Stanton in Peak artist Sue Lewis-Blake
PUBLISHED: 00:00 28 February 2017
Sue Lewis-Blake is the only Derbyshire-based artist among a dozen members of the Society of Graphic Fine Art (SGFA) whose work is currently on display in an exhibition called ‘Drawing Connections’ at the Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery
SUE LEWIS-BLAKE is the only Derbyshire-based artist among a dozen members of the Society of Graphic Fine Art (SGFA) whose work is currently on display in an exhibition called ‘Drawing Connections’ at the Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery. This innovative show combines contemporary work by SGFA members with drawings by Joseph Syddall, an artist who was born in Old Whittington in 1864 and was commissioned when he was still a student to illustrate the first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. His German-born mentor, the artist Sir Hubert von Herkomer, declared that ‘Joseph Syddall is the best draughtsman in England’.
The drawings made by the SGFA members are an entirely appropriate accompaniment for Syddall’s work, because the criterion for membership of the SGFA is ‘proven drawing excellence’. Sue Lewis-Blake, one of just 130 members of the society, is a watercolourist who has always used drawings as the basis for her paintings and has been drawing compulsively ever since she was a child. She says, ‘In all of my earliest memories I have a pencil or crayon in my hand.’
Sue took a degree in Fine Art and an MA in painting at the University of Wales, followed by an Art Teacher’s Certificate at Goldsmith’s College. She worked for 27 years at King’s High School for Girls, an independent day school in Warwick, where she taught Fine Art and was responsible for introducing both Design Technology and History of Art into the curriculum.
Throughout her teaching career, Sue obtained enormous pleasure from the achievements of her students, but she also maintained a parallel career as an artist, often rising very early in the morning to pursue her passion for sketching and painting. Regarding teaching and working as an artist as being mutually beneficial, she says, ‘I hope that I was a better teacher because I remained a practitioner and I know that my own paintings developed at times as a direct result of having to analyse a problem for a pupil.’
Since leaving full-time teaching and moving with her partner, the writer Garry Martin, to Stanton in Peak, Sue has been able to find time to develop her painting in many directions, but whether her pictures are watercolours, mixed media works or even three-dimensional compositions, they are always based on sketches made from direct observations. Her subject matter is wide ranging and includes intensive studies made in various locations both in this country and abroad.
One of her favourite locations is the Abbey Château de Camon, near Mirepoix in south-west France, where she and Garry have spent a number of idyllic holidays. During their stays in a chambre d’hôte in the abbey, founded in the 12th century as a Benedictine monastery, Sue has made scores of sketches that capture to perfection the cool atmosphere of long corridors that link rooms throughout the building, the illumination of patterned stone floors by beams of sunlight and the gentle swaying of draped curtains in breezes that blow in through the open windows. Many of the highly evocative paintings that have resulted from these drawings show interiors glimpsed tantalisingly from an approaching corridor or from an adjacent room.
Another favourite location is Guernsey, where Sue has exhibited her paintings at the Coach House Gallery in St Pierre du Bois. Some of her pictures are restful images of boats at anchor, either on the sand, where their mooring ropes form geometric patterns, or on the water, where they make distorted reflections. Many others depict old breakwaters, where seaweed and shells have become attached to the old posts. In Sue’s eyes, the posts, indented with grooves made by the ebb and flow of the tides, are like sculptures by Brâncusi. Her paintings show them standing defiantly in the water as though they were ancient monoliths.
Genuine monoliths placed in the landscape by Bronze Age people, as well as natural wind-eroded, freestanding stone pillars, are a feature of the landscape of Stanton Moor, the wild upland close to Sue’s home in Stanton in Peak. Her painting of the Nine Ladies stone circle on the moor is a vivid evocation of the brooding atmosphere and mystery of this ancient monument, where legend has it that nine ladies were turned to stone as a punishment for dancing on the Sabbath.
The pale-green landscape of the White Peak which can be seen stretching out below the village where Sue now lives and the lusher green farmlands close to her former home in Warwickshire are the subjects of many of the artist’s landscape paintings. These pictures have a wonderfully ethereal quality, enhanced by the translucent character of the watercolour medium in which they are painted.
In some of the paintings, the sky takes up the majority of the composition. Sue says: ‘As Constable and Turner both realised, the sky can often be as full of interest as the land itself. I am often inspired to make a landscape painting by dramatic changes in the weather, but I can be equally enthused by a calm, sunlit day. And I always try to use lines and shapes on the land to take the eye through a scene to a distant horizon.’
As with all of Sue’s pictures, these landscape paintings evolve from lots of preliminary sketches, some of which concentrate on the detail of small features. The final composition may not always be an entirely accurate depiction of the actual landscape that had attracted the attention of the artist in the first place, but it will certainly capture the spirit of the scene that had inspired her.
Objects that have been lost and found, either in the landscape or in derelict barns and greenhouses, were the inspiration for some of the paintings that Sue exhibited at the Kultur Baeckerei in Lüneburg in September 2016. Recently, she has been creating other ‘Lost and Found’ pictures based on sketches made at Haddon Hall of ‘dole cupboards’. These are cupboards that had been left outside the grand house and contained surplus food for the poor. Sue has also been making sketches of small objects such as antique dice and playing cards that were found during renovations at Haddon.
A number of Sue’s drawings are available at the St John Street Gallery in Ashbourne, where she will have a solo exhibition of landscapes from 7th to 22nd April. She also runs drawing workshops at the gallery and uses her wealth of experience as a teacher of History of Art to run classes in art appreciation in Stanton in Peak.
Although most of Sue’s art concentrates on places and landscapes where figures are absent, she has placed figures in her watercolour painting of Buxton, which depicts the Crescent as viewed from Spring Gardens, and in her drawings which are on show in the ‘Drawing Connections’ exhibition at Chesterfield. As this exhibition demonstrates so clearly, the drawings made by Sue and other members of the Society of Graphic Fine Art are more than worthy of being placed alongside the work of Joseph Syddall, a man known in his day as ‘the best draughtsman in England’.
‘Drawing Connections’, featuring contemporary work by members of the Society of Graphic Fine Art and drawings by Joseph Syddall, runs until 31st March at Chesterfield Museum and Art Gallery on St Mary’s Gate. Examples of Sue Lewis-Blake’s work can be viewed at www.lewis-blake.co.uk and the St John Street Gallery in Ashbourne, where she will have a solo show of landscape paintings from 7th to 22nd April.