Jill Glenn meets artist Rosa Sepple, whose dreamy views of Venetian architecture and intimate studies of women at rest or at play can currently be seen in a vibrant exhibition at the Linda Blackstone Gallery in Pinner.
Rosa Sepple’s rise to art stardom contains all the ingredients of a classic romance… the sort of story that might lie behind one of her own narrative paintings. Born in London in 1951, she moved to Italy at the age of 11 with her Italian mother and East End bus driver father. The anticipated family villa didn’t materialise, and for a while she lived apart from her parents, with her aunt and cousins, attending school, picking up the language (in which she is still fluent) and spending her spare time with her grandfather, Salvatore Casagrande, an antiques restorer and painter, in his studio in Venice. It’s tempting to make the assumption that she picked up her skills and future career aspirations from him, but Rosa is quick to assure me that, although she was good at drawing as a youngster, no-one ever suggested she should take it further. In any case, Salvatore didn’t sell his work; he loved to show his pieces to people, but preferred to keep them for himself. His granddaughter recalls him, with great affection, as a true eccentric, who didn’t believe in working too hard or earning too much.
Rosa’s life in Italy was disorientating, and her childhood continued unsettled; a change in circumstances brought the family back to England when Rosa was 13… meaning more adjustments, more isolation, not feeling at one with her peers, not settling at school. She hated education, left as soon as she could, and went to work in Barclays Bank. At 16 she met her future husband; at 20 she married, and settled down to mother her two sons. Life was humdrum. She was, she now recognises, “quietly but deeply depressed”, immersed in a life that filled time but didn’t fulfill any of the hopes and dreams she didn’t even know she had.
Then, in the sort of plot twist that would make a movie script-writer’s heart leap, she wandered into an art gallery near her home in Hornchurch and saw the gallery owner painting; encouraged to try for herself, she found that she liked it. Returning a few days later with the result – “just a picture of a poppy” – she was deep in conversation with the owner when a customer demanded to know the price of the picture lying next to them. Less than a week after picking up a brush for the first time, she’d sold her first piece.
After that, everything just fell into place. She describes herself as very lucky, and clearly there are elements of ‘right time, right place’, but success like Rosa’s, with rapid elevation to membership of The Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours (giving her the right to use the coveted letters RI after her name), doesn’t come without hard work, commitment and a previously unsuspected amount of sheer natural talent.
She took to watercolour instantly, but her work now is characterised by that catch-all term ‘mixed media’. In Rosa’s case this means paints enriched with ink for wonderful intensity of colour, and masses of applied texture. Her ‘girlies’, as she likes to call them, all ‘wear’ their clothes; Rosa paints the bodies, and then returns to do their clothes and make-up later. They all have her own trademark red fingernails, and long thin limbs, as she herself does. They may well be modelled on Rosa herself, but their skinny frames give them universality: stripped down, this is the essence of woman; this is who we could all be.
You can tell that her characters take great joy in life; I think Rosa does too now. If you look beyond the painted joie de vivre, though, among the three or four women dancing in clubs or discos in some of the ‘girlie’ pictures, there’s usually one who looks less confident, who feels excluded. I suspect that’s a projection of Rosa herself, a result of the childhood that saw her constantly needing to integrate into new environments.
Many of her paintings express ideas of freedom and liberation. She cuts straight to the heart of experience. Enchanted Evening (above), for example, expresses just what it’s like to be young, in love, delirious with excitement, and swept off one’s feet. It’s impossible not to smile, not to respond to the ridiculousness of the perspective, the two young lovers high above the London skyline, as a traditional red bus trundles by.
I’ve never found it so difficult to select the images to accompany an exhibition review or artist interview as I have with Rosa’s work. Her images fall into three or four simple categories, with repeated themes – Venetian architecture, ‘girlies’ having fun etc – but each is so distinctive that choosing one over another feels impossibly responsible and restrictive. These paintings have such personality.
Rosa’s work strikes me as sweet, and funny, and absolutely engaging. She likes the viewer’s response; she paints what makes her happy, to make other people happy, and while that might sound a touch naive, it’s a formula that has made her both commercially successful (11 of the 30 paintings in her current exhibition were sold on the morning of the Private View) and personally fulfilled. Art has enriched her life in ways she could never have imagined; has kept her sane through grief, and kept her going through the pain of trigeminal neuralgia, a rare condition that leads to severe facial pain. “The worst pain in the world,” she explains, with a shadow of recollection passing across her face. She’s had it for 12 years, although she’s in remission at the moment. When it’s at its worst all she can do is work. She has created some pieces that express the pain of trigeminal neuralgia, notably Misery, which she donated to Barts and The London NHS Trust in recognition of the care she has received there – “It’s like having the devil inside stabbing at your face,” she said memorably at the time – but when she is suffering she prefers to paint happy themes. “I only paint,” she explains, “what I know anything about.”
Chequerboard designs – floors, tiles and so on – feature prominently throughout Rosa’s designs. They’re the product of simple doodling; a long phone call one day unleashed her natural impatience, and a sequence of black and white squares was the result. As with much of her experience, they found their way into one of her paintings, and then another, and so on. She finds them therapeutic to create.
Rosa takes joy in her work, that’s quite evident, but she’s surprisingly pragmatic about it too – keen that she should give value for money, that purchasers should be pleased with what they buy. She has, it seems, a stronger work ethic than her grandfatherm and an endless supply of ideas – “It’s just enough time to paint them all that is the problem”.
Rosa’s exhibition is at The LInda Blackstone Gallery, The Old Slaughterhouse (Rear of 13 High Street), Pinner until 5 April. Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday 11am to 4pm. See www.lindablackstone.com for more information.