The Cornish fishing town of Newlyn, despite its rugged and uncompromisingly industrial facade, has played host to a panoply of artistic talent over the years. Not surprising, when you consider the rich and undeniably abundant sources of material that lie along the county’s imposing and unforgiving granite shores and amidst the mystical tor-strewn uplands of the middle country.
And so it’s been, generations of painters, writers, poets and sculptors drawing upon the reservoir of inspiration that exists here, magnetically attracting others, like moths to a lamp, to sap the atmosphere and enrich their talent with exciting new scenes, unheard of sounds and breathtaking scenery, set against a backdrop of unique and captivating folklore
Henrietta Graham has bucked the trend slightly. Four weeks into the tenure of her lofty, and incredibly airy, Newlyn studio (an old cannery), and a brush flick from the bustling harbour, she’s instantly tapped into the beating commercial heart of the town, although I discover that the move from the fast moving and eclectic London art scene, to Cornwall’s timeless eddy, was, although intentional, far from contrived.
Having been based on a farm outside of Newlyn for the last 10 years, a chance conversation recently led her to her current quarters and along with her supremely talented artist husband Tim and Pug (Ollie), they find themselves with a dry, spacious and eminently suitable studio, within earshot of the auction shouts and industrial buzz of the fish quays, the view from the old cannery panes affording a glimpse of an azure horizon and a porthole to the arrivals and departures of the fishing fleet.
With the backdrop of their new accommodation already playing host to a series of painting workshops, organised for both novices and professionals alike, Henrietta and Tim are able to utilise their talents to considerable effect to impart enthusiasm and technique to those wishing to aspire. Increasing numbers of budding artists are now wending their way here, to imbibe the scene and draw on the couple’s combined wealth of experience, working initially with a set palette of colours.
The supremely talented duo have also courted national plaudits, having in 2014, been bestowed with the unique accolade of being the first couple to have work exhibited in the BP Portrait Awards, Henrietta for her inspired depiction of Chef James Martin and Tim for his stunningly detailed and clever representation of his wife in their studio, alongside her portrayal of Noma chef René Redzepi.
By admission, she agrees that her own quest for enlightenment made the move West all the more necessary.
“I found myself confined by the London scene, “she reveals. “I had to expose myself to a totally different environment and be as far removed from conventionality as possible. I really had no conscious intent to relocate to an area steeped in art history, in fact I was oblivious to the fact that this part of Cornwall is such a rich and fertile nursery for such talent.”
Unfazed by the preceding eminence of the Cornish greats that have consistently inhabited this part of Merlin’s country, she’s already gained considerable renown both locally and further afield, through utilising her classical skills and Parisienne training in portraiture to capture and represent all manner of subjects. Residing as a “local” just up the road in the beguiling fishing village of Mousehole for the last 15 years, her background of representational and figurative art has equipped her perfectly for the task of indulging her passion, in a county where their is certainly no dearth of subject matter or stimuli.
A born traveller and epicurean too, this particular virtuoso has submerged herself in a world where her passions and inspirations can be fully realised. Working primarily in oils on canvas, her reputation for incredibly diverse and detailed studies of characters from across the globe has gained much acclaim, her odyssey being represented in everything from the vibrant and lustrous hues of Indian street life to the dust and violence of the Mexican bullrings.
Brought up in London, but with roots in coastal Suffolk, (her grandfather Henry Dumas owned the Iken Hall Estate just downriver from Snape Maltings) she’s well connected and that advantage has led her to many encounters with celebrity subjects. Chefs have featured highly on her list for some while and having Gordon Ramsey as a neighbour at her London studio, only served as further inspiration, his portrait (her first chef) still hanging in his home.
“We were good mates” she enthuses. “It was really Gordon that provided me with the energy and drive to explore that world, in the kitchens of some the great restaurants and hotels. A series followed which is now nearing completion, with James Martin, Ken Hom and Raymond Blanc having all availed themselves for the canvas, with local seafood icon, Nathan Outlaw, providing the initial encouragement and inspiration, sitting willingly as the first subject.
The Chef “series” has undoubtedly sapped hours and energy, with the last six years of her life devoted to the task. However, when you gaze upon such works as the group at Galton Blackiston’s, Morston Hall, you start to appreciate the minutiae of what is being achieved here; depth and focus stem from a profound insight into their culinary sphere, which in turn exacts a clear and detailed impression of the heady environment encountered in a working kitchen .
Her close friend and supporter James Steen, renowned ghost-autobiographer for the likes of Keith Floyd and more recently Ken Hom, has undoubtedly provided her with the impetus to push on and deliver the series in its entirety.
“He’s my support system”, she confides. “A dear friend and confidant who will always back me and proffer the necessary encouragement when things don’t run so smoothly.”
With some 50 chefs’ portraits now destined for a book, due for publication later this year, that particular phase looks to be drawing to a close. I sense that it’s almost with a sigh of relief that new subjects beckon and with the smell of salt in the air and the constant creaking and kewing of the gulls overhead, it’s little wonder she now looks to the harbour and its bustling net-strewn quays for her next fix of ingenuity.
“Well it has to be the fishermen,” she confirms. “We have so many colourful and exciting characters right here within yards of my work and it would be churlish of me not to tell their stories and depict their lives on canvas. There’s continuity with the chefs and the food scene too, they compliment each other beautifully, from net to plate.”
I ask Henrietta if that means getting up close and personal in their environ at the harbour, but learn that her proposed interaction will stretch further than that. A regular visitor to the Fish Market, she already has designs on a trip aboard one of the hake netters, “Karen of Ladram”, which is definitely in the near offing and an adventure she relishes.
It’s how I roll,” she laughs. “I’ll have to study in detail and at first hand, exactly how they operate. That’s where the inspiration flows from; the coal face and the reality of their lives. It’s what provides the colour.”
I get that, totally and can’t wait for the outcome……
Photos copyright Mike Warner/Henrietta Graham