Process absorbs artist Nicola Bealing and brings with it memories of things seen, marks made and emotions felt.
Words by Martin Holman
During the first lockdown in 2020, Nicola Bealing was in her studio in Helston. As everywhere else in those strange, anxious months, day-to-day social life had slipped into hibernation. With no specific project on the horizon and the art world frozen, only birdsong broke into the still and quiet of the building where Bealing works most days. So, in that curious environment where unprecedented emergency mixed with an uneasy peace, Bealing decided to take a line and some colour for a walk.
She never had to leave her workplace. For this painter, her route was always going to be through paper, a panel of wood (the surface she most prefers) or an expanse of canvas. As she says, “one thing led to another” and her imagination took her, metaphorically at least, underwater. A line is the bedrock of artistic creation, a kind of calligraphy that brings shapes into being rather than words, keeping the mind and the eye on the move. The lines she makes are typically agile and animated; they swirl and flow, injecting life into paint. If her destination was unknown at the outset of that walk, the direction became clear as abstract arrangements of lines and colours assumed an aquatic identity, almost for convenience. They branched into a network of skeletal fringes where knots of colour blossomed. Almost intuitively, Bealing arrived at coral imagery, a maritime ecosystem thriving with life-forms and peppered with the occasional bone and scatterings of teeth.
Canvases followed that depicted no specific location, although Bealing knew the territory. For six years from the age of four she lived in Malaysia. As a child and later as a teenager, she snorkelled in Indian ocean waters bristling with marine life. As craggy outcrops formed with her brush in the studio, her coral was not, she admits, botanically accurate.
While her fantasy seabed might suggest to onlookers a desire to escape the world’s sorry circumstances, such allusions never occurred to her. For, at any moment, the artist’s studio is a sequestered spot where the unexpected happens – “a magical thing that, once fixed on,” she says, “you can build on until the painting becomes obvious.”
The paintings have the uncanny effect of occupying a space beyond time. Faced with each large canvas, the viewer’s perceptions are momentarily drawn from the exhibition space into a serenely creative alternative environment. “The coral forms are loosely based on real life,” Bealing says, “but I was way more interested in their role as a vehicle for outrageous colour and sinuous line. The paintings ended up somewhere between still-life and invented scientific illustrations. I had a lot of fun with them!”
In her childhood, intense colour was everywhere, in flowers, in the dyed and patterned Batik fabrics people wore, and in the equatorial landscape. Looking back, she says “any colour was possible.” Being exposed to such sights from an impressionable age, “I am not worried by colour.” She is constantly experimenting with rich variations that endow her paintings with distinctive atmospheres that appear modelled by an interior light. The sea, too, had an early impact and crept back into her life after graduation from art school in London when she moved to a studio on the harbourside in Porthleven in 1988; she has lived in west Cornwall ever since. International travel remains a source of inspiration – to rural Vietnam, for instance, India and Thailand, and a residency in 2020 in Oaxaca, south-west Mexico where cacti flower brilliantly. During an earlier trip to North America, she visited the Monterey Aquarium in California where floor-to-ceiling viewing areas project into the bay, home to numerous variegated species of fish, sharks, abalone and squid, and a living kelp forest.
Growing up abroad, there was no television at home but plenty of books. She particularly remembers enjoying folk tales gathered by the publisher Paul Hamlyn into editions that used strong colour when it was unusual and expensive to print. The illustrations were generous in size and packed with detail to keep this reader imaginatively involved in the story. Her father, a biologist and plant physiologist specialising in tropical agriculture, made botanical illustrations for a pastime and her mother, also a scientist, always drew and encouraged her children. “Every paper bag was cut open to draw on,” Bealing recalls. So, reading and making, word and image were part of her upbringing. Her development as a painter preserves those memories. “I want to be kind to viewers and give them something to look at,” she says, almost mischievously. “When I was a child, looking at a really good picture book felt nourishing. I think art can be that way, too.” Asked what she expects those viewers to take away from her work, she replies that she wants to leave them material to invent their own stories and, she adds, “some head-scratching, too.”
Whereas the coral serves up a visual feast induced by painterly action, narrative features strongly in her pictures with figurative themes. They comprise the quintessentially English strand in her personality and are invariably about something – but about what is not always in the foreground. An event read in a newspaper can yield a painting as easily as a quirky incident seen in the street. “I’m not an illustrator,” she explains, because an offbeat idea spawned by a piece of writing means more to her than its direct imitation. Being a figurative painter – a discipline built on looking established by years of life-drawing at the Byam Shaw School of Art, where she studied – she is drawn to the behaviour of people and to how the body expresses conditions or extreme situations. With that she creates her own fictional response.
Since student days she has painted with oil and loves it, declaring that the more she uses the medium, the more she finds out what it allows her to do. Watercolour and gouache are favourites, too, discovered at school in Hertfordshire when, always good at art but with no notion that it could ever be her career (medicine was her intended profession), she saw luminous English landscape paintings by Thomas Girtin, a friend of Turner. Her fascination with the properties of her materials helps propel her into the challenge posed by the next painting. Pushing paint around some paper can eventually lead into a picture and accidents happen with paint that unlock fresh possibilities. So, to ease the way out of a technical corner, she will take a risk with technique or a form, or maybe the speed of a gesture. “Unless you try it, you don’t know what it will look like. It might stop you ripping up the work, so I keep going until something looks right!”
In 2015 she was invited to make paintings about the collections of the Helston Folk Museum. Resisting her hosts’ assumption that objects would be her subject, she found her way to the archive of local newspapers and notices from previous centuries. Stories tumbled from the pages. One described the knife-thrower’s assistant; another how the master of 17-year-old Ann Medlyn, the ‘absconded apprentice’, wanted her return in 1816; a full spread from 1788 related in verse the ‘elegy on the melancholy incident’ that convulsed Porthleven when ‘33 men and boys and four women’ perished in a pleasure boat accident. Coming across a lengthy list of executions in Cornwall in the century to 1882, Bealing indulged the appetite for graphic detail that has survived from childhood. At almost two metres square, the resulting tableau gathers into one place a hundred years of capital offences (from sheep rustling and horse stealing to infamous murder), committed by numerous miniature silhouetted figures simultaneously as if spied on by a passer-by through a screen of bucolic honeysuckle.
At London’s Foundling Hospital Museum, eighteenth-century alleyways opened to her as she trawled through printed ballads and broadsheets and reacted to the scurrilous and often surreal tales from the tabloid press of the era when the hospital, Britain’s first home for children at risk, was founded by prominent figures that included the painter William Hogarth. Using print and painting, Bealing reflected on cases like that of Shameless Joan who wandered the dark London streets on all fours with a candle anatomically inserted to light her path.
“Humour is an important element in many of my paintings,” Bealing says. “But it’s balanced with a dark undercurrent. I want my work to be slightly unnerving but not creepy.” Her early love of fables is a big factor but she has little patience with the moral dimension found in them. Remembering her own experience she says that “is the boring bit you always skip.” The potential for harm and humiliation from unseen forces, however, surfaces in a compassionate tone that mediates the alarm her viewers perceive. Bealing sides with the outcasts, misfits and adolescents in danger, although not at the cost of a striking image. Engrossed in these meaty accounts, she thinks about them at night.
That sensitivity, manifested in her quavering drawing style, attracted her to the story of the fisherman Peter Grimes. It lies behind her latest series of paintings that forms the second stage of Bealing’s current two-part solo exhibition (with her coral paintings shown first) at Matt’s Gallery, a leading London venue for contemporary art. Written by the nineteenth-century poet George Crabbe, it is better known today from Benjamin Britten’s opera first performed in 1945.
Grimes is an outright bully untouched by pity. After three of his young apprentices are starved, beaten and drowned, he is ordered to work alone until the ghosts of his victims terrorise him into madness and he dies in bed. Bealing’s searingly lustrous images reinvent the grisly drama in terms that border on magic realism unsuspected in the original. The shadow of earlier artists who helped shape this artist’s outlook, like Goya and Pieter Breughel, add more weight to compositions where Grimes’ malevolent influence is felt twisting innocent play, as in ‘Boys who Climb’ (2021), into a sinister outcome.
Darkness also stalks her latest innovation. Suspended overhead at her London show are an array of weird and bulbous coloured objects. Limpet shells encrust bodies that trail tentacle-like strands. They momentarily flip the ground-floor gallery, where Bealing’s coral paintings hang against walls painted black, into a vision of the watery depths. Collectively called Dead-man’s Fingers, the installation is improvised from discarded small boat fenders collected by her partner and sons on beaches around the Lizard.
“They came about so naturally I am self-conscious about calling them sculptures,” she explains. Adopting three dimensions is a bold move for any painter, but Bealing, an artist constantly moving her practice forward, makes the transformation joyously with another wry twist in interpretation. This time the direction is reversed and sinister connotations soon give way to play.
Nicola Bealing’s exhibition at Matt’s Gallery, London, is in two parts: Dead-man’s Fingers continues to 5th March, followed by The Borough, from 15th March to 16th April.
All artworks © Nicola Bealing and photographed by Steve Tanner.