Interview by Ruth Millington
Published in August 2023
Annette Pugh paints inviting, idealised landscapes defined by lush foliage, decorative patterns, and heightened pink and purple hues. But behind the aesthetic ideal and playful take on Fragonard’s romantic frilliness is an artist deliberately subverting traditions of the picturesque. Rather than promoting tourism to far-flung places, her works provide viewers with a sense of escape and mystery that can be found, not within exotic locations, but rather in the hidden parks and private gardens a little closer to home.
Pugh spoke with art historian and author Ruth Millington about her solo show, Happenstance, at The New Art Gallery Walsall.
Let's start with the show’s title, Happenstance. Can you tell us a bit about this choice and the locations of the seven landscapes which inspired you?
The locations in the images are private, personal, and deeply embedded in my psyche. They are on the whole places I have come across by Happenstance and represent serendipitous moments. They are often fortuitous discoveries on walks and have become places that I visit and revisit repeatedly. For the viewer it is not important where they are, rather that they hold a familiarity. They may have experienced somewhere like that or find solace in the place depicted.
The Swing, oil on canvas, 200cm x 152cm x 5cm
You also reference, through titles and imagery, historical landscape paintings – ‘The Swing’ obviously riffs on Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s 18th-century masterpiece of the same name. Can you explain the influence of this romantic picture and Rococo aesthetic on your practice?
The Swing is a painting that I have long admired for its romantic frilliness and beautiful detailed foliage. Recently restored in London’s Wallace Collection, the colours really sing and despite its small scale, quite different from the large piece in my own show, its intimacy and sumptuousness are a delight. I think of Fragonard’s work as a beautiful but frivolous painting, not always fashionable in the artworld. I hope my work contains hints of this fragile beauty, however for me much more serious emotions are held within a place and the man-made interventions (in this case the swing itself) speak of happenings, of the people who have been there.
The Swing, oil on canvas, 81 cm × 64.2 cm, by Jean-Honoré Fragonard
Fragonard’s garden is clearly framed as a luxurious site of bourgeois escape. But I know you seek out typical haunts of the British working class. Can you speak about that?
Indeed, Fragonard’s Rococo work represents grandiosity and speaks of wealth and privilege.
The Grand Tour undertaken by the English aristocracy in the C18th and C19t.h, visiting sublime European locations for leisure has also been a concern of mine, re-framing the idea of picturesque tourism to study aspects closer to home. Destinations frequented by the working classes on day trips and workers’ holidays have contributed to my subject matter. For generations of city dwellers, these locations represented a desire to get away from the towns and encounter the beauty of nature, albeit on a smaller budget and scale.
One Last Time (the beech wood), oil on canvas, 152 cm x 123cm x 5cm
Many of your scenes, which feature classical statues and decorative foliage, look like stills from movies, stage sets or filtered photographs on social media. I know you often work from photographs back in the studio, if you can speak about painting in a post-photographic world?
I am fascinated by photography, the history and use of it by painters, and its place within contemporary painting. I love working with a traditional camera, old technology as well as new. Photography has always offered us an idealised view, we can tinker and adapt images, with our phones and apps now offering us even more opportunities for the perfect snap, but this never replaces our true experience of place.
I have re-purposed archive photography in the past and still search for images in family albums, junk shops and flea markets, however Happenstance relies heavily on my own archive, photographs I have taken over the years of places that offer solace. They are of small areas within the landscape, places of solitude to dwell in/with for a while, the edge of a pond, a lakeside, or a hidden private garden. This aspect of the works provides a mediative quality and is one that I actively seek when out with my camera. It is however to be noted that the images I paint are rarely true to the original imagery as I have a quite distinct way of working with the photographs prior to painting. This process includes the removal of all colour, and a heightening of the sharpness to a point where the original image almost disappears.
The idea that as an artist, you can immerse the viewer in a location through colour and brush marks, and express an intense intimacy with the landscape, is a powerful achievement.
Bittersweet, oil on canvas, 152cm x 183cm x 5cm
Can you speak about your heightened colour palette, of pinks and purples?
I love colour. My palette for Happenstance uses intense, rich glazes. These intentionally move away from a naturalistic approach and provide the audience with a sense of mystery and an intensity that vibrates across the surface of the images. Although on first inspection the images may appear quite still, the mark making and colour is constantly shifting, leaving the images ‘just on the edge of restlessness.’
The Landing Stage, oil on canvas, 152cm x 244cm x 5cm
You have previously focused on depicting solitary women in gardens. But there is a notable absence of figures in your new paintings, including The Landing Stage, if you can speak about this?
Yes, in most cases (apart from A Tender Soul) the work for Happenstance shows traces of human intervention, rather than figures themselves. It is as though they might have moved out of shot. These implied but unseen figures could be viewing the scene from my standpoint, across a lake or through the foliage. This adds to the filmic qualities of the paintings and provokes the question, what has happened or is about to happen there?
Annette Pugh’s solo show, Happenstance, runs until 7th January 2024 at The New Art Gallery Walsall
If you like this why not read our interview with Fern O’Carolan
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