'Woodman's Wild Cornwall'

James Huntington-Whiteley, 2006

Commentators on the subject of Cornish Art often begin by extolling the virtues of the county as a magnet for visitors and artistic settlers: Stanhope Forbes or “Lamorna” Birch, or the later immigrants, Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, Paul Feiler, Roger Hilton. Hannah Woodman spent much of her childhood with family in Cornwall, and it was a return to live there permanently in 2003 (having been working and teaching in London) that has produced a consistent body of personal, powerful oil paintings of land and sea.

Even those who know Cornwall scarcely know Hannah Woodman’s Cornwall. Although she is a short drive away from the pleasures of Penzance and St. Ives (with its part real and part artificial artistic hubbub), she is miles away in spirit. Her places are the obscure ones: the lanes and fields around her studio, and the sands and seas of Godrevy and Gwithian. There are very few boats, harbours, or fisherman to place one in Cornwall, much more the raw materials: rocks, coast, sea, grasses, hedges and sky. The occasional hint of human habitation – a cluster of buildings in a hamlet or a church spire in the distance – merely reflects the seclusion of her studio, itself impossible to find, hidden at the end of a long and uncomfort- able private track.

Her works don’t offer a picturesque option, more of a genuine one. And for this reason, although Cornwall is of course her place of work, and her works are particular, they are also universal. Her seascapes, especially, like the cold wild seascapes of Permeke or Nolde, depict the seas, waves and rocks and sands in all their menacing isolation. The Cornish sea is on hand, and the interpretation of the coastal environment achieves a greater power and honesty because of the artist’s dedication to a sense of her own place.

The weather (as it should be to a landscape artist) is a constant motif throughout her work. What surprises on a studio visit are the paintings of dark skies, wintry terrains, and above all snow scenes. Snow? Cornwall? Here is an unlikely artistic interpretation of a region considered the sunny holiday destination of choice for many. There is a strong affinity in her work with the great landscape painter of the 1950s and 1960s Sheila Fell, whose artistic vision rarely veered from the farms and hills of Cumbria, a county much more accustomed to the snow. Unlike Fell, Hannah Woodman is not interested in the effect or human involvement on the landscape. For her, winter is more dramatic, especially by the coast and over the surrounding moorland: the light is more varied, with greater extremes. Another reason is closer to home: for any resident of the Westcountry, the summer means clogged up roads, busy beaches and crowds of tourists – not conducive to serious painting or contemplation: and also the long school holidays with three young children around the studio make for different working conditions. The isolation of winter is the more obvious choice for this artist.

Whatever the subject, in the end the painter is faced with an expanse of board or canvas, and some paint: by necessity a lonely task, and one that requires serious commitment and concentration – both of which Hannah Woodman offers while working or talking about her work. Each of her paintings is a kind of experiment, which develops into an image, in the course of the work. The surfaces themselves, and the individual brushworks, take on a life of their own; independent of the motif, subtle where they need to be and demonstrative where the subject demands (the crashing of a wave against a rock, for instance). From corner to corner, each millimetre of the carefully worked paint surface is considered individually and then as a whole.

The artist herself has commented that: "each landscape I paint is rigorously explored. Straddling the divide between abstraction and the figurative, I like to think I am bringing a different perspective to the Cornish landscape... I’m trying to find the wilderness which still exists beyond human interference, the true Cornwall, for the landscape has a lasting quality which I hope my painting captures".

Few would deny that she has achieved her ambition in style.

James Huntington-Whiteley, London 2006

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