Denmans Garden collaborates in a variety of ways with local artists and makers, by hosting events and workshops, showcasing work in the gift shop and garden, and by providing inspiration and materials. Over the past year we have interviewed some of these artists and makers on our blog to learn more about their work and inspiration.
This month we talked with our inaugural Artist-in-Residence, landscape artist Sue England. Sue, a graphic designer turned painter and printer who is based in West Sussex. Sue is a recent SKY Arts Landscape Artist of the Year Wild Card Winner and Finalist 2019 and started painting at Denmans in late August. It has been an education to see the garden through her eyes and to see how she approaches the challenges the garden, with its layout, textures, and changing seasonal colors, presents. I was especially amazed by her discipline and restraint when I found her sitting on the bench beneath the oak trees, surrounded by autumnal color, sketching in black and white.
This collaboration will be documented throughout the year on Sue’s blog, culminating in an exhibition at Denmans in September 2022. We are especially delighted that Sue has joined us because of the influence abstract painting had on John Brookes during his career and because Mrs. Robinson regarded her garden as her ‘canvas’.
SUE: I studied at Manchester College of Art and Design and then Reading University, graduating in Graphic Design, but wouldn’t have done any of that if it wasn’t for the encouragement of a wonderful art teacher when I was sixteen.
I try and dedicate at least two days a week to my art but hope for three, although one never stops thinking about it. I go over to my studio to get the fire going, switch on the de-humidifier and tidy up the mess from the last session. I have a coffee and spend some time just looking at what I did the day before and either paint over it, adapting and developing or starting some other ideas that might have been brewing. I try and do drawings relating to composition in the evenings in the house (warmer) as composition is always my biggest challenge. Once I get going, I really don’t stop and sometimes have to be reminded its nearly supper time. Any artist will tell you, once ‘in the zone’, time flies.
My studio is just across the road from my house, on a kind neighbour’s driveway. It’s an old chapel building; a bit cold and damp and I have the use of half of it. I’ve never had a purpose built ‘flash’ studio space and I make so much mess, I like something quite basic. I have running water, a heater and a closed door. Perfect!
I was lucky enough to be invited by Gwendolyn van Paasschen to be Artist in Residence at Denmans Garden for a year, after a recommendation from Caroline Sharman Mendoza, an arts consultant currently coordinating Chichester’s Season of Culture – Culture Spark 2022 who had seen me on the Sky Landscape Artist of the Year programme in 2019 and met me as part of a local contemporary artist group, ARTEL.
Denmans may be small compared to some gardens, but it has so much diversity. I am still getting to grips with the spaces and at times have felt overwhelmed with where to look and what to respond to. There are so many possibilities. The curves, shapes and forms are of particular interest.
I am mainly a landscape painter, who responds to open spaces and the shapes that I see from a distance. So being in a more enclosed space at Denmans with no horizon line is proving a challenge.
It is forcing me to tackle detail and I haven’t yet found a way I’m happy with of representing this in finished paintings. It’s important to me to produce different shapes and sizes of canvases and compositionally, that is part of the challenge.
I always start with drawing whilst in the garden. It gives me the opportunity to immerse myself in the atmosphere of Denmans and to really look. I am using a sketch book of ideas for each season, with notes and reactions. Sometimes I do larger drawings on paper and use collage to help with composition.
Using those drawings and ideas back in the studio along with photographs as an aide memoir, moves the process on, but can as often as not lead me in another direction as I start to respond and ‘talk to’ the painting. The paintings often get left for several weeks unresolved and then something seen following an on-site visit, may help me to re-engage. I have loads of stacked up unfinished canvases! Whenever I get stuck (often) I go back to drawing. I am also working on ideas for some screen prints, which is a very different discipline.
As I’ve already said shape and form are very much a part of what I respond to when painting or sketching in the landscape. I tend to see the broader picture in terms of shapes, which to me are very representational, but to others often seem ‘abstract’. I tend to paint in ’blocks’ and don’t show the detail, but in the confines of the garden, this approach needs to change somewhat. How can you ignore the texture!! I’ve tried, but now, moving through the winter months it is so much part of what there is to notice at Denmans. I am struggling with using this in my normal painting ‘style’ but like the challenge and hope to resolve some of the problems. Back to the drawing!
I like catching glimpses of the cottage, greenhouse and the Clock House, but these mainly serve as background shapes to give the suggestions of verticals. Seasonally, it is very important to observe the constant change and as everyone tells me, Denmans is a garden for all seasons. Autumn was spectacular and of course the colour becomes dominant. Now as we move through December and January, there is more subtlety, and this is where the texture and form of the actual plants are taking over. This is where I am struggling at the moment. I want to simplify but need to adapt how I approach painting to absorb more of the detail and find a way of representing that.
To be able to concentrate on one ‘theme’ for a whole year is both stimulating and a challenge. I tend to flit around from subject to subject when left to my own devices, although always return to the landscape. It’s always good for an artist to be pushed out of their comfort zone. It’s so easy to keep responding to things in the same old way, which makes for formulaic predictable painting. I have another project in process until an exhibition in June and the two are a good counterpoint to each other.
My hope is to absorb myself in the unique spaces that make up Denmans Garden and push myself into different ways of working to do it justice. To be able to spend a year watching the changing seasons is a wonderful opportunity and the discipline is good for me. I hope an exhibition at the end of the period will give people the opportunity to see the gardens through one artist’s view (every artist would of course produce something different). I want to explore the spaces and show, maybe not always in a realistic way, but as a visual representation, some of the ethos of what Joyce Robinson, John Brookes and now Gwendolyn and her team have achieved in the garden.
At the end of the day, I like to switch off with a glass of wine! Although as any artist will tell you, I’m not sure we ever really do ‘switch off’. Walking helps and driving through the countryside is a constant stimulation. Absorbed ideas and impressions simmer away in the subconscious and eventually filter through – or not! It may even result in a finished work.