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Jan 12 / Simon

ARTIST PROFILES 5 Elizabeth Hannaford

Painting out of a corner by Simon Tait 15 Oct 2018

There is a popular myth about artists, that they are insular, inclined to work inside their own psyches and to be single-minded about what they expect from a finished canvas. It may be true for some, but Elizabeth Hannaford is a perfect example of an artist that puts the lie to the myth.

Her work, abstract and figurative, is a direct response to outside influences. It might well be a scene or a landscape, but just as easily a piece of music or poetry, a snippet of news, a memory, an event like climate change, a personality such as the ethnographer Mary Kingsley, or her own story. The abstracts are lyrical, blended oil paint poured on to canvas, but they are not random: there is a control that gives a form and a statement to each piece, and she says that she knows when a work is finished when it takes on a life of its own “and speaks to me”. That life begins on the floor, there is no easel in her studio, which obviates gravity as a consideration in the movement of paint.

Although images can sweep across different canvases, her use of colour seems precise, and often she paints in diptychs, tryptychs, even series of panels which should be read like a line of prose or a melody, with a beginning and an end; some will be textured by the addition of sand or grit to the painting process. And they are invariably the result of experiment, perhaps the artist’s most precious tool.

Her paintings are stamped by a confidence in her own sensory reaction which might come from sheer force of personality, but informed by years of training and practice; personality is an immediate quality in her work, and her own life experiences offer Elizabeth unique resources to call on.

When she left her first school aged ten, her art teacher told her “never forget your art, Elizabeth”, and she never has. But around that farewell remark lies a torn childhood.

An only child born into a prosperous Devon farming family, her early life was marred by her father’s alcoholism. “It was chaotic … he could be violent”. It led to a forced sale of the farm when she was five, then some years staying mainly with relatives as the money dwindled and the drinking increased. “When I was about ten my mother had had enough and they split up.” She and her mother went to live with her widowed grandmother and she never saw her father again.

This trauma has remained with her in life and work. “But at least my father finally redeemed himself, for which I’m very grateful”. She learnt at his funeral when she was about thirty that he had eventually become a respected Anglican lay priest, the head of the centre for recovering alcoholics that had helped him when he first joined the institution as a gardener.

The rest of Elizabeth’s childhood with her mother and grandmother was stable but lived in relative poverty. She had a successful grammar school education, although despite winning prizes for her drawing and painting, art was not part of the available GCE choice as a fourth subject at A-level. “I was going to have to be something professional – to have a bit of certainty and structure in my life – and a bit of money. Also to know where I was – and I never know where I am with my art, even now,” she says. She did A-level art in her spare time, attending Saturday life classes at Exeter Art College, but instead of art school went to the University of Leeds to study law.

Although she never stopped drawing and painting, she led a successful life as a property lawyer. With her husband she lived near her practice in Oxford, before their jobs brought them to London and the Crouch End house they have lived in ever since. “My training as a lawyer may not seem to fit with the life of an artist, but it’s taught me to be organised and pay attention to detail”, she says, speaking in her purpose-built studio at her home. “Running a family (there are two children, now grown), a home and a demanding job means you have to have control, and that helps to make sense of my life as an artist now”.

She could not, however, resist the call of the paintbrush, and when she was able to work part time she began a twice-weekly life class at the Camden Institute; over four years she absorbed a new discipline that still informs her work.

Then the early ‘90s recession intervened in her life when her practice downsized and Elizabeth was made redundant. She was offered the telephone advice of a careers counsellor: “I think you need permission to do what you want to do, and I don’t think it’s the law’, he said, and something went ‘ping’”. She left the law – “or it left me, really” – took her redundancy money and spent it on a post-graduate diploma in art psychotherapy at the University of Hertfordshire which she began in 1993. In order to gain the required clinical experience to apply for the course she spent a year volunteering at the Royal Free Hospital in North London working with Alzheimer’s patients, and her six-month clinical placement during the course was in the acute psychiatric department of St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London.

She had held her first solo exhibition, The Moving Figure, at the Square Gallery in Highgate in 1991, and her second was at the Diorama Arts Centre Gallery by Regent’s Park in 1996. By this time she was working in her new capacity as a State Registered Art Therapist for the charity Studio Upstairs, based at the Diorama and operating a working art studio for vulnerable people in the community with mental or emotional issues. “I worked there for six years until 2000, helping in the end to run it. It was a therapeutic community based on the ideas of RD Laing. I’m not sure that my art would have taken off or flourished without that supportive experience”.

Elizabeth’s gregarious approach to both life and her art has meant that she has made friendships and associations that have led her along many unexpected paths. She has travelled the world in search of remote landscapes, painting what she sees and feels. She was taught etching by the Royal Academician Peter Freeth; through those she met in her classes she got studio space, at first in Bermondsey and then in Peckham (she moved to her own garden studio, “my sanctuary”, three years ago); another RA, Hughie O’Donoghue gave valuable advice and encouragement in the run-up to her Diorama Show; and she became fascinated by music and its associations with painting during her Camden Institute life classes where sound was introduced.

In concerts she drew performers – including Rostropovich, Marin Alsop, Jeffrey Tate, more recently Thomas Adès – but for the last two decades has also collaborated with musicians, in particular the organist and composer Christopher Bowers-Broadbent and the jazz and classical musician David Gordon, when she will paint or draw as the musicians play. Embracing new technology, she has responded on her iPhone to Gordon’s work with his jazz trio at St Martin-in-the-Fields, creating a series of “Jazz iArt Boxes”.

And poetry is often part of the praxis, sometimes by favourites such as T S Eliot, sometimes her own. Her poignant eight-part serial work, Sometimes like now I feel that hurt that was shown in a pre-Tate Modern Bankside exhibition in 1999, takes its title from her poem about her father, a striking re-experiencing of her childhood pain.

But a more recent haunting large diptych, Shadow (with leaf), which speaks of her fears of climate change and in part of which her own hazy shape hovers, was finished before she was inspired to write:

A studio floor, dark, grey
Messy with paint
A landscape emerges, dark
As does my shadow (busy, working)

The shadow looms. Asking questions
What are we doing to our world

A studio window, studio view
Ash trees whispering
Ash trees, dying?
Branches brushing against the panes

A lead flutters, Asking questions
What are we doing to our world?