Two young artists are taking a deep breath this weekend as they stage their very first exhibition. Nineteen year old Jelly Green and Conrad Armstrong, 22, have recruited powerful support as Maggi Hambling will open the exhibition at Aldeburgh’s Peter Pears Gallery.
“It’s a big step and I’m really nervous,” said Jelly, who lives round the corner from Maggi in Rendham, near Framlingham.
Jelly has been tutored by Maggi for the past three years, which is where she met Conrad, and the two young artists are now referred to by Maggi as “my protégés”.
When not training with Maggi, Jelly is a student at Prince’s Drawing School in London, while Conrad is a former student at St Martin’s.
Maggi, they agree, is a hard taskmaster but, unlike many art tutors, is keen for them to explore their own vision rather than become clones of their teacher.
“I had a rough spell with Maggi when I started painting the sea,” Conrad confesses, “She didn’t want me copying her, she wanted me doing my own thing, exploring what I have to say.”
They said that in their experience, Maggi is toughest on the students who are really good. “She works them very hard. She never accepts second best or a rushed job. The fact she is very critical of our work must mean that we are worth bothering with – which is a compliment in itself,” said Conrad.
Jelly added that when they started other students in the class used to sidle up to them and whisper advice like: “Maggi won’t like that. I’d paint that over if I were you.’ – ‘They saved us a lot of grief,” she laughed.
But, they are both grateful that Maggi is also so supportive. “She is an amazing teacher. She is very perceptive. She challenges us to challenge ourselves,” Jelly said, “She is interested in what we see and making our work better. She teaches us to examine what we are doing and what we are looking to achieve.”
The result is that both Jelly and Conrad have matured into two very distinctive and highly talented artists and are now making their first tentative steps into the professional art world.
Staging their first exhibition has been a steep learning curve – getting the gallery booked, getting the paintings assembled and framed and then the process of hanging them has been an eye-opener. “It’s the practical end of being an artist,” said Conrad, “It’s the sort of thing that art schools tend to skip over.”
He said that Maggi has been very helpful when they have needed advice. “She’s been great. She’s let us get on with it but when we’ve come unstuck or needed some advice she’s been available at the end of a phone.”
This joint exhibition is entitled Herd and Field – which accurately describes the content of the exhibition. Conrad’s work is a mix of rural and urban landscapes while Jelly has produced a series of cattle portraits – paintings which aim to capture the personality or character of each animal.
Conrad, a Londoner by birth, has got to know Suffolk since studying with Maggi and now spends increasing amounts of time exploring the quiet country lanes, trying to capture the essence of the Suffolk countryside.
It’s interesting to compare his rural landscapes with his urban ones. There is a sharp contrast between the two even though the work was all produced over a similar time period.
The urban portraits are much more impressionistic, the colours are sharper, brighter – featuring lots of silver, white and blue – while the rural scenes are quieter, more studied. You can see the influence of traditional landscape painters at work – or maybe it is the atmosphere of the Suffolk landscape imposing itself on the artist.
Conrad said that his London pictures are painted in the areas where he grew up –around Shoreditch and Streatham. “I know these streets very well. Also I tend to paint on rooftops, so I have got all of London laid out before me whereas in Suffolk I am at ground level and it’s an area which I don’t know as well.”
His London pictures give off a sense of movement – a feeling that the world is always moving – nothing is in sharp focus. This is in sharp contrast to the tranquillity of his Suffolk works.
Recently Conrad has also been experimenting with creating a triptych on a single canvas – three sunsets placed one above the other. This sense of experimentation is also reflected in another sunset which spreads a single image across two canvases. The two canvases are then contained within a single frame. It makes for a dynamic presentation.
He said: “There is so much going on in London that it is very easy to get overwhelmed, both visually and aurally, by the world around you. Whereas when I am here in Suffolk, in Rendham, it’s quieter, peaceful and it has an effect on your work. You are reflecting the world around you.
“When I am in London, life much more hectic. I may be running for a bus or dragging my stuff across the city and snatching a moment to do a painting.”
Conrad said that he prefers to paint on location, working quickly, putting paint straight onto canvas instead of sketching a scene first, committing an idea to a sketchbook and then working it up into a finished picture back in the studio.
“The biggest influence on me is van Gogh. Pretty much all of his works were painted within half an hour of his front door. You paint what you know.”
He said that he lets the subject do the talking. “When you try and impose yourself on the subject, then you come unstuck. The subject becomes dead.”
He said that his usual approach to finding a scene to paint was to simply walk around with a backpack, a small easel and a couple of canvases and wait to be inspired. “You just come across a scene and you know immediately that is something you want to paint. It’s just a case of waiting until something hits you.”
Jelly was first introduced to Maggi at the age of 16. She was a student at Framlingham’s Thomas Mills High School – the year below Ed Sheeran – when she was placed in the top 10 in the UK for her GCSE Art exam. In 2009 she was selected by NADFAS as one of three young artists from eastern region to have her work exhibited at the Royal British Artists annual show in Mall Galleries, London in March 2010 where she was awarded the title of RBA Scholar.
As Maggi was a near neighbour, friends and supporters engineered an introduction which Jelly remembers being fairly relaxed about until she actually met Maggi.
“When I met her, she looked at me and said: ‘Are you serious about art? And I said that I really didn’t know which way I wanted to go. I think she came along and spoke to my art teachers and I was so nervous.”
Eventually Thomas Mills gave permission for Jelly to study with Maggi one day a week. There she and Conrad became known in Maggi’s class as “the next generation” because of their youthful talent.
Conrad said: “I have always had a very difficult time with institutional art education. The year I spent at St Martin’s was one of the most disillusioning experiences of my life. I found I wasn’t learning. I was always clashing with everyone; then I met Maggi and I found this amazing teacher. There’s no house style, she just wants you to be yourself.”
Jelly added: “She never touches your work, doesn’t change it at all. In contrast I had a tutor at Prince’s (Drawing School) who came up to me, looked at what I was doing and said: ‘It’s not right. Do you mind if I change something?’ It wasn’t quite in proportion but I had spent all morning on this drawing and was reasonably pleased with it, but he got my rubber and rubbed out the whole thing. I told Maggi and she was so shocked. It’s not something that she would ever do.”
Jelly’s portraits of cows are the product of a lifetime spent in and around farming. The cows belong to dairy herds owned by her grandfather and her uncle. She said that she wanted to present a view of the cows as she knew them, as individuals with personalities rather than just being generic cows.
“When I am with them, I see personalities. I think there’s a wise old girl or there’s a cheeky cow.
“My granddad is a dairy farmer, so I have always been around cattle. I painted my first cow and gave it to my granddad for Christmas. He loved it but a neighbour had seen it before I had wrapped it and she wanted it. I explained that it was a present but I said: ‘I will paint you another if you want.’ It was really strange because I had never sold anything before. I was really confused, so I started painting cows and I have carried on. I love them.”
Jelly’s cows have the look and the character of a proper human portrait rather than a generic animal study. It’s a result of her understanding and love of them.
“I go and sit with them. They come up to me and it’s lovely. You can get really close and establish a relationship with them.”
However, Jelly says, sometimes you have to prepare yourself for the harsh realities of life. “The black and white Friesians are my grandfather’s but I wanted to paint some other breeds so I found this beautiful herd of Guernsey and Charolais down the road and spent the summer painting them. But, I went there a couple of weeks ago to draw them – unlike Conrad I sketch my subjects first and then paint the canvas in the studio – but when I got to the farm the cows had gone. I thought they had been put away for the winter. I saw the farmer and asked: “Where have all the cows gone?” and he said: “They’ve gone for slaughter,” and I was devastated. I had spent all summer with them. Now they only exist in my paintings. I think that is so sad.”
Herd and Field exhibition is taking place at Peter Pears Gallery, Aldeburgh from this weekend until December 14, from 10am-4pm.
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