Clova Stuart-Hamilton was in the first cohort of Ruskin Fine Art students to be integrated into the collegiate system at Oxford and although nominally based at Somerville, she had to be at the Ruskin from 9am to 9pm every day, the sort of schedule which would make an English student drop his roll-up. Clova talks about how lucky she was to receive the technical grounding she needed to evolve into a figurative painter, ‘a rather rare species nowadays.’
Based in Jericho for over 20 years now, Clova enthuses about the Oxford Art Weeks, which she believes have contributed to ‘a heightened awareness of the benefits of patronising artists and craftspeople.’ She emphasises their educational value, explaining that ‘perhaps if you know nothing about print-making you can go and see a print-maker pulling lithographs off the press.’
Clearly a perfectionist, when asked what she finds the most difficult part of the creative process she answers ‘I find stopping paintings incredibly difficult.’ This is why she often paints things which are transient, such as plants which are dying. As she’s very engaged with ‘working in the moment’, she has to finish an autumnal scene before the first frost or return to it another year, and tends to have a morning and an afternoon painting on the go at the same time to cope with the changes in light.
Clova often returns to certain themes in her work: ‘Going back to the same thing can propel you forward as you’re so conscious of the fact that you don’t want to repeat yourself.’ Living with a family of musicians, instruments regularly crop up in her paintings and she is particularly fascinated by interiors; the play of light with windows is a particularly common motif in her work. She always tries to balance more familiar compositions in her exhibitions with new subjects which excite her.
I ask how she reconciles a realistic portrayal of the modern world with the aesthetics of her painting style and she calls it a ‘fascinating challenge.’ She smilingly announces that she has sold one painting with a fridge in it and another, when her children were small, which involved a bottle of Calpol. She confesses, however, that she has ‘a big issue with cars’ and tries to avoid them when painting street scenes. ‘I do feel as a figurative painter working in the 21st century that ideally I would like to reflect back the world that I’m living in and when I was in New York, I did a little painting of a modern interior of what’s called IHOP, it’s a chain of cafés.’ She describes how she was ‘very taken with these two workers who were on their break’ and found that there was ‘a sort of poetry of the moment’ among the formica tables and ugly lights.
We turn to modern art and I ask for her feelings on more abstract and subversive pieces. ‘So much work nowadays is connected with ideas and I wouldn’t ever say my work is to do with ideas, my work is to do with experiences and using a visual language to record them,’ she explains. She suggests that ‘there’s a limit to the “shock-ability” of the British public’, who may eventually tire of art pieces which strive to offend. She points towards the enormous numbers of visitors to blockbuster exhibitions of Van Gogh’s letters or large retrospectives of Monet and says ‘I think there’s an interest there which isn’t actually represented in the media, who are concerned with sensationalism.’
She names Bridget Riley as a contemporary artist who excites her, generating visual rhythms with large bars of colour: ‘It’s at the opposite end of the scale from my work in terms of its pure abstraction but not in terms of it being to do with paint and colour.’ Her favourite artists, however, are the 19th century French Intimists Bonnard and Vuillard, who she credits with having produced ‘some of the most poetic and quietly inspiring painting of all time’. Art is a translation of personality and experience for Clova but it’s also about the economy of the brushstroke, the physicality of the materials and the visceral, sensual nature of painting as an art form. She talks about the sand embedded in the paint of Monet’s pictures of beaches and grins ‘it’s that sort of “in the moment-ness” of painting which I find exciting’. And I realise that I too have been ‘quietly inspired’.
Clova Stuart-Hamilton will be exhibiting her work at 92 Walton St, 21-22 and 25-28 May