Suffolk artist capturing the spirit of some ancient lands

Tory Lawrence discovered art late in life. She discovered Suffolk later still. But now the two have come together in a startling exhibition which revels in the stark nature of the Suffolk countryside in winter.

Entitled Ancient Lands, the exhibition was painted between December and March and captures Suffolk at its most beautiful and it’s most forbidding. Tory admits she loves to capture the county in the best light – golden hour, the time just before dawn and 50 minutes after and then the same again at sunset. However, she confesses with a laugh she’s not really a morning person and virtually all the work in the exhibition is really the hour around sunset.

“I’m dreadful, I just can’t get up and out that quickly in the morning. When I went riding I was out all the time but no longer I’m afraid.”

Tory, who lives in north Suffolk, next door to fellow artist Maggi Hambling, started life as a champion show-jumper before becoming former Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman’s secretary. She enjoys the dubious honour of being the person who left an electric typewriter plugged in one night which started an electrical fire which burned down the office, taking half of Betjeman’s library with it.

Fortunately, she married soon after, which she says saved Betjeman the task of firing her. “I wasn’t a very good secretary.”

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If organising someone else’s life was not her speciality then the twin joys of riding and painting are. She no longer rides after an accident left her with a broken back but the accident re-fired her interest in art which she became passionate about at the age of 40.

Tory first picked up a paint brush professionally in 1982. She always had an interest in art as a youngster but her father, racehorse trainer Ginger Denniston, who she describes as a “small, eccentric, hot tempered but a very funny man”, made sure that his daughter would follow him into an equine-centred world.

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She said: “I rode from the age of two. I showjumped professionally as a teenager, rode point to point and evented.

“At school in Northamptonshire I had enjoyed painting and toyed with the idea of going to art school but I wasn’t brave enough to force the issue – besides I loved riding, I love horses, so it wasn’t any great hardship.

“But, there was a real sense that my life had been mapped out and I got married very young.”

However, her love of art refused to die and at the age of 40 she attended one of Maggi Hambling’s summer painting courses and was encouraged to discover that the famous artist believed she had talent. “Maggi has always been enormously encouraging.”

Tory said that because he love of painting had refused to die, she resolved to do something about it.

“I enrolled in Morley College to see if I was any good. Just to see if there was any point in trying to make a go of it. To my delight, I found that I drew just as well as anyone else.”

While Maggi has recently concentrated on the sea, Tory looks at the world inland, and his inspired by Suffolk’s sweeping skies. If you look at Tory’s paintings, the sky invariably dominates the composition and while the landscape could be seen as bleak but beautiful, there is a world of colour and activity going on.

Tory draws from life, making sketches in her drawing pad which she then works up into full-fledged oil paintings back in the studio. Flicking through her sketch pad, some drawings are just suggestions of the scene she has encountered while others are highly detailed studies.

Notes litter the drawings, with suggestions to the colour or other details which may be forgotten by the time the work is committed to canvas.

The speed of the drawing can be dictated by a number of factors – from rain to failing light, to trying to capture a magical scene before the cloud formations change. The speed and accuracy of her work is also influenced by the time of day and whether she has been working recently.

“If I have got all afternoon and I have come across something I love, then I am completely happy sitting on my funny little stool working away – regardless of the weather. Then I will finish a drawing.

“If I am a bit pushed, time is running out and I need to get somewhere else then I do a quick, short drawing which just gives the impression of the scene.

“You certainly get faster the more you do. At the beginning of the day you may be quite slow but the more you draw, the quicker you become and more importantly you see much more. You get more out of view at the end of the day than you do at the beginning and you get it down much quicker.”

She says that drawing requires constant practice. “If I don’t draw for two or three days, I go back to being slow again. It’s about getting the eye working. Getting the information you see out of the head and into the hand.”

She said that she sees the whole space, the relationships between the various elements within a scene, in much sharper focus and more detailed at the end of the day.”

The medium she chooses also has a bearing on how detailed the original drawings will be. Watercolours are freer and more simple requiring less detail, whereas etchings can be incredibly detailed while oils have an almost textural feel about them.

With Tory’s paintings you get a clear impression about what it feels like to stand in the shoes of the artist.

The painting gives off a sense of place, an indication about the atmosphere of a particular location.

But, it is the sky which really captures Tory’s imagination. The colours, the variations in the light, the cloud formations all combining to create a skyscape every bit as compelling as the vista below. Tory’s skies demand attention.

“I think the sky is terribly important. For me they are a major part of the landscape. You can’t ignore them.”

She says that she feels she is still exploring Suffolk and drives around Suffolk’s back roads looking for scenes which inspire. “I am still very much a newcomer. I don’t know Suffolk nearly as well as the Berkshire Downs where I came from, so it’s all new and terribly exciting.”

Despite being a relative new arrival to the county, Tory’s connection with Suffolk stretches back to her youth when she used to visit Aldeburgh for summer holidays. “My grandmother lived in Friston Hall, so I’ve always had a feeling of Suffolk in me.”

She describes Suffolk as an ancient county. A place with a sense of the past, which is one of the reasons, she has called her new exhibition Ancient Lands. “I was driving the other day round the back roads around Hintlesham and within a mile of Ipswich there were some amazing views.

“When it comes to choosing a subject, I want to be moved by what I see. Then I do think about composition but mostly it’s what moves me. I like the movement of the earth – some small hills in the distance. As an artist I am fascinated by the past.

“The landscape provides a link to the past. It has been shaped by our history, by the way we have used it, farmed it and managed it.

“I love places like Framlingham Castle. I love walking round the grounds, going out to the mere at the back. It’s a collection of paintings which have been completed since December.

“It’s a real Suffolk show with a little bit of Oxfordshire thrown in.”

She said that although the majority of the work in the exhibition were oils, she was putting in some of her older etchings and some unframed drawings for variety.

Although Tory has a long love of horses, she feels no desire to follow Alfred Munnings into becoming a painter of horses.

“The problem is that I know horses so well. It’s hard to be objective. Horses are very hard to get right. I have painted them in the past but I have never been terribly happy with the results.

“I went through a phase of painting birds and butterflies and they were much more successful.

“These then led onto a fascination with dragonflies, which I adored. Then I had a break and I went back to landscapes.”

n Ancient Land – an exhibition by Tory Lawrence runs at Ipswich Town Hall Gallery from April 10 to May 22. Admission is free. Tory will be giving a talk about her work at the gallery on May 21 at 7pm.

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