Power and Rigour
Inspired by the energy and power of the animal world, Hannah Shergold embraces a fluid and dynamic style to bring their grace to canvas
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Having long been fascinated by animals – especially horses – and having trained as a vet, it is perhaps not surprising wildlife artist Hannah Shergold fuses an anatomical rigour that comes from her academic studies with bold flowing lines to create striking and unusual paintings. Working with oils, “I wanted to use a very loose style, using palette knives enables me though to be precise and clean with my lines despite working on still wet canvases, there is no contamination.” Now she has become a full time artist, Hannah is keen to further experiment with differing oils and methods.
With an art teacher mother and draughtsman father, Hannah first begun to be interested in art when doing her A-levels and subsequently whilst a veterinary science undergrad at Trinity Hall Cambridge. Her initial love was in sculpture; she carried out what she thought would be a one-off commission whilst at university, but having found the science heavy course Cambridge offers not quite to her taste, upon graduating decided to take the plunge doing sculpture rather than continue her vet’s training. Crafting horses’ heads, she was lucky to find a foundry near her family’s home off whom she was able to source bronze for commissions.
The financial crash of 2008 bought this small business to a close. “I was though young enough to retrain and attempt something new – either perhaps the City or do something crazier.” With this in mind, she attended RMA Sandhurst, commissioned into the Army Air Corps and became a qualified Lynx pilot. Operations and exercises all over the world followed; Hannah’s artistic proclivities were not though completely abandoned. She carried out a couple of Army sculpture commissions and when on exercise in Kenya in 2015, turned to painting, “it’s certainly more portable!” she recalls laughing. Starting with pencil sketches and then water colours, Hannah reacquainted herself with a medium she had not used since A-Level.
Being based out in Kenya for some months, Hannah’s painting caught the eye of her colleagues and a small exhibition was held for the expat community, “I had no intention of showing or selling,” Hannah recalls, “I was simply getting back into an arena I loved and enjoying doing art again so what happened was somewhat unexpected and gratifying.” This also rekindled the idea of art as a potential post-Army career. For the last couple of years of her Army Air Corps career, Hannah continued to paint and a small but pleasing number of commissions came her way; despite her initial focus on sculpture – she makes clear she wishes to return to it – painting has proven far more popular, “everyone has wall space, whilst not too many have a lot of room for sculptures,” she smiles.
Given her interest in animal and especially equine life, it is of little surprise that Hannah’s two main influences are those titans of English sporting art, George Stubbs and Sir Alfred Munnings. With her veterinary background, she is drawn to the anatomical rigour and clear depth of knowledge in Stubbs’ work but, for her, Munnings work possesses a flowing natural energy on top of his insight into animal’s physiology. “The most critical thing is you have to know is how an animal moves, most animals trot and gallop in a very similar way so once you understand that musculature you can capture the movement.” She has actually found melding this musculature precision with flowing movement fractionally easier as an artist, “there is a very small amount of artistic leeway in painting which there just isn’t in sculpting,” she explains.
Painting in a fluid and loose manner, inspired by photography, Hannah spends a lot of time considering and working up a picture’s core idea on computer before transferring or projecting it by grid onto canvas, “though palette knives are exceedingly precise, I do have to work quite fast whilst the paints are still wet and malleable.” She often re-visits old pictures, re-imagining and improving her style and experimenting with differing angles and approaches. This is the one main artistic reason why she wishes to currently push her own, rather than commission based, work, “when you look at a commission, you are obviously slightly circumscribed in what you can do – you can become limited and not develop as an artist which I am very focused on doing at this stage of my artistic career.”
Working up to her first major exhibition since leaving the Army and becoming a full time artist, Hannah is frequently painting 12 hours a day. Like many artists, examining the final composition is often a tricky affair, “sometimes you’re just not sure it’s right when you first complete it, it can be you just need to come back and look at it with a fresh eye or then you show it to people who see something you hadn’t spotted yourself – everyone’s eye is different.” Despite the inevitable time pressure, she does not like having two pieces on the go at once though as each painting is completed Hannah will compare and contrast it to the subsequent composition taking shape.
Away from the paints, clearly life as a full time artist is rather different from being behind the controls of a Lynx, “there’s a need to be open minded but have a very firm business head – what are the good decisions and when do I need to implement them.” Hannah is thinking in the long term, building her portfolio and targeting the right galleries, “I have a certain gallery in mind I ultimately want to represent me,” and taking on certain high profile events to raise her own visibility. In May 2018, she painted a tiger for instant auction at the Tempus Earth Conservation Gala raising money for WWF. After painting Emile Sande at the National Portrait Gallery when still serving in late 2017, Hannah was awarded a wildcard entry to the 2019 Sky Portrait Artist of the Year competition, the heats of which took place at the Wallace Collection this April. “As I’ve developed my style I’ve found I love to produce portraits; once more established, I can see myself doing more portraiture.”
With her first solo exhibition entitled “The Field Collection,” taking place at the end of June, 25th – 30th, at La Galleria Pall Mall, Hannah is committed to chasing her dream, “I had a wonderful and varied time in the Army, but art is in my blood.” One hopes we have merely heard the artistic start of her story.