Feature
Hester Finch on…

The School of London

The artist talks reimagining the nude, fuelled by the 20th century greats of figurative painting

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It's hard to miss the cycle of inspiration across design and the arts, so we're asking our artists and designers to talk muses. This time, it's the turn of London-based artist Hester Finch, whose appreciation for the figurative greats of the School of London has held a constant presence through her career. Rewriting the female nude in hyperreal brights, she divulges how the likes of Francis Bacon and John Bellany came to guide her explorations, albeit through a very different lens.

Hester Finch on the School of London
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Which area of art or design has been most influential for you? I draw inspiration from anywhere within art history and whatever I might see in any given week but, as an artist who particularly focuses on the nude, I am inevitably moved by figurative painting. One such group of artists who would be impossible to ignore were loosely termed the School of London. The name was coined by the artist R.B. Kitaj and was used to describe figurative painting taking place in 1970s Britain by greats such as Francis Bacon, Lucien Freud, Michael Andrews, David Hockney, Leon Kossof, Howard Hodgkin and Frank Auerbach. Later, it also came to include a second wave of artists, amongst others Paula Rego and John Bellany.

Hester Finch on the School of London
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When did this first become a topic of interest? I was aware of some of these artists as individuals, but I was directed towards them as a group by a tutor during my degree at the Ruskin School at Oxford University, who had the less well-known Michael Andrews in mind. Perhaps the most restrained on canvas, he was a brilliant draughtsman and a painter with an extraordinarily light touch. I was blown away a few years later when I saw his Lights V. The Pier Pavilion in the flesh at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemiszain while working in Madrid.

What most draws you towards this area of the arts? The styles within the School of London were disparate but they were linked by a chief idea, exemplified by Francis Bacon, that it was still possible to convey emotion on canvas through the act painting - a pretty unfashionable idea at the time. The artists were all making art in the long shadow of post-war Britain (indeed Auerbach arrived in Britain in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport scheme, his parents died in the concentration camps in 1942) and their work is heavy with feeling.

"The styles within the School of London were disparate but they were linked by a chief idea, exemplified by Francis Bacon, that it was still possible to convey emotion on canvas through the act painting - a pretty unfashionable idea at the time."

Hester Finch on the School of London
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How has this interest informed your own work? There are many elements that I have intentionally, or unintentionally, borrowed from the artists in the School of London. For instance, there is an overlap with Bacon and Kitaj's compositions, employing hard vertical and horizontal lines that fix the figure within the space. They all walk that line between acknowledging the flat plane of the canvas and the physicality of paint versus the illusion of painted depth, and they often employ the psychological power of distortion. My works are intended to be read as a psychological space as well as a domestic interior. I used to decapitate my female nudes - it was an act of both violence and empowerment but, more recently, like Freud's early scratchy portraits, I look to their eyes to convey some of that emotion, usually a wary lassitude or unease. Later artists such as Rego and Bellany introduced props for symbolic meaning such as Bellany's fishwives (his women with fish sat askew on their heads), and I too am beginning to explore the use of curtains, mirrors and plants.

Hester Finch on the School of London
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What led you towards fine art? I have been drawing for as long as I can remember. From the exhibitions my older brother and I used to put on in the cupboard under our stairs, fleecing our parents for 20p a work, to the giant skewwhiff frog I painted at the age of six that won the local library art competition. My teen years were spent attending life drawing classes and buying every fashion magazine on the shelf so that I could draw the models. I had an inspirational art teacher at my school and an engaged family. It was never really a question of 'if', more of 'how' and, further down the line, 'why'. These days my subject is semi-autobiographical; painting and drawing has become an act of trying to represent my experience of being a woman.

Hester Finch on the School of London
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If money were no object, what piece or artefact would you want to own? I would be pretty happy to hang Bacon's less typical Study for Portrait of Van Gogh perhaps alongside one of Freud's portraits of middle-aged men sitting in his scuffed brown armchair while he looms over them so that their foreheads bulge and their fingers splay awkwardly against the arms of the seat. I would settle for a Hockney coloured pencil drawing if it meant I could have a vast Rego canvas, perhaps as a partner piece for a particularly gory Goya. I am lucky enough to already own a large charcoal self-portrait by Bellany, so to fill that empty spot in the hallway, maybe a late Howard Hodgkin.

Hester Finch on the School of London
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