve marble. He very generously gave me a set of his old chisels. For a year, in my thirties, I set up my bags of uncooked rice on a stand in my garage at home, to prop up a piece of marble from the nearby stoneyard. It was thrilling to see the layers peel away, like cheese, at a gentle tap-tap-tap from my hammer, with the right chisel held at the correct angle. So I carved a marble dove, which still sits on my window-sill today. But then I became ill again, and too weak to continue with such demanding labour.
Everything else I know about art, I've learned from books, exhibitions, observation, reflection and experiment; and that includes the colour theory that changed my style, and which has brought me the degree of joy in painting that I had never before experienced.
12. "Which artists most influenced you when you were young?"
IGNORANCE ABOUT ART
As a child, I knew almost nothing about famous painters. I suppose I had heard of Picasso, for his fame and notoriety as a Modernist. I had seen reproductions of the Venus de Milo, and one or two more well-known images such as the Mona Lisa. But I had two busy parents with little spare cash. We lived a very quiet life in a country town; and I can't recall going to an art gallery until I was eighteen and lived in London.
Of all the 'Old Masters', I think Botticelli was my favourite; but in my twenties, I was bowled over when I discovered modern painters, above all, the German Expressionists: the 'Blue Rider' school. It included Macke and Marc, with their swirling lines and gorgeous colours. Next, it was thrilling to discover Klimpt, and Emil Nolde, and Gauguin, Cézanne, van Gogh and Monet, and Toulouse-Lautrec. I was charmed by the simplicity and the colour of Modigliani's work, and the beautiful compositions he made with his somnolent nudes. But then it became tedious to encounter walls full of naked women, in every major exhibition - despite the beauty of the human body. It was a relief to discover John Singer Seargeant, when I was beginning to paint portraits. I was in awe of his skill at painting fabrics as well as flesh; and I admired almost everything by Augustus John.
I received a good, informal education by looking at books, galleries and churches which it had been impossible to reach from a restricted life-style when I was doing art in the sixth form at school. Through all my discoveries, I learned to weigh the work of artists of every era and to puzzle over my own reactions. There were many I admired, though I had no desire to imitate their styles. I remember the first time I saw one of Paul Nash's calm but haunting aeroplane pictures. Rosetti and Holman Hunt, of the 'pre-Raphaelites', fascinated me both by their drama and their decorative appeal.
When I began flower-painting, I learned that Redouté had served as a 'benchmark' for all botanical artists. I found his work exquisite, but too formal for my tastes. Redon's flower paintings were more exuberant and colourful; and, considering some different subject matter, but still pondering what gave me joy, I thought very highly of Sutherland's majestic, tapestry Christ, as I gazed at it in Coventry's Anglican Cathedral, and as Christ seemed to gaze down upon me. Sutherland's other work was more abstract, however, therefore less appealing to me; and though I read a bit about sculpture, and sought out a few pieces, and admired Epstein's monumental realism, and Eric Gill's severe but moving bas-reliefs, I was bored by the current fashion for minimalist forms, of the Hepworth and Henry Moore schools.
COLOUR, ABOVE ALL
When I turned back to look at the work of painters, particularly the Impressionists and the Expressionists, it was the colour that seized me, more than any other painting quality; and the excitement of seeing colour well-used is still with me today. It is almost exactly the sort of pure pleasure I experience when I hear a great choral work with interweaving harmonies, which give way from time to time to plaintive recitatives. The special joy of finding such pleasure is that, in art, it does not die away. The object of my fascinated attention remains there, in front of me, whereas music has to be played, sung or heard, over and over again, each time in a new performance. A painting doesn't move!
If I'm asked whether these artists inspired me, my answer must be 'Yes' - but in a limited sense. I did not rush home, after attending an exhibition, yearning to paint in the style of the artist whose work I'd just seen. I learned a little painterly 'tip' from them, here and there. But the greatest gain for me was to see anew, at each exhibition, that an ordinary, living person, like myself, on fire to share his excitement at what he had seen before him, had kept going. He had painted, observed, reflected, painted again, and persevered; and here in the exhibition was the evidence that it was worthwhile, even if the painter had died without being recognised. It had still been worthwhile, either because he had at last got his 'message' across, whatever it was, or because he had finally shared his joy with thousands of other people.
After each exhibition of pictures by someone I admired, I rushed home determined to paint more, to paint better, and to be better organised. That's my attitude, in fact, to everything important in my life, in cooking, as in prayer, or dress-making: to do more of it, better, and to be better organised; so of course it applied in things to do with art, as well. It is quite against my nature to say to myself: "I am going to do such-and-such a project, but I need only aim for mediocrity." This was not from a purely instinctive urge to adhere to the well-known adage: "If a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well." It was a call of conscience, I suppose.
AIMING FOR PERFECTION
If we decide to use our gifts, it's worthwhile being careful and wise in our choices, just as if I buy clothes, it's worthwhile keeping them clean and mended. Or if I make a garment, I oversew even the inside seams that nobody can see. Or when I began to pray every day, I decided that if I could worship God with my body as well as my mind and soul and heart, and in that way show Him the greatest possible reverence and love, I would kneel to pray, instead of lying in bed to make my morning offering. I prayed 'arrow-prayers' each day in every circumstance; but it would not have occurred to me to lie in an armchair for my allotted time of formal praise, thanksgiving and intercession each day. So in all spheres of activity, whether ethical or material, I believe it is better to try for perfection, even if we miss the target, than never to pause and take aim, in the hope of succeeding.
13. "Did you sell any of your artwork at this time?"
Ever since I was in the top form at Grammar School I have sold a painting here and there, when someone has admired one and has asked if she might buy it. But I usually regretted my early sales. Having to let go of something you've made that is beautiful is hard, anyway; but you're also tempted to wonder if you'll ever manage to do something as good as that, again. Artists do want to share something of what they produce, however, so we have to learn to live with the pain of letting them go, if we want to share, or sell them. It's a great consolation, though, when we become more proficient, and learn that we can probably produce something just as good once again.
As I mentioned earlier, people asked me to paint portraits of their children, so I fitted that in for a few years, mostly when the children were at school. But I hated the rushing about to sittings - and the endless hopes that a child would actually sit still for more than two seconds. It was a relief to give it up, when it occurred to me that I did not have to accept every commission offered. I was much happier painting flowers, and still-lifes too, which of course never moved.
14. "Were you creative with your own children?"
AMUSING THE CHILDREN
I could not have failed to be creative with the children for the simple reason that I deeply loved each child, and loved to entertain or amuse them. We had our share of squabbles; but we had a lot of fun, too, in the house and garden and on various treats and outings; and many of our activities revolved around an art project, or were made more entertaining through an artistic aspect. For example, the boys loved playing outdoors with model cars; so I made a concrete 'island' in a flower-bed, with coves and cliffs around, and a road across the top, for them to drive their little cars on. They could invent games about smugglers too, and pirates. It was fun showing them how to make paper-maché heads, for string puppets, and glove puppets. When we had a few puppets, we'd put on informal shows, or use the characters at our birthday parties.
The biggest puppet I made was an 'Emu' bird, which, I'm sorry to say, was a bit frightening for three-year-olds, though they appreciated it in the end. I couldn't make Emu gesticulate too wildly, anyway, as I was six months pregnant with our third child; and I couldn't risk falling onto the floor during my 'Emu' session at my younger son's birthday party.
MODELS AND MONSTERS
There are so many projects now flooding into my memory, that I can't put them all down. But I'm sure the children - now in their thirties - will remember the various crib sets we've made for Christmas, and the model fairy-tales, and the animal seats at one of our parties, with fake palm trees waving overhead. They will remember the prison warders I made, and the Roman emperors, not to mention the ten-foot nurse, doctor, gorilla, and dinosaur that I made over a few years, in our front room, to decorate a float in a local carnival, and to place around the Public Hall for a series of charity Jazz Dances.
I'd better stop now; but the children are very gifted, and they have also had lots of practice at all sorts of arts and crafts, and are capable of producing all sorts of well-designed objects.
15. "You didn't have a studio at this time. Where did you paint when you had small children?"
A SPARE ROOM
I mentioned that my husband's employers put us in a rented house for a few months, when our first baby was small. That's the only reason why I had a whole room in which to scatter my paints and canvasses for a short time. It was wonderful. I had never lived anywhere spacious; and I enjoyed every minute of my time in that room. After six months we were fortunate enough to buy our own first home, however; so we moved to a little 'semi' a mile away; and that's when my sick mother-in-law moved in; and my painting had to stop, anyway; so I just forgot about it, until life had changed in several ways, and I found myself further South, in another 'own home' - with older children and, for a short time, a spare room.
I pulled out my paints and canvasses yet again, and taught myself how to do glazes, in the style of the old masters: reds and browns glazed upon a green underpainting; and the effect was magical. But then my father -in-law became ill, and came to stay, taking over our spare room, of course. He was with us, 'off and on', for about two years. I had a third child, a beloved daughter, during that era, and was busier than ever. So that's when I decided to make time for a regular life-class, rather than give up completely yet again, or make fruitless attempts to paint at home.
AT THE DINING-TABLE
Later, when Grandpa was better, and the children were older, I decided to try to paint at home occasionally, in term-time. I spread a cloth and clean paper on the dining-table, and would work for two hours at a time, on water-colour flower paintings. But it all had to be cleared away if visitors came, or if someone else needed the room for a musical evening or a school project. Fortunately, I am able to concentrate fiercely, and am fairly prolific. There was no question of waiting until I was 'in the mood' for painting, any more than an opera singer has to get 'into the mood' to sing. She knows she must practise, and that she has limited time. I knew I must paint; so when I had an hour or two, I did it.
Of course, that was only possible because I tackled such ordinary subjects as flowers and still life. If I'd been trying to 'dream up' pictures about fantasy worlds, or was composing mythical scenes, or meaningful 'statements' in paint about marriage, or Creation, I might have had to wait for inspiration. But that was not my 'scene'. I loved what I did, and had no desire to do anything differently - except to explore various mediums and to improve my artists's 'eye' and my techniques. I experimented with charcoal and pastels, and did a few landscapes, after taking some water-colours with me on family holidays abroad. But mostly I loved to paint at home, when possible.
My mother spent the last year of her life with us, in 1980; and one of the still-lifes I did at that time brought enormous joy to her, indirectly, in her last illness, and to me, and to the rest of the family. My 'Apples on Gingham' was a bright, cheerful, detailed water-colour, and was selected and hung by the Royal Academy for its Summer Exhibition, in 1984. My mother gleefully talked about it to her friends as she sat in the back garden, resting, and enjoying the sunshine and the flowers.
16. "How did you feel having a painting in the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy?"
A 'REAL' ARTIST
It was exciting to have a painting accepted in 1984 at the Royal Academy; in fact, two were selected, and one hung. But the 'Apples on gingham' that was hung, and sold, was featured in the illustrated catalogue. That made my family really happy. The entire business confirmed my 'idea' of myself as an artist; but I hope it did not make me proud, for the simple reason that I believe our gifts come from God. It was He Who allowed me this marvellous means of sharing joy and beauty; so it would be impertinent of me to congratulate myself for my skills, or for the hard work involved in doing something which He had made possible and which makes me very happy.
17. "You began to exhibit in a number of galleries around the country. Can you tell me a bit about some of these?"
AROUND THE COUNTRY
After exhibiting at the Mall Galleries, and the Royal Academy, I was sought out by the Seen Gallery, in Knightsbridge, and by a prestigious art gallery in Helmsley, York, and a few other places. My husband and I took a few paintings to these places; but I realised within a year or two that I was spreading my work rather thinly, and spending too much time on organisation; so I decided only to exhibit in London once a year, and to do book covers and greetings cards, which I could paint at home. It was fun to have gone out and about on a few trips to other galleries. It was a new experience for me to be treated as a professional artist and not as someone with a 'hobby'. I was married in 1963, in an era when a housewife - which I was not ashamed to call myself - was regarded as a very lowly life-form in a world of interesting men; so it felt good to be respected for what I had done with so much thought and effort. I'm a normal human being who enjoys the ordinary successes in everyday life; but I had no desire to be even better known, in the art world, or more successful in worldly terms.
My life and my talents came from God. My husband's generous help gave me art materials, and encouragement. And my first concern was doing God's Will, and He wanted me to give my ordinary duties first place in my life, for His sake, and my family's happiness; so I was quite content with the amount of work I was able to do, indeed, very grateful that I could fit in so much. But I learned from experience that the more time I gave to painting the lower the quality of our family meals, for example. I had to find a healthy balance, neither making a martyr of myself for the sake of domestic work, nor neglecting a deserving family so that I could have a bit more glory. Some people might have managed more painting than I did, but I had poor health, as I've had to say; and I could never refuse to nurse a sick parent. So my time was taken up in ways which other women have perhaps not needed to experience.
18. "Why it is that you began doing still-life paintings of flowers and fruit?"
I've done a lot of flower-painting because in everyday life I try to practise what I call the 'Art of the possible'. I do find joy in looking at flowers. I am still amazed when tulips emerge each year from a bare, muddy patch in the garden. They are like living sculptures in all sorts of textures, materials and colours. So I've painted flowers to capture their beauty - but also because they were available.
From my garden I used to collect the anemones I'd planted, and red-violet magnolia blooms - and I'd request honeysuckle from my neighbour in the bungalow next door. And there were roses behind the house, and many more blooms, with cherries hanging on the branch just near the washing line. So there was a never-ending supply of floral 'models'; and I learned a tremendous amount about flowers, and their funny ways. Some open widely almost a minute after they have taken up water from a vase, whereas others last for days, with very little movement of the petals. I painted these at the dining table, as I said earlier; and in those days it was easy to clear away a few paints, and move a vase of flowers, if it was time for a family meal or a homework session.
THE MALL GALLERIES
The other reason I stuck to flowers for a few years was that I'd learned how to value my time. I mean that I'd realised we cannot become proficient in every area of art, if we want to do really splendid work. We have to specialise. I was not so ambitious for fame as an artist that I was willing to ignore my family to achieve some sort of glory; but I did want to do well whatever I did most; and so I decided in the late 1970s to concentrate on flowers, to send work to a London art exhibition once a year, and to see whether I could reach a professional standard.
The result was that my water-colour still-lifes and flower-paintings were quite soon selected for hanging at the Mall Galleries, with the Royal Institute of Water-colours. Then when a Society of Botanical Artists was first formed in London, in the early 1980s, I was selected on the basis of my work to become a Founder-member. It was a great honour; and I showed work with the S.B.A. for several years, in London, and in Wells, Guildford, and other venues. I even won an art award, which was presented to me by the Mayor of Westminster, when our annual SBA Exhibitions had moved from the Mall Galleries to Westminster Central Hall.
19. "You also did landscapes and portraits. Did you enjoy doing these?"
STRESS AND STRAIN
The portraits I had done a little earlier, in the 1970s, brought me tremendous satisfaction - but only when I had finished them. I was thrilled to find that I could capture a likeness, by careful observation. But I found the interaction with a sitter distracting - with all the chat, and the provision of cups of coffee, and discussions about clothing, for example. And I loathed the actual process of painting portraits. It was nerve-racking, until I had the likeness, and had pleased the sitter to some degree, and could finally relax. It was wonderful when I finally decided to call a halt. I had been reluctant to refuse commissions at first, because the requests came from friends eager to have me 'capture' their loved ones. And, as I said, it was satisfying not just to produce such work, but also to have some cash that I had earned. Frankly, it was nice to be able to spend money without having to explain every purchase. Many housewives feel the same, no matter how generous their husbands might be. When life became busier, however, and when I had poor health, as well, it was easier to say 'No - I can't manage it', when next I was asked to pop round to a nearby street to draw a wriggling five-year-old.
It was wonderful to paint landscapes, on the rare occasions when I could organise the children, guarantee transport, have a lovely scene before me, enjoy good health, and have a whole hour in which to produce something worthwhile. Those conditions came together so rarely, however, that I had to find a new way of doing landscapes; and by persistence, I succeeded.
The worst problem was lack of time in front of a scene. On holiday with the family I rarely had ten minutes alone, to concentrate. We toured a lot, and were always on the move. So I put aside my large water-colour pad, and carried a small sketch-book with me everywhere, so that I could record a number of brief, five-second glimpses from a car window or a café doorway, in a few scribbled lines of pencil or biro. These were saved up until I was home, when I made larger, coloured versions of the best of those scenes, from memory, prompted by my miniature sketch.
I have dozens of these little water-colours. And I used them as a source of inspiration for doing even larger landscapes later on, when I went back to oils, and even undertook a bit of painting-knife work. But for the reasons given above - and because of poor health, which meant I couldn't march across fields to find a perfect spot, or carry loads of equipment around, I saw landscape painting just as one of my side-lines, but never as my main preoccupation. I enjoy doing landscapes. There is none of the stress in doing then that I associate with portrait painting. But I rarely do them nowadays, simply because I am so busy with my religious paintings.
I believe I was actually on the brink of a new way of landscape painting, with drastic simplification of forms, and brilliant colours. A few of my miniatures had a 'stained glass' look about them, in having those qualities. That is what I was aiming for when I did some large versions with a painting knife, as I'll describe further on. But when the religious paintings took priority the landscapes had to be left behind.
A LOCAL SCENE
Having just written that, I must now contradict myself. I've just surprised myself - in 2006 - by tackling a 'landscape' I've been unable to resist. It hardly qualifies for that title, as it's a view of a row of bushes by the side of the very road in which I live today. Every morning in June, each year, on my way to church for Mass, I pass a garden in which the fence-top is hidden beneath a weight of blossoms of astonishing colours, which make me praise God every day for them - especially as the central delight is blue. It is a tree with blue blossom so bright that it sets off the yellow forsythia on the left and the rose-red blossoms on the right, as if starting a pageant in celebration of summer. I could not go past it for yet another year, without making an effort. So I found half an hour for a sketch, last month, and half an hour for a little water-colour; and I now have a souvenir of one of my favourite 'landscapes', though I probably won't do another for a long time.
20. "When did you start to do commercial work?"
THE ROYAL ACADEMY
Although I had sold a number of paintings over the years, it was only after the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1984 that I really saw myself as a professional artist. It became necessary to have a fairly large correspondence, and to keep accounts. Then when I was asked to do greetings cards, and bookcovers, I had reps coming to the house for occasional meetings; and was glad I could make them welcome in my studio and not have to disturb the family at meal-times, for example.
That period of life did not last for very long however, by my own deliberate choice, as I'll explain further on. As I consider all the changes and different projects and surprises that I'll be describing in the next few pages, it's interesting for me to note that I can honestly say that I've never suffered a moment of 'empty nest' syndrome, as the children one by one went away to do further studies at university. We all remained very close; and they have returned here to live from time to time; so when I began the religious paintings and I felt obliged to explain their origin, the children were very interested and understanding - so much so, as I shall tell, that they eventually became involved in aspects of my work.