Bovine portraitist Veronica van Eijk's Hailsham studio
PUBLISHED: 16:17 12 June 2017 | UPDATED: 16:17 12 June 2017
Jim Holden www.jimholden.co.uk 07590 683036
Bovine portraitist Veronica van Eijk is exploring new worlds this summer in her Hailsham studio, as Duncan Hall discovers
Prior to moving to her Grade II listed farmhouse on the edge of Hailsham, Dutch-born artist Veronica van Eijk was focusing on installation work.
That’s until she met her bovine neighbours from organic dairy farm Hook and Son. While on her 2008 summer holiday from studying at Northbrook College she decided to paint one of the cows which were grazing on the fields right by her house. “Steve Hook saw it and said if I could do 12 of them we could do a calendar project together,” she says. “We did and the calendar sold. I found the cows were paying for my installation work – and they eventually won and grew on me.”
Veronica, 63, and her husband Michael Lodge, 75, originally moved to the house in 2007 from their previous home in Epsom because of Michael’s vintage Stinson plane. The couple wanted a location not far from an air strip where Michael could fly from, with room for storage and a studio space for Veronica. She now works on the top floor of a light and airy stone barn she has christened Longleys Studio Barns, only yards away from the main house, accessible by a steep wooden staircase. Both the house and studio look out over the couple’s beautiful pond and lush garden, which is populated by a small brood of chickens, guinea fowl, one-eyed ginger cat Terpsi and sibling dogs Saskia and Jeroen who rule the outside space.
“I see the garden as an extension of the house,” says Veronica. “When I do something in the house I always look outside to see how one leads into the other.” Veronica’s passions for art and travelling are plain to see on the walls of the house, which are painted in deliberately muted colours to allow the artwork to take precedence. One of her cow paintings takes pride of place in the kitchen, but elsewhere is a range of African masks, sculptures and colourful paintings, relating back to the four years she spent in Nigeria in the 1970s with her first husband. “I collected quite a lot of art, benin bronzes and masks,” she says. “Artists like Picasso loved them – they are very collectible. I love African artists such as Yinka Shonibare, who works with African fabrics, and Chris Ofili’s patterns and colours. The interiors in the rooms are about maximising the light and showing off the artwork. If you have soft white walls you can have any colour on them.” Many of the pieces Veronica has on her shelves have stories of their own behind them, such as the piece of Chinese porcelain rescued from the bottom of the sea as part of the cargo of the Tek Sing, the last great treasure ship to sink in the South China Sea.
Elsewhere her furniture tells its own stories. Many of the pieces have been snapped up second hand, with only the dining table, which can extend to seat up to 28 people, coming at a premium price. “I love finding bits and pieces from junk shops, antique shops and boot fairs,” she says. “I like to do things up – I sometimes drive my husband to despair. Most things work, but I do make mistakes sometimes and have to give them away.” Two striking items in the kitchen are a table created out of a former chicken shed by removing the doors, and a tall Indian cupboard with a metal grille which Veronica has turned into a way of displaying her crockery by repainting the original dark brown to a warm dusky pink. The kitchen is in the middle of a gradual transformation which has been ongoing since the couple moved in: “It was a very dark kitchen,” recalls Veronica about when they first arrived. “I put an Aga in, and put my own stamp on the walls – I would like to paint the cupboards white.”
Elsewhere the couple have painted the rooms neutral colours and installed wooden floors to increase the sense of space. “I love interiors,” says Veronica. “I would have loved to have been an interior designer and source lovely antique pieces for other people. I always have pictures in my head of how I would like a room to look. I never go to expensive shops – it’s always make do and do up.”
Veronica’s other domain is Longleys Studio Barns, which up until recently she opened to fellow artists in a series of classes and workshops. Now she is cutting back on teaching to focus on her muse – although in June she is opening her studio and garden to visitors, having previously done the same for Chiddingly Festival, South East Open Studios and Hailsham Arts Festival. Over the past seven years the open studios events have raised more than £7,000 for St Wilfrid’s Hospice and Demelza which offers hospice care for children.
“I love doing it,” she says. “I get volunteers down from St Wilfrid’s to help. The other artists who take part are getting better and better. We have a big variety of work – outdoor sculptures and jewellery, ceramics, painters and print. Mike and I like to share our garden and house – I make Dutch apple cake and my husband makes big date and walnut cakes. People can come, make a donation to St Wilfrid’s and see the art without feeling like they have to buy anything.”
She is still a director at Lewes’ Chalk Gallery, where she has been displaying her art for the past seven-and-a-half years. Working to strict six-week deadlines to provide art for display has helped her confidence, and she has also learned marketing skills through helping to organise the volunteer-run gallery in North Street. She is taking more of a back seat though as she wants to see where her art will take her in the next year. She has recently taken a gestural drawing course with Shoreham artist Katie Sollohub and Emily Ball at Seawhite Studio in Partridge Green.
“I fell into using watercolour through doing my cows,” she says. “I’m dabbling with a bit of oils and acrylics now, and colour is breaking out. This year will be quite a change as I leave the Chalk Gallery and set out on my own. I want to be free to mess about – I love the physical process of drawing and painting. I want to get more energy into my painting and drawing – I’m very excited about exploring that. You can only be a good artist if you feel you have to learn.”
It was another teacher, Margaret Hawker, from Walton-on-Thames who encouraged Veronica to pursue her love of art. “She was so inspirational,” says Veronica. “It was a case of meeting the right person in the right place and right time. She was a chemist who decided to become an artist – she went to Central St Martins College and did art full-time. She helped me get a portfolio together and apply to do a foundation course. It is how I came to love colour – but then I started to paint black and white cows!”
The monochrome feel of Veronica’s paintings comes from the Friesian and Holstein breeds kept on Hook and Son farm. She has grown to love the breed and can now recognise certain cows in the herd simply through her time spent studying them. “They are quite a boney breed and I like to see that – they aren’t great fat lumps,” she says. “I have always loved sculpture and couldn’t make up my mind whether to sculpt or paint, which is why I used to combine them with installations. Painting the cows is almost like sculpting – they are in 3D. My own style has developed – quite a few people do portraits of cows, but not many people paint like this.” When the cows are out in the fields by the Pevensey Levels from April onwards she can be found watching them. But she generally works from photographs. “Cows don’t sit still – every split second they are always on the move. I sit for ages observing them so in the end they forget I’m there. If I can’t work out something from the photos I will go out and see the cow. There are things like how the ears move, you have to get a feel for it. Their character comes out through their body language or how they act together – I really focus on the eyes and nose, those are the expressive areas.”
In one corner of her studio, among the many cow canvases and sketches, there is a very bright canvas – dominated by pinks and greens, and festooned with parrots. It is the first indication of how colour is breaking out in Veronica’s artistic world, and it will be interesting to see where that takes her next.
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