A Distant Echo

Alex Wade, Cornwall Today 2012

Cornwall-based Hannah Woodman paints in oils and works until the light fades. The result is a mesmerisingly enigmatic body of work.

A few days after our meeting, Hannah Woodman sends me an e-mail. She's had a thought or two, and asks if I wouldn't mind glancing over a few things because, she says, "I was full of cold and even more inarticulate than usual."

Woodman's request reminds me of a wonderful line in Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence. Newland Archer, the male protagonist, has a typically frustrating encounter with Countess Olenska, whom he loves dearly. His love is requited but, for various reasons, doomed. After one meeting, conscious of all the things he wanted but failed to say, Archer is left "bursting with the belated eloquence of the inarticulate."

Woodman's eloquence is not belated. Despite being under the weather when we meet, she is engaging and expressive, speaking lucidly of both her art and her life. That the Devon-born Woodman felt the need to apologise for a perceived lack of articulacy highlights an appealing natural modesty, but also, it seems to me, goes to the core of her oeuvre. Perhaps more than any other painter I have met in Cornwall, Hannah Woodman is an artist for whom words are secondary, mere props and distractions at best, perhaps even regrettable encumbrance on what really matters: the business of making marks.

"I struggle with titles for my work. They're pretty functional," admits Woodman. Titles like Blue Waves, Godrevy, Evening Over Bodmin Moor and Summer Waves, Portheras undoubtedly tend to the prosaic, but Woodman's paintings are anything but. Falling somewhere between impressionism and abstract expressionism, her oil canvases are quite extraordinary. Even the most everyday landscapes – meadows, cornfields, woods – are imbued with mystery, subtly suggestive of emotional states which are somehow indefinable. More dramatic subjects, such as tempestuous seas or snowbound moors, are no less enigmatic. To view a Woodman painting is always to sense something more, something unspoken and intangible.

"Being an artist is about observing things and expressing them visually, " Woodman tells me..."It's all about mark-making. If I've been painting for hours, I'll see everything around me as a mark. The process becomes all-encompassing. Even on holiday, all I can think about is marks." Demanding though this is, Woodman wouldn't have it any other way. "You can't evolve and grow unless you allow this total kind of absorption in the work. You need to be mentally segregated if you're going to be a painter, to do the work properly. It can be quite isolating."

But though Woodman is at ease with the solitude that, for her, is a sine qua non of creativity, from childhood to the present day she has always relished being involved in the art world. "I was born in Totnes and grew up in Exeter, " she says, "and always loved art – not just drawing and painting but teaching it." She smiles as she recalls that having studied art at Exeter College, she applied to the Courtauld Institute – and got in. "I was thrilled to be accepted, and loved being at the Courtauld, " she says.

Thereafter Woodman completed a PGCE and became a teacher. She worked as a freelance teacher and lecturer in schools and galleries (including Tate Britain, the Mall Galleries and The Esoterik Collection of Modern Art) for six years, during which time she also had her children. Painting, in this period, was put on the back-burner, for as Woodman puts it: "it's very difficult to do something creative when you've got small children."

But despite the demands of a young family and work, Woodman did again find the time to paint, and her determination ultimately paid dividends. "I'd taken some photos of my work and left them at a friend's house, " she recalls. "My friend rang me and said, 'I hope you don't mind, but I've shown them to an art gallery owner. He wants to see the work in the flesh.' I felt terrified but agreed."

The art gallery owner turned out to be James Huntingdon-Whiteley of JHW Fine Art. He was bowled over by what he saw, and, in 2004, gave Woodman a solo show – on Cork Street, of all places. If this is the stuff of dreams, there was more to come: the show sold out. "It was an amazing start, " concedes Woodman.

Perhaps the show was all the more remarkable given that, in the preceding year Woodman and her family had relocated to Cornwall. "It was stressful time, yes," she says, "but I felt compelled to create, to produce work."

Once settled in Cornwall, and with the sell-out JHW show under her belt, Woodman immersed herself into her art. "I developed a certain discipline, although I'm a slow painter, I found it was all inside, waiting to come out." Cornwall proved a match for Woodman's creativity. "For a landscape painter, Cornwall is an incredibly inspiring place. The heritage here is wonderful too. I don't consider myself a Cornish painter – I'm an artist who happens to be based in Cornwall – but it's impossible not to be moved by the county and it's artistic history."

Alex Wade, 'A Distant Echo' (extract), Cornwall Today, November 2012

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