9–21 May 2019
Artist-gardener or gardener-artist? Although she divides her time equally between these two art forms, Kate Corbett-Winder is first and foremost an artist. Like many artist-gardeners, she uses her garden as a laboratory for her art; her flower beds are constantly evolving – living palettes for experiments in colour, texture and tone, structure and layout, testing grounds for studying the effects of light and shadow at different times of day and in different seasons of the year.
Although Kate has been gardening seriously for twenty-five years, she only recently turned to the garden as a subject for her art. Previous exhibitions featured her elegiac landscape paintings: Montgomeryshire’s vast grey skies and rolling hills, an isolated house in a distant field or a jumble of farm buildings in the cleft of escarpment. Then Kate’s studio was a caravan at the edge of the woods: now she works from a converted outbuilding where she can nip out at any moment to check an atmospheric effect, photograph a particular tone, pick a stem to study it closely or crop an offending branch. Fascinated by the way plants ‘speak to each other,’ she is always playing with the flower borders, adjusting them to suit her exacting eye: cutting off, cutting back, digging up and shifting if she notices plants getting too close, or too dense, or too tall or too orange – although orange is a colour she has recently come to love.
Over the years Kate’s palette has grown more vivid and exuberant; in both garden and canvas she has moved from muted greys, creams, greens and blues to more dramatic magentas, purples and corals. Where white used to predominate, now black reigns: exotic shapes and mysterious depths dominate her paintings, as black elder, sweet William and cosmos have replaced pale valerian and hesperis which used to accent her herbaceous borders. Kate tries to work in the garden every day from early spring until the last dahlia has succumbed to frost at the end of autumn. Her gardening complements her painting but her art does not depend on the weather; she paints in her studio every day, regardless of the season. And when the garden is truly dormant she finds inspiration in daily woodland walks where she picks up seed heads or bare winter branches. Spiky cardoons, papery hydrangeas, rose hips, hellebores and those defiant little Welsh poppies that pop up all year round provide further subjects for painting in winter.
Kate photographs her garden obsessively and when a subject grabs her she can spend hours building up a composition, only to scrape it all back to start again, leaving a faint pentimento as testament to the earlier image. Often she works on several canvasses at the same time, moving from one to the other as the light changes or the mood takes her. Although largely self-taught, Kate draws on the tradition of Modern British artists, whose work she and her husband William have collected over the years: Winifred Nicholson’s luminosity, Keith Vaughan’s textured layers, Christopher Wood’s moody primitivism. She follows the mid century English landscape painters – Ivon Hitchens, Peter Lanyon – in using loose composition and bold swathes of colour to move beyond mere figuration. Patrick Heron inspires her too, in the way that Eagles Nest in Cornwall was the catalyst for his abstract garden series.
Further afield one senses the visionary spark of Odilon Redon’s symbolist flower paintings or Cy Twombly’s mysterious, romantic collages, which like Kate’s, combine words, scratchings and splatters of colour to create vigorous, haunting images. While drawing inspiration from the best of the century’s artists, Kate’s work is sui generis: richly textured, multi-layered, luminous, provocative and exhilarating. Her poppies are both vibrant splashes of life and harbingers of something more sinister. Her slashes of blue and spatterings of yellow are clearly larkspur and daisy, but interpreted with the trancelike, shamanistic exuberance of the abstract expressionists.
– Katie Campbell, Garden Historian, 2019