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PeopleBinny Mathews

Binny Mathews

I was born in Dorchester Hospital, and my first years were spent close to nature living in a caravan in Warmwell. My parents were house hunting; in the days before the internet you had to go and look at property in person. They eventually found a house in Portesham and my tom-boy childhood was spent go-carting and climbing trees around there. The village roads in the early 60s were unmetalled and I’d bump along as a passenger in my parents’ motorbike and sidecar.
My early education, at the progressive Portesham school, was unconventional. It was an experiment run by Dorset County Council in an attempt to nurture an individual’s creativity and identity and allow freedom of education. It was here that I was allowed to spend a whole term creating a huge papier-mâché dinosaur – and not much else!
Although it nourished my creativity, it was also a disaster because when I did the 11+, without knowing what it was, I spent the entire exam doodling. As a consequence, I ended up in a class in Weymouth for children with learning difficulties. I moved to various schools around Dorset, where my mother would also take teaching positions. A few times when she was unable to teach, she asked me to take her geography class – which sparked a long fascination with education.
I painted our whitewashed cottage in Winfrith with huge murals celebrating the royal wedding of Charles & Diana. It became a bit of a tourist attraction. I also made a giant icy polar bear walking in front of the cottage one year when we had heavy snow. I think I liked the idea of celebrating any event by creating a spectacle for anyone passing.
At this tender age I was also working in a cafe at Durdle Door, tipping chips into customers’ laps and unknowingly scrubbing the non-stick off pans in the kitchen. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing but it gave me money to go off to Bournemouth to buy flares and boob-tubes. My Dorset childhood was idyllic and I have no doubt that, rather like Hardy’s Bathsheba, Dorset’s natural bounty underpinned an innate understanding of the visual world around me.
After an art foundation course at Bournemouth College, I went to Farnham Art College where I shared my halls of residence with twelve men. They would put their stomachs onto the table and draw around them and then every term do it again to see how much their beer bellies had grown. Farnham had some very good tutors but at the time the climate was very minimalist and abstract with no figurative content at all.
I found this exasperating and even spent a term just blowing glass. There were only two of us in our year that wanted to do figurative work and funnily enough we are the only two that are still painting today. After painting a life model that was more portrait than object, a tutor pointed out that I should be a portrait painter and the rest is history!
For my last year, I tried to get into the Slade, but despite getting an introductory letter from Elizabeth Frink, I didn’t even get an interview. So I went to Brighton to do teacher training. For the next twenty years I was a lecturer in fine art in various art schools and a portrait painter.
After painting portraits in Dorset of Martin Bond of Holme Priory and the Jaggard family, I wholeheartedly entered into the London art scene which, in the late 80s, was buzzing with champagne and money, people and parties. The ethos seemed to be ‘You’ve got the Porsche and now you need the portrait’. I was lucky enough to exhibit a number of works, including my portraits of Donald Swann and the Dilworth Sisters, at the National Portrait Gallery and others at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition.
I have always been inspired by the people around me; it’s a never-ending source of intrigue as portrait painting is intensely personal. I spend a great deal of time with my subjects, really getting to know them. It’s a very intimate process, investing huge amounts in being with and looking at the sitter, beyond even the way a spouse might look at their partner.
People often tell me things they might not have told anyone else. Two people came out to me as gay and another confided she was pregnant and didn’t know what to do about it. I’m very careful with the details I share; it’s like an unspoken rule that these conversations are private. The relationship I have with that person is unique to that moment and environment. One person told me that sitting for her portrait was the most important moment in her life. In my portraits, I endeavour to hold these abstruse contradictions between intimate personal struggles and their public presentation.
The atmosphere in the room and the atmosphere between me and the sitter is truly informative. It has an emotional effect on me, and then I tend to paint in the manner of the person I’m painting. I have to be open, a sponge, a conduit. And I think it gets embedded in the portrait. I might go as far as saying the sitter paints their own portrait.
Each portrait comes with its own story. Normally I would just take a single canvas with me but I remember on one occasion bringing two and when I arrived at Castle Drogo, the gentleman I was going to paint was helping me carry my things when he accidentally put his foot through one of the canvases. I have no idea what made me bring a second canvas that day; I never had before and never have again.
On another occasion arriving for a different commission, a livery company this time. I was kept waiting for so long that I decided to come in to see what was going on. I was told to go through the tradesman’s entrance but I ignored that and went on up this very grand staircase, only to find the sitter was waiting for his valet to dress him. I said, ‘Come on, I’ll dress you’, and just got on with it, which he apparently found both disturbing and exciting.
There have been so many fascinating people that I have painted. I painted Donald Swann, the composer, who was well known as part of Flanders and Swann. He was unusually vulnerable with me; sometime during the painting of him, he told me he had a deep water dream where I had eaten him. He would sometimes pause sitting to compose at the grand piano behind us in the room. He was dying of cancer when I painted him and he had a Georgian cruciform sitting behind him on the mantelpiece. I composed the portrait around this cross, depicting his mercurial moods, artistry and philosophical intellect.
I painted the fascinating writer John Fowles twice. Although he didn’t report any strange dreams as a result, he did attempt to play some interesting psychological games with me. In the painting, he held a wooden orb in his hand. Between sittings, he would change how he held the orb, refusing to acknowledge the change, despite the proof I had in my painting! I wonder if he found the artist role reversal discombobulating.
I’m an avid people-watcher. My most significant painting (pictured behind me on the front cover) of the Dillworth sisters came from observing two sisters on a station platform. I was fascinated by their interaction; complacent but connected. I expressed this in my painting by subtle asymmetry within the obvious symmetry of the girls and the backdrop.
Once I moved back to Dorset and had my children, my portrait painting took a back seat to family life. I found myself doing many of the same things with my children that my mother had done with me – although I didn’t follow them from school to school as a teacher. There is obviously something genetically passed down as my two boys, Rufus and Quentin, are a sculptor and painter respectively; my uncle, my mother and my sister all went to art school. But I think that nurture is crucial and that with the right encouragement, any child can learn to express their creativity.
It’s fun to watch my children doing many of the things I did when I was their age. I’m surprised my maternal instinct is so strong in me; I never expected to feel so fulfilled by motherhood. We’re a strong trio, incredibly supportive of one another. We have a studio in Lyden Way, Beaminster, where the boys and I work and exhibit together. Our next show is 2-17 December 2022. I am still taking commissions and I am working on a project at the moment that I can’t talk about. But once that is complete, I may look to work with one of the London galleries again.

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