Capturing artistic visions on canvas
Looking back on Sarah Webb’s successful 30-year-plus career, which has seen her much in demand with commissions from all over the world, this talented artist is still bemused by the sobering parting comments from her art teacher at secondary school: “Webb, you are wasting both my time and yours – you’ll never make it as an artist!”
Winner of the Winsor & Newton Young Artist of the Year Award at the Queen’s Gallery in London, for the 104th exhibition of the Royal Institute of Oil painters, and twice finalist in the BP Portrait Award at London’s National Portrait Gallery, plus a string of exhibitions in leading galleries – how wrong could that teacher be!
Born to schoolteacher parents, Hugh and Wendy, in Cleethorpes in 1964 and brought up in Grimsby, Sarah’s passion for art and her creative prowess was evident early on.
“It’s always been something I’m driven to do, I know it sounds pretentious, but if I can’t paint, then I am just not me,” explains Sarah, who enrolled on a foundation course at Grimsby School of Art after leaving school at 16. “As a young child, I used to draw from watching programmes on our black and white TV. My mum still has a drawing I made of Prince Charles wearing a bejewelled crown during his investiture when I was five.”
Sarah recalls first being inspired by a painting while visiting the Van Gogh Museum on a family trip to Amsterdam.
“The painting that first caught my eye was Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette. This might seem like a strange choice for a child, but because my father was a biology teacher, our dining room was full of fascinating objects such as a shark’s backbone, a human skull and a myriad of creatures, such as a Siamese twin-headed piglet, pickled in formaldehyde. Had this been an exhibit in the Saatchi Gallery, it would have been worth millions now!”
At Grimsby School of Art, which she says “was run by real artists who allowed us the freedom to develop our own style”, Sarah spent two years exploring different creative mediums, including sculpture, photography, textiles and printmaking.
“It was a fantastic environment to work in and the place was just buzzing. Alf Ludlam was one of the most inspirational and supportive tutors and remained a good friend until his recent death.”
Sarah briefly toyed with the idea of becoming an architect (“all those straight lines put me off”) and also passed a first audition for a place on the Musical Theatre course at LAMDA drama school in London, but she was always drawn back to her passion for creating innovative works of art.
Having graduated with a first class honours degree from Loughborough University, Sarah landed a job working for a company in London which produced scenery and props for film, theatre and television, where the owner allowed her to use the premises as a studio in her spare time.
“I have vivid memories including working on the video sets for pop duo Bros, helping to create the iconic big hands for The Kenny Everett Television Show, and numerous props for The Little Shop of Horrors.
“I was pretty much working 24 hours a day, creating my own paintings through the night after work, but it was worth every minute as it enabled me to do what I loved.”
However, a chance meeting with a renowned agent in 1989 proved a seminal moment for Sarah and offered opportunities beyond her wildest dreams, as she recalls: “One morning I answered the door to the highly effervescent entrepreneur, Eric Hall [1928-2008] who had come to buy some plastic lemons for use as props in a Gordon’s Gin advertisement. On seeing my paintings on the wall he shouted, ‘My God! Whose are those?’
“I explained that they were mine and a week later Eric returned with an offer I could not refuse! We had a boozy lunchtime meeting at my favourite haunt, The French House in Soho, which was frequented by renowned artists such as Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.
“It was here that Eric presented me with a contract offering me a six-month sponsorship to live and paint in southern Spain. Our meeting was on a Friday and by Monday I found myself bound for Andulusia!
“My friends thought I was crazy as I gave up a really good job in London and didn’t speak Spanish or even know anybody there either.
“For the first few months, I lived at my agent’s property overlooking the Atlas Mountains of Africa. Eric and I would sit by his swimming pool sipping enormous Spanish measures of gin and tonic while Maria Callas blasted out.”
Later, Sarah found a studio in the mountain village of Gaucín in the province of Malaga, and became fluent in Spanish.
“I have always been quite a prolific artist and produced a substantial body of work in the first six months. My work sold so well that Eric extended my contract and we broadened our audience, travelling to Italy and France where he and his partner, Richard, also had properties.”
During Sarah’s time in Spain, she received numerous commissions, including one from “a rather handsome matador, Pepe Luis Martín”.
After four successful years in Andalusia, Sarah moved to Madrid, where she gained a substantial following, won prestigious competitions and was invited by the mayor to become a member of the highly acclaimed Circle of Fine Artists.
Sarah and her daughter moved back to live near Sarah’s mother in Grimsby 10 years ago – via Nottingham, Grantham and Suffolk – and she now works in a beautifully renovated coach house which has been transformed into a bright and airy studio, with high ceilings, three big windows and a well lit viewing gallery where clients are welcomed to view her paintings over a glass of champagne.
Sarah’s daughter, Stella, who is now 21 and vice president of the Students’ Union at UWL, was born in Nottingham following her mother’s move to the city in the late 1990s.
“I brought Stella up on my own which was an absolute joy, but hands up, it was very difficult finding time to paint in her formative years, especially when at one point I had three jobs to support us.
“However, I have a very supportive mother who has helped us enormously since we moved back to Lincolnshire and as for my work, I am very tenacious and have always continued to paint despite the circumstances.
“I have always kept in touch with my family and friends here; Grimsby gets a bad press but we are only five minutes away from the sea and stunning landscapes and I spend hours on the beach in Cleethorpes.”
Sarah’s studio is nicely tucked away in stunning grounds which means she can “play my music at full volume without disturbing the neighbours and work is not interrupted”.
“Music is a huge source of inspiration to me, although I am very selective about what I listen to while in the studio. Just as music inspires me, it can easily destroy a piece of work. I have quite an eclectic taste so could be listening to Maria Callas one minute and Stormzy the next.
“I also use music to create a welcoming atmosphere for my audience, as it can be quite intimidating walking into a quiet room full of any artist’s work.”
Sarah says her inspiration for work comes from what she observes around her life, including “the movement in dramatic subjects like the sea, the wonderful Lincolnshire landscape, horse racing and all things theatrical such as dance and opera.”
One of her large seascapes titled Cleethorpes Pier Before the Storm was selected for exhibition on the London Underground next to Tate Britain, where it was transformed into a large billboard poster – the original is now in a private collection.
“When Stella and I moved back to Lincolnshire, I once again embraced the excitement of the unpredictable coastline, and the vibrancy of colour and enormous skies, which are typical of the county’s countryside. I particularly adore the acidity of the rape fields in the summer and the enigmatic character that the landscape takes on when it is blanketed in snow during the winter months.”
Sarah, who can spend up to five months creating a piece of art, depending on size and subject, describes her artistic style as “figurative expressionism”.
“It is very hard to describe your own work without sounding pretentious, but I like to keep the whole surface of the painting/drawing alive, while still being able to recognise the subject. Then again, if you analyse any section of my paintings you should see an abstract painting within that.
“People often ask me if I paint close up to the canvas or have long handles on my brushes. I think they ask because when you step away, what appears to be a haphazard, the random marks, all makes sense from a distance.
“In terms of drawing, I use charcoal as it is quite a fluid medium, usually on Fabriano paper.
“I paint in oils both on canvas and board, but find watercolours and acrylics too restrictive and you do not get the nuance of colour that oil paint allows, or indeed the gorgeous smell.”
An ardent animal lover, Sarah grew up with a variety of family pets including gerbils, rabbits, cats and Dancer, her beloved dog. This passion is also reflected in her artworks.
“I adore painting the sea with its metallic colours, the danger and unpredictability of it, but also I get the same excitement from horse racing.
“Horses are incredibly powerful and intelligent animals and the rush of adrenaline as they power towards you down the racetrack is breath-taking. I love observing horses but was never a natural rider myself. Their anatomy interests me and I’m excited by their movement and the way their organs and respiratory system work together, enabling them to reach speeds of around 45mph.
“I think their intelligence particularly shines in dressage, the total antithesis of racing, where such an incredibly powerful animal can suppress its speed and apply strength to the most delicate and immaculate movements, and have made several paintings of Charlotte Dujardin’s incredible Olympic gold-medal-winning partner Valegro.
“On the flipside of that, I have been moved by intimate and highly emotive portraits I have been commissioned to paint of family pets that have sadly died. One in particular was a secret Christmas present, of a dog with its owner who was devastated after ‘Roo’ was tragically hit by a car outside their home.”
Sarah’s subtle palette and expressive style have won her a following among collectors and fellow artists and she counts herself fortunate to have clients worldwide, with many repeat buyers.
Over the years she has received many commissions including from Victor Edelstein, couture designer to Princess Diana; Sir Peter Reynolds, great grandson of Sir Joshua Reynolds; and Terrance Dicks, author and script editor of Doctor Who. Looking ahead, Sarah says she is excited by what’s planned and is hopeful of more exhibitions opening, Covid-19 permitting.
“I believe that genuine artists are driven to work and don’t need any kind of encouragement, even during ‘lean’ times in their career. I have new areas of the country that have started to follow my work, including a new prestigious hotel and restaurant in Malpas, Cheshire, called The Lion, which bought some of my pieces for their opening.
“My new agent, Lisa Wainman, will be arranging small studio gatherings, by invitation only, where people can see the new studio, have a glass of fizz and enjoy the building and surrounding grounds.
“It always surprises me how much people are excited by visiting a studio and someone has even bought my palette, which is hanging on a wall somewhere in Australia!
“My aim is for people to come away from my exhibitions having enjoyed the whole experience, so I always add something extra to the opening of my show to make it memorable.”
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