I was strolling through Ipswich Docks on Saturday and on impulse called into the John Russell Gallery. Everything was a bit chaotic as the Constance Stubbs’ exhibition had just finished and they were taking the paintings off the walls. Nonetheless, I got a chance to view some of the pictures and a welcoming gallery director, Anthony Coe, was kind enough to tell me about the artist and her work. I’m so glad he did… I found the work exciting and inspirational and felt buoyed up by the discovery.
The paintings are large scale, highly expressive, vibrant and, multi-layered using paint and collage which extends off the picture and onto the frame. I was feeling at a slightly low point as work on my final assignment wasn’t going stunningly well. Stumbling upon these radiant, uplifting paintings was just what I needed to refocus and feel positive again.
I was fascinated to learn that these amazing paintings were produced by an 85 year old, wheelchair user who does all the work herself. Stubbs’s devotees include the Rolling Stones and Take That who have commissioned paintings from her. How wonderful it is that age and infirmity have not prevented the artist from pursuing her passion or people of all ages appreciating and enjoying her art. She has painted every day since she was 14, it is a compulsion, she lives to paint and creates highly original work.
Incidentally, Constance Stubbs is a distant relative of George Stubbs (1724-1806) the great equestrian and portrait painter although their work couldn’t be more different.
The artist’s innovative collage technique uses acrylic or watercolour with gouache, chalk and pastel and builds up layers of brightly coloured textures on canvas or board. For me it is the layering and texture that makes this work so fascinating. You would never tire of a Constance Stubbs because each time you looked you would see something different, something intriguing.
In the words of the artist herself:
“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.”
“It’s difficult to describe but the painting is built up, steadily, and the final touch, the last gasp, you might say, is spontaneous.”
“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.”
More about the artist and her work
There is a lovely, informative 2011 interview with the artist on the East Anglian Daily Times website. Some of her work is included with this article but a greater selection can be seen on the artist’s own website in the Gallery section. The home page Circus painting was commissioned by Take That and on show in the Gallery when I visited. You have to see these paintings for real to appreciate the energy, life and amazing layered detail of them.
A favourite for me is The Little Prince (2002) because of the vitality, charm and curious luminosity of it. I’m fascinated by the way different densities of colour and materials work together and by the way the almost ‘stenciled’ foreground flowers frame this special, much protected and loved child, the artist’s grandson.
Constance Stubbs biography
Born at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire in 1927, her mother’s maiden name was Irwin. She studied at Cheltenham School of Art and in 1946 gained a scholarship to the Royal College of Art where she worked under Professor Robin Darwin and her tutors included Ruskin Spear, John Minton, Carel Weight and Rodrigo Moynihan. After graduation she worked for a year in the studio of Christos Kapralos and in 1950 held her first solo exhibition ‘A Year in Greece’ at the Anglo-Hellenic Club in Athens. On her return to England she taught at a girls’ school in Shropshire then worked in advertising in London. She married in Surrey in 1957, artist Harold Wilfred Yates and, as well as bringing a young 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 reredos of the ‘Fall and the Ascent of Man’ in the new chapel at St Mary’s Teacher Training College, Strawberry Hill. Constance Stubbs became an established artist following her 1981 move to The Willows, Bell Corner Pakenham, Suffolk, which afforded her the opportunity to develop and further her diverse talents resulting in her one woman shows around East Anglia and in London. The following year she joined Gainsborough’s House Print Workshop in Sudbury and out of 200 artists was selected for the 1982 Hayward Annual Exhibition of British Drawing, her work was singled out by the Guardian’s art critic as outstanding. Her innovative collage technique, using acrylic or watercolour with gouache, chalk and pastel, builds up delicate layers of radiant and exotically coloured textures on canvas or board. In 1987 The Arts Review critic wrote of her pictures, then showing at the Oxford Gallery, ‘[They] have about them a kind of modern monumentality that bears witness to the pains and pleasures of human existence.’ She is a member of Contemporary Portrait Society; the Royal Pastel Society and Artworks Bury St. Edmund’s also has exhibited amongst others Anglo-Hellenic League, Athens; in London at Blenheim Gallery, Brampton Gallery, Hammond Lloyd Gallery and Brunswick Gallery; Fairfield Halls, Croydon; Coach House Gallery, Guernsey; Classic Gallery, Newton Abbot with later exhibitions at Chappel Galleries in 1991 and the John Russell Gallery, Ipswich in 2005.