Glass talks to artist Valerie Wiffen on the opening of her new show in London

THE Shock of the New Build, the latest exhibition of work by British-born artist Valerie Wiffen has opened in London. Wiffen is renowned for her portraiture, having painted HRH The Duke of Edinburgh amongst  other eminent figures including the Archbishop of Canterbury, the MP Margaret Beckett and Sir Sigmund  Sternberg, the noted philanthropist. 
Wiffen has work in the National Portrait Gallery, London and many private and public collections. She graduated from the Royal College of Art in the 1960s after winning the drawing prize  and has spent much of her career undertaking portrait commissions and painting  landscape and still lives, always working strictly from observation.
In  her latest show, Wiffen turns her attention, or rather brush and pencil,  to the rapid development of London architecture.
Wiffen’s expert skill at observation and drawing/painting  has been much praised, and is evident in this show.
“Her line is alive and breathing and her observations of life and work are caring, thoughtful, forgiving, yet wise. They reward ever greater return on study and emerge full of balance and luminosity. They are fine, fine works,” says writer  Giuseppe Marasco.

“Painting itself, here, is in the act of performing. A rare example of painting vocalised. and that looks at you, the public. Can you get more modern than that?” he continues.

The show comprises a series of observed paintings charting the progression of urban change in London and other  emptier landscapes.   She is also showing a series of drawings of antique toys from the  Museum of Childhood, an off-shoot of the V & A.   I love  the drawing of a doll  which reminds me of blonde  bar maid Bet Lynch wearing a leopard skin overcoat. Wiffen managed to breathe life and instil  character into a simple mundane object with her profound observation and the skill of her hand.
I am particularly struck with the work Planning Permission Granted – a modest,  beautifully composed representation of a Hackney view before building developers start work.   It is a dreamy and structured piece with muted greens and soft blues.   A metaphor for peaceful living. I note the red dot by its side.  It has been much admired I am told.
Glass met up with Valerie in her studio and found out more about her regarding her work practice and views on art.


The Shock of the New BuildPlanning Permission Granted (oil on linen) 2014 by Valerie Wiffen
Have you always worked solely from observation?
I tried abstraction twice, as a student. I realised that it’s not for me. All I have ever wanted is to leave an eye witness account of what I saw.
 Self-portrait (charcoal on Waterford) by Valerie Wiffen
What compels you to paint a certain subject or place?  Are you drawn to historic buildings or certain views?
Often, the motivation is because of quite abstract elements, although I paint figuratively. For example, the different sheens on various surfaces in a still life, or the fall of light through a tree canopy. I can’t say never, but the reasons for occasional use are specific. If a have a commission to make a pastel drawing of a lively three year old in a T-shirt with a logo, I will crib the logo from a photo because the folds change the shapes as the child moves, but he will be drawn from life.
unnamed (1)
The Gaps, Mousehole (oil on linen) by Valerie Wiffen
I understand you never work from photographs why is that?
Of course, but if you have trained and practiced enough and are confident that you can work decisively and enjoy an adrenalin buzz, all will be well.
 unnamed (2)
Doll (charcoal on paper) by Valerie Wiffen
You’ve painted many famous people, including Prince Philip. Does that put you under enormous pressure such as time constraints etc? Do you prefer portrait painting to landscape and still life?
Being human, I enjoy the depiction of another human and take the responsibility for depicting them seriously. However, I paint portraits of landscapes and still life in exactly the same way when I have no sitters; always from observation.

From the Window (oil/linen) by Valerie Wiffen

Who were your major influences when you were a student?
I have a very catholic taste in painting, with numerous influences. All the world’s best, Rembrandt, Goya of course, but as a student, influences were chiefly Vermeer and Courbet. Lately I grow ever fonder of Bonnard and De Stael.
What exhibitions you’ve recently seen that have impressed you?
The Royal Academy show of Abstraction Expressionism which featured many American painters earlier this year was hugely informative and clarified the achievements of De Kooning, Rothko and others I admire. I don’t believe that it’s possible to look at a painting properly unless I stand in front of it. As John Berger tells us, many great paintings are too well known from reproductions and their impact is lost. That show was a wonderful chance to see many things that are kept too far away for me to see.

by Caroline Simpson

The Shock of the New Build is on show until July 31, 2017 at The Broadway Bookshop 6 Broadway Market, Hackney, London, E8 4QJ
Tel: 020 7241 1626

Leave a Reply