Suffolk artist Constance Stubbs staged colourful retrospective

Suffolk-based artist Constance Stubbs was once described by her husband artist Harold Yates as an expressionist rather than an impressionist. She has the rare gift of being able to put emotion and feeling onto canvas.

Constance Stubbs, now 83, may look fragile but as soon as you speak to her you are very aware on her indomitable spirit. In one of those bizarre twists of fate, having come from a large family and having been prone to illness all her life, is now the only member of her family left alive.

She has an insatiable curiosity about the world in which we live. She loves to discover how everything works, what our diverse universe looks like, how people interact and react with one another.

She loves looking out at the meadows which are opposite her house and as her mobility has become reduced, a vast widescreen television provides a window onto a world which she can no longer physically explore.

Her body may be no longer as strong as it once was but her undiminished vitality remains as powerful and awe-inspiring as ever both on paper and canvas.

Her works are produced on a vast scale and the framed canvases often dwarf their diminutive creator. In these giant works, figures appear to emerge out of swirls of colour and line.

Constance’s work suggests ideas rather than stating things emphatically. The power of her work lies in the fact that she gets the viewer to contribute their own ideas to what they are seeing.

Most Read

The more you look at a Constance Stubbs picture the more you see. You can have a work on the wall for years, you can see it every day, and then you will stop and see something new and wonder why you had missed it before.

Her use of colour allows her to create works with wonderful atmosphere. This is where her reputation for being an expressive artist comes from. She is one of the few people who can seemingly paint a feeling – an expression of fear, of joy, elation, pain, love, anger – she has the unique knack of managing to make emotion visible.

Her subject matter is wide and varied but is largely drawn from her interest in people and how they tick.

Her landscapes are as much about the people who interact with the scene as it is about the scene itself. A storm-tossed sea is about the human life in peril, desperately clinging to a make-shift raft caught in the great coloured swirls of water, than it is about a literal depiction of a storm at sea.

Looking at Constance’s work, it is clear that she has a considerable zest for life and remains passionate about her work.

She continues to work every day at her home studio based in Pakenham, outside Bury St Edmunds.

When I remark on how vibrant her work still is, she laughs: “All my zest goes into my work now. I can hardly get about. I have to sit down to paint but I like to think I have a youthful spirit and it all comes out in my work.”

Although I describe her work as fizzing and bubbling – full of zing I say at one point – she says that she doesn’t look at it in the same way.

“If I doing a painting of the water meadow, I am just putting one colour with another. It’s about the relationship between them. That’s why you think it zings. And it’s not really a painting of the water meadow, it’s based on that. Yesterday I was painting and it went very black, storm clouds gathered, and I brightened them up, so perhaps that’s what you see as zing.”

Over the years Constance has attracted several famous fans of her work including former Rolling Stones bass player Bill Wyman and Take That mainstay Gary Barlow. She even produced a picture to mark the end of Take That’s reunion Circus tour in 2007.

“The link with That That came from our local publican, he’s gone now, but he worked as their guitarist for a while and he talked to them about me. Gary Barlow was very keen and I did this picture for their circus performance and we are putting it in the exhibition.”

Over the years she has incorporated bits of paper, wall paper and various off-cuts of material into her work, to lend an element of surprise and added interest. The paper is torn into shapes and is washed over in paint, so it becomes an integral part of the overall picture.

“I find string comes in very handy. It’s always used incidentally. It provides texture. It invites you to have another look.”

Over the years Constance has developed a layering style which blends colour and detail so figures emerge from within the painting.

One of her recent paintings explores the claustrophobia inherent in mining and shows how the miners are fighting their way back to the surface. But, in the painting men and tunnels combine in the swirl of colour. You are not quite sure where the caverns ends and the bodies start.

“This layering effect is something that I increasingly like to do. It makes the painting become lively, more vital.”

Her work has been described as buoyant and life enhancing. She says that these descriptions are heart warming but she remains at a loss as how to react to such praise.

“I suppose I paint ideas rather than subjects. I don’t paint the subject, I paint the idea or the feelings around the subject. It’s ideas mainly. I would hate to just sit down and do a landscape. I gave up oil painting because it takes too long.

“I quite like portraiture although I am a bit fearful of it because you have got to get a likeness – albeit you can get a likeness in a different way.”

Although her work has a striking sense of immediacy, Constance Stubbs work is painstakingly constructed – it goes through a process as she describes it. “It’s difficult to describe but the painting is built up, steadily, and the final touch, the last gasp, you might say, is spontaneous.”

She said that she uses sketches and photographs as source material but more often than not, the initial trigger for a painting will be a poem but then it will be related to actual things that she has seen or experienced.

The Wreck of the Medusa painting is part of a series in which Constance tries to bring to life the fears and the emotions behind the events in the Greek legend. Other artists have tackled the subject in a very formal way.

Constance said that instead of merely illustrating the scene where the hapless victims are clinging for their lives to the remains of a raft on a storm-tossed sea, she is painting the fear and the palpable sense of danger as the waves crash over their fragile craft, threatening to destroy it.

“I try to paint the fear and the cold. I paint the feelings. I also include lots of incidental details so, it is studied but on the other hand it should appear totally spontaneous.”

Despite on-going health issues, Constance still manages to paint every day. “I have to. I have this compulsion.

“I met this man in the pub on Sunday he asked me if I had ever been to art school? I said ‘yes’ and he looked quite shocked and said: ‘Oh, I thought you were just talented,’ she laughs.

“But, from the age of 14, I painted every day. It’s a training which goes back years and builds up. The idea comes out through the work and a lot of the time you are not aware of it. You have this amazing mental store of references which you can call on quite sub-consciously.”

Constance says her artistic nature is buried in her genes and comes from a very artistic family which includes her ancestor the great equestrian and portrait painter.

George Stubbs.

“The basis of it all is drawing. I work, I create my work out of necessity. I have to do it.

“My father, a sheet metal worker, also loved art and had a great feeling for music and my mother who was from Ireland, went working in the mills at the age of 12, was very musical and used to sing to me when I was at home ill, which I was all the time, and she used to play the mandolin.”

She studied at the Cheltenham School of Art and in 1946 gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where she worked under Professor Robin Darwin and various tutors including Ruskin Spear, John Minton and Rodrigo Moynihan.

“My older brother Dick was living in Greece at the time and invited me to go and live over there. My health, being an asthmatic, meant that being an artist was a good choice.”

In 1950, after a year working in the studio of Christos Kapralos, Constance Stubbs still in her early twenties, held her first solo exhibition A Year in Greece at the Anglo-Hellenic Club in Athens. It was well received and gave her the confidence to pursue her individual view of the world.

As well as marrying and bringing up a family, Constance became senior lecturer at the Coloma Teacher Training College in Kent.

In 1964 she successfully competed against leading contemporary artists for the commission to paint a decorated screen depicting the Fall and the Ascent of Man in the new chapel at St Mary’s Teacher Training College, Strawberry Hill. In 1979 she spent a sabbatical year print-making at Croydon College of Art.

She moved to Suffolk with her husband in the early 1980s and her work moved up another gear – working feverishly turning out an endless series of highly colourful, often very personal works.

Out of 200 artists selected for the 1982 Hayward Annual Exhibition of British Drawing, her work was singled out by a leading national art critic as outstanding. She also started staging a series of one woman shows both in London and in Suffolk.

She has been a regular exhibitor at the John Russell Gallery and Artworks and despite the frequency of her shows still has a vast store of works tucked away in her studio and hung on every available wall space at home.

Her passion for her work means that there are always regular additions to the collection and this has prompted a major retrospective exhibition at Blackthorpe Barn, Rougham, just outside Bury St Edmunds.

Work drawn from all phases of her career will be on display as well as work still on the easel when this interview took place.

Constance Stubbs ARCA: A Retrospective runs from August 13-21. Admission is free.