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Wednesday 29 April 2020

In conversation with Tabitha Macbeth 

Continuing our look at the artists from the Beyond the Frame exhibition we share a cup of tea with Tabitha Macbeth.  Taking a well earned break from the building work on her house and all the other other lock down jobs in the family home, Richmond Borough based artist and illustrator Tabitha sat down to answer a few questions about her life and work. 

Tabitha, could you say a little bit about yourself and what or who got you into art?

I am a freelance artist and illustrator, living and working out of my home studio in Teddington. I have loved drawing all of my life and have been continuously involved in the arts more broadly as well, through dance, theatre and singing. I did my Art Foundation course at Cheltenham Art College (following in the footsteps of my mother and my sister who completed the course years before!) followed by a year studying Art and Dance at Brighton Art College. After a few years of travelling, spiritual practice and managing both meditation retreats and Art events in Northern California, I returned to the UK to study illustration and graduated from Kingston University in 2008 with a BA (Hons) in Illustration and Animation.  

Working primarily with chalk pastel, pencil and coloured pencil at this time, I have always felt the need to express ‘something greater’ and timeless through my work, aiming to convey a strong sense of feeling and atmosphere, beyond what I feel can be communicated in words. This means there are often surreal elements in my work, which is often described as being mystical and ethereal. 

Thinking about your work now as an artist and illustrator, the surreal and dreamlike nature of the work on your website aligned with your love of storytelling makes me think of the books and illustrations I loved as a child. Were children’s books a big influence on you and has there always been a desire to create images that would fire a new generation of imaginations?

Yes, absolutely. Some of my favourite illustrators come from the Golden Age of book illustration, my very favourite being Edmund Dulac, whose beautifully sensitive and atmospheric paintings have had a huge impact on my art and way of working. 

I remember being drawn into other worlds and into a depth of feeling through illustrated stories as a child and I am happy that my work now can speak to both children and adults. 

I did focus a lot on creating and illustrating children’s books at Kingston and illustrated one of my favourite stories, The Velveteen Rabbit, for my degree show. Those pieces continue to sell well (to both children and adults!) as limited edition prints. 

Another of my favourite artists is Odilon Redon, who had a very powerful Spiritual dimension to his work, his piece ‘The Buddha’, being one of my all time favourites.  

Back to 2020, what or who is your inspiration today and how is this changing your style or subject matter?

I draw inspiration from many places, such as theatre and dance (including the sets and the vision of the piece). If something moves and inspires me, it continues to do so for years, perhaps a lifetime. For example, James Thierre (who is a grandson of Charlie Chaplin and whose work on stage defies description, I recommend that people seek him out!) is one such performer and creator who has had a deep and lasting impact on my work.  

I continually return to personal motifs which I think evolve and mature as time goes on. For the last few months I have been creating a ‘Spirit Animals’ series. I have periodically dreamed of a powerful white ‘light’ animal of some kind, usually at a time of change in my life and I remember first drawing one of these animals as a teenager. I began making this latest series of pieces after my dad died last year, but there are still more I feel the need to create – it is just a matter of keeping up with the flow of inspiration! As a lifelong vegetarian and animal lover, I do hope that so much of my work which features animals, helps to inspire or speak to a feeling of empathy in the viewer.  

Another constant inspiration is the natural landscape, particularly the sculptural, body-like shapes of hills, and trees, which I find so powerful. My work is naturally quite detailed, involved and time consuming (and I no longer fight against that as I once did!) so I do also enjoy the immediacy and freedom of drawing from life. 

Queen’s Cottage, Kew Gardens by F Viner

Finally, you picked Queen’s Cottage, Kew Gardens by F Viner as the influence for your piece, Queen Charlotte Unattended in our current Beyond the Frame exhibition. Why did you choose this particular painting from the Borough Collection?

As an illustrator, I do love the process of delving into my mind and finding creative responses to a brief!  

After browsing the collection for a while, I decided to search for places in the locale which I strongly relate to. Kew Gardens and Ham House were two such places which immediately sprang to mind! I was pleased to find F. Viner’s watercolour of Queen’s cottage, as I have always felt a connection that that place and love to research a subject. I already knew something about Queen Charlotte, but once I got books out of the library and found out more, it became clear that I wanted to make her the subject of my piece and that the two pieces would work together (the internal and the external landscape).  

Queen Charlotte Unattended

Queen Charlotte Unattended is a piece of work created by Tabitha Macbeth for the Beyond the Frame exhibition. Find out more about her ideas in her Artist Statement below.

Queen Charlotte Unattended, January 2020 - Pencil, coloured pencil and chalk pastel

‘Queen Charlotte’s Cottage’ is believed to have been built under Queen Charlotte’s instructions as a ‘rustic retreat’. Passionate about botany and engaged in cataloguing and drawing the plants and flowers at Kew Gardens, the Queen found comfort and sanity in nature, as she dealt with the loneliness and difficulties of her life, so radically changed by the dramatic deterioration of her husband’s – King George III – mental health.  

In this piece, although her summertime surroundings are nurturing, beautiful, and there is pleasure to be found in them, there is a haunting sadness in her. This is reflected in the bare winter trees which grow up her dress from the ground and are part of her.  

The title reflects both her enforced separation from her husband as he was isolated (as instructed by the royal doctors) and the fact that she found freedom in wandering in the gardens by herself (or with her husband in earlier years), unescorted by any of her ladies in waiting. 

Tabitha’s work can be viewed on her website and on both Instagram or Facebook. The Etsy shop is currently closed but once we are all free from lockdown, prints, cards and wrapping paper are available to buy there.

You can also view the entire borough collection online, at the Collection link on our main navigation bar, or by clicking here.