A still life painting is a window into the artist’s own universe; a view of carefully selected objects that hold a personal significance but also reveals a way of understanding the world, a way of seeing.
The careful study of simple arrangements of objects is the primary focus of artist Sarah Spackman’s practice. Her strength of drawing and precise use of subtle colour are qualities widely recognised in her work. Sarah works in a quiet, considered way, inspired by small, cleanly shaped objects such as fruit and vegetables, ceramics or a single stem of flower. Her palette is kept meticulously organised so the colour is always fresh and precise. For Sarah, these paintings are a way of exploring the world. Each of the objects that appear in her paintings have been given to Sarah or acquired specifically for certain qualities, so have a profound connection and meaning to her. How they stand in their own space impacts on the composition as a whole; the close consideration giving them character and weight of their own. Sarah's intense focus while painting brings a quality of reflection to her work. What at first seems like a simple still life is in fact closer to a meditation on the wider world.
Edouard Manet said that still life painting is the ‘touchstone of painting’. As an art form it has a long history, stretching back to ancient times with the wall murals of everyday objects found in Egyptian tombs and the frescoes of Pompeii. However it was during the Renaissance that the fashion of painting exquisitely detailed flower arrangements flourished in Northern Europe. Similar studies continued into the Dutch Golden Age with the vanitas or memento mori genre rising to prominence in the 17th century. In modern art, still life arrangements were often used as a way of experimenting with form, most notably perhaps in the paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne or the cubist works by Pablo Picasso and Georges Bracque. The genre continues to the present with contemporary artists such as Sharon Core choosing to present flower arrangements and food in a hyper realist manner using photography or Cindy Wright’s bright, almost clinical, memento mori paintings.
Sarah Spackman’s fascination with still life painting began at art school where she was taught a classical approach to art with a focus on fine art, in particular observational drawing and painting. A graduate of Byam Shaw School of Art (now part of Central St Martins College of Arts and Design), she also obtained a postgraduate degree from Camberwell School of Art in 1981.
Camberwell School of Art is regarded as one of the UK's foremost art and design institutions. When Sarah arrived in the late 1970s, it had a reputation for being a place of new ideas and ways of looking. Prominent artists are invited to teach there, a practice invigorated in the 1940s when Victor Pasmore was appointed head of the Painting Department. His tenure was the beginning of a new era and brought artists such as Sir William Coldstream, Joe Dixon and Claude Rogers to the school, all eminent ‘Euston Road School’ painters. Frank Auerbach, Edward Ardizzone and Lawrence Gowing also taught there during this period and later in the 1960s and 70s, Euan Uglow, Frank Bowling and David Hepher among others arrived at the department.
Sarah’s first year was organised by Francis Hoyland with Christopher Pinsent, Christopher Chamberlain and Dick Lee. They actively encouraged their students to study and learn from other artists by copying paintings from the National Gallery and other art museums in the city, but also to develop their own drawing and painting skills. Sarah says: 'The main thing I remember was the emphasis on drawing from observation, something I felt very comfortable with as a way of looking at the world.' Sarah continues: 'I think the fact that we had so many practising artists as visiting tutors was invaluable, they all brought and shared their own unique thoughts, ideas and ways of working.’
Many of her tutors and the artists she studied during her time at Camberwell School of Art have stayed with Sarah and continue to inspire her practice. She remembers in particular the artists Anthony Eyton, Christopher Stein and Ben Levene who all taught her there and the art of Sir William Coldstream ('I love the sensitivity of his way of looking and painting') as well as Giorgio Morandi, Euan Uglow, Patrick Symons, Gwen John and Joan Eardley to name but a few.
Sarah Spackman is today an acclaimed artist in her own right, widely respected and admired for her still life painting. Most recently, she was awarded the Gordon Hulson Memorial Prize by the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) at their Annual Exhibition at the Mall Galleries in July 2019. At the time it was also announced that Sarah had been elected as a member of the RBA. It is a tremendous honour and accolade for Sarah and we congratulate her on a wonderful achievement.
* * *