Words by Mercedes Smith.
Painter Menna Angharad brings the autumnal beauty of botanical forms.
Those of you with an eye on the arts may have noticed a recent and unexpected resurgence in one of painting’s most historic genres: still life. More and more, galleries are exhibiting contemporary works that celebrate the simple beauty of objects, and of natural objects in particular. Perhaps this is a reaction against the 21st century trend for new expressionist, installation and media art, or it could be down to something more human – a renewed appreciation of our natural world in the climate crisis, or the desire to live at a slower pace after the stress of a global pandemic: certainly stillness, mindfulness and reconnecting with nature has become a priority for many. As universities produce a steady stream of new still life painters, those whose careers have always celebrated form and simplicity are seeing a renewed interest in their work.
“Still life intrigues me,” says painter Menna Angharad, whose long career has been based on the quiet contemplation of objects. “It can say so much in an economical way. The oldest art is figurative, and the possibilities of representational art are infinite, but always accessible.” Menna was born and raised amid the rural beauty of North Wales. As the daughter of celebrated 20th century designer Susan Williams-Ellis, who studied at Chelsea School of Art under Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, Menna grew up in an environment of creativity and artistic discipline. Her love of nature led her to study botany before pursuing her passion for art, training at Byam Shaw School of Art in London and then gaining an MA in Fine Art from Cardiff University. “As a trained botanist and lover of the natural world I empathise with growing things,” she says. “Painting is a way for me to explore their vibrant existence. When I take an object into my studio, I give it the status of a character sitting for a portrait. I want to show my subject respect. I love the illusory nature of representing things in two dimensions, the way that pigments on a flat surface can seduce our perceptions and allow us to engage with a subject simply for whatever it happens to be.”
Menna’s most recent collection is inspired by an exploration of Cornwall’s great gardens, by their flowers, trees and plants as they change from late summer through to winter. “I first visited Cornwall 25 years ago,” says Menna, “taken there by my husband-to-be, who was brought up near Truro, to meet his family and friends and to explore the much-loved haunts of his childhood.” She has visited regularly ever since. “I feel at home in the Cornish landscape,” she says. “It has such similar vegetation and granitic geology to Wales, and the mild Cornish climate and abundance of superb gardens make it an ideal place to immerse myself in contemplation of all things botanical.”
Among her favourite venues are the wonderful Victorian Productive Garden at Heligan, “with all its veggie delights” she enthuses, “and Trebah of course, with its sub-tropical gardens, hydrangea walk, its magnificent rhododendrons and enormous gunnera.” The modest and intimate beauty of domestic gardens also inspires Menna’s paintings. “Our closest friends in Cornwall are gardeners of several hectares of rich and varied grounds,” she says. “They have exotic greenhouses, a cottage garden, and woodland areas with birds and other wildlife, as well as organic fruit and vegetable plots. I always find myself drawn to kitchen gardens where plant beauty meets the edible, where the practicalities of cultivation and harvesting take precedence over the carefully orchestrated, luxuriant borders and walks that you find in formal gardens.”
Working in oil on linen canvas, Menna explores the powerful simplicity of natural forms. Her works are defined by muted tones, with touches of nature’s brightest colours, along with powerful knife and brush work, all of which give her imagery a shimmering and immediate quality. “My palette for these new paintings reflects the radiant colours of autumn,” says Menna, “in contrast to summer’s multitude of colours. Reds, purples, oranges, browns and yellows gradually infiltrate the greens and blues of foliage and fruit. In some paintings I emphasise hot, rich, autumnal colours, while in others the greens of summer will linger, or more modest browns and greys will play with hints of brightness and winter light. Autumn and winter plants represent to me both an ending and the promise of something new. I see autumnal plants and seed heads as beautiful packages of promise and continuity, bursting with hope and wonderment. The beautiful forms of ripening, desiccating and decaying seem to me to be exuberant and optimistic, a dynamic, cyclical change through greenness, voluptuous richness, to a wistful and nostalgic demise. All these stages have an essential presence and dignity, they bring colours and forms which celebrate what has been and what is to come. I have always felt that the somewhat stark, sculptural forms of plants in autumn and winter, and their range of warm and earthy colours have an aura of confidence or defiance – in the angle of a seed head held high perhaps, or the twist of a leaf as it curls and fades.”
In 2015, Menna was awarded the People’s Prize for painting at the National Eisteddfod of Wales, and she has work held in the prestigious Jerwood Foundation Collection. She paints full time at her studio in Wales, which looks out across the exceptional beauty of the Black Mountains, and exhibits her work in the wider UK and France. Whatever the landscape before her, her paintings engage with the particular plant life of each region, and the unique seasonal aspects of climate.
“The flora of Cornwall is very similar to that of the part of Wales that I come from,” says Menna, “though the Cornish climate is milder and allows for more lushness and exuberance. Wherever I am I find the fundamental beauty and tenacity of plants so compelling. I am intrigued by their endless diversity and complexity, by the way they adapt to their environment, by their architecture, their subtlety of colour and texture, their sculptural qualities, and the ways in which we take them for granted, exploit them, cosset them, or find them eerily alien. All these things invite contemplation. For me, still life is about the in-between things that hold everything together, the moments in time where nothing is happening: it is left to the viewer to wonder about the before and the after. These are the things that I find wonderful and want to celebrate. I feel that, through my dedicated love of plants, their use as still life subjects in my paintings is a means of exploring what it is to be alive. It is a hugely complex question, and my natural still life works are an attempt to grapple with that unfathomable and possibly unanswerable thought.”