While preparing for her first solo show ‘Great Houses and Gardens of England’, British portrait artist, Phoebe Dickinson, spoke to Violet Caldecott about her instinctive approach to painting and the challenges she’s overcome along the way.
BY VIOLET CALDECOTT | 17 NOVEMBER 2023
Girl in the Green Room © Phoebe Dickinson
You paint portraits, still life and landscapes. Do you have a favourite genre?
I love all three for different reasons and like to mix it up so I have variation. If I had to choose a favourite, it would be painting gardens on a beautiful early summer’s morning. There is something magical about the peace and stillness interspersed with the sound of birds and fresh air and first morning sun on your face.
Who or what most inspires your work?
I often have a mood board in my studio or on my phone of artists. Sometimes a particular painting or artist springs to mind when I’m about to start a piece. With landscapes, I often look to Corot or Constable for inspiration, and with still life or figure painting one of my go-tos is William Nicholson. When I’m painting a portrait, I nearly always look to Sargent. Of course, I’m inspired by other artists too, many of them contemporary, but I find myself returning to these four again and again.
My job as a portrait artist takes me to all sorts of amazing places and I often wish I could paint more of the houses, objects and clothes. My exhibition on Great Houses and Gardens of England allowed me to focus on these inspiring places and document a moment in time. I love the idea of people being able to look back on my paintings and get a sense of how these houses were being lived in during that era.
How and where did you learn to paint?
I was interested in art from the word go and my parents were brilliant at recognising and encouraging this. When I was a child I had lessons after school with the talented animal artist, Neil Foster. Aged 16, my parents took me to Florence to show me the Charles H Cecil Studios and I decided I wanted to go there as soon as I left school. After moving back from Italy and starting my career as an artist, I did the majority of my learning at London Fine Arts Studios. I made sure to always spend at least half a day there a week.
How do you research and plan your paintings?
I don’t really plan them, as so much of it is instinctive and comes to me once I’m on location with the sitter. After trying out lots of different things, it usually becomes clear to me fairly quickly what I want to focus on. Quite often the sitter might just sit somewhere and do something whilst we’re talking and seeing them in a relaxed and natural way of being inspires me. When I was at Houghton Hall painting the Cholmondeley children, I was originally thinking of doing individual head sketches; but the children started mucking about on a bench in the stone hall. It made such a wonderful scene that I immediately knew that was what I wanted to paint.
What challenges, if any, have you faced along the way?
It is a constant battle and I’m rarely entirely happy with something I have painted. When I look at my paintings all I can see are my mistakes and sometimes I panic and think I can’t do it. The longer I’ve been painting the more confident I’ve become and now it feels easier to persevere. One challenge I faced two weeks after I gave birth was trying to finish a painting I had been working on for the past year. In my sleep deprived state I knocked the piece over and the two metal screws at the bottom of my easel went straight through the centre of the canvas - I sobbed! Luckily it was fixed with the help of clever restorers, but it was a bad moment.
You now live in Gloucestershire with your family, after trained and living in Florence and London. Where do you consider home emotionally and literally?
Home is a farm in Gloucestershire that we call the red house. My studio is in one of the outbuildings, an old cow barn. I love it here so much with the rolling hills and landscape. We’re hidden away from modern day life; and I’ve been known to not leave the valley for several weeks. It is the perfect source of inspiration for a painter and the house has always been lived in by artists and writers so it’s lovely to carry on that tradition.
What does a typical working day look like?
In an ideal world it would start with a walk in the valley before I knuckle down in the studio. At the moment, my day might consist of carefully working out which houses I’m going to paint and which scenes within the house are most striking. My husband and I rifle through our collection of beautiful old frames and often we plan together what I should paint for which frame. After this, I will often paint solidly all day with a quick break for lunch. I start the day listening to insightful podcasts and usually end the day listening to electronic dance music to give me energy to keep going.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on several portrait commissions. One project is three individual portraits of the three Costa sisters to commemorate 100 years of the perfumery Fragonard. They will be hung in the museum in Grasse, France, alongside many wonderful Fragonard paintings.
What are your goals, personally and professionally?
Personally: to be a good mother, wife, relation and friend, to try to be fit and healthy and enjoy this one wild and precious life! Professionally: to keep playing, experimenting and challenging myself.
Your favourite artwork of another’s?
It’s impossible to pick just one, but Sargent's painting of the daughters of Edward Darley Boit has always been a favourite of mine.
Your favourite museum or gallery?
I love artists' studios. My all time favourite, Joaquin Torrents llardo’s house and studio in Mallorca, sadly no longer exists but the Sorolla Museum in Madrid is also wonderful. In terms of more conventional museums I prefer ones that have a more private house feel to them, like the Frick in New York and the Wallace Collection in London.
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Great Houses and Gardens of England, a collection of paintings by Phoebe Dickinson, is showing at London's Dickinson Gallery until 23 November.
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