Landscapes and portraits as artists stage joint show

TWO artists with contrasting subject matter will be exhibiting their work in Places and Faces at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Henley this month, writes Natalie Aldred.

Landscape painter John Whittaker last exhibited at the venue in September 2019.

This time he will be joined by graphic designer Hil Beavan with the portraits that she started creating during the coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

John, from Tilehurst, has developed his creative side since retiring as a primary school teacher.

He says: “I’ve always played the cello a little and sometimes I took a sketchbook on holiday and did a bit of sketching but I never really had a lot of time to do much music or art.

“Since retiring I’ve been in my element. I love art. I’m quite old-fashioned and like the impressionists particularly.”

John works in oils, painting landscapes, trees, gardens and foliage. “I usually work from photos unless I’m doing flowers,” he says. “The great thing about art is that you can manipulate it however you want and you can change colours.

“With oil paint, you can let it dry and then you can put another coat over it, so you can paint a blue sky, let that dry and then add a bit of yellow, say.”

Hil, who lives in Hare Hatch, ran a graphic design studio in London from 1979 to 2014 with her partner from art school, Anthony Lawrence.

When the pandemic arrived, she looked into online activities.

She says: “I always feel bad talking about the benefits of lockdown when I know a lot of people had such a really terrible time but I was in a fortunate position in that we’d closed the London studio and any work we did was online .

“We threw ourselves into absolutely everything. We went on walking tours of Tokyo, lectures on Eric Ravilious, everything we could possibly find.

“I had been doing life drawing at South Hill Park, which was fantastic and I really enjoyed it but obviously that shut in lockdown. I went to a couple of online ones, which worked surprisingly well on Zoom, and then one of them was doing something about these
15-minute portraits.”

The online group comprises a mix of artists from around the world.

Hil explains: “It’s all arranged beforehand. We do three people, then we have a little tea break where we chat.

“Then we do another three and the last one is called ‘around the Zoom’ where you just pick someone off the grid and then we have a show-and-tell session.”

She was inspired to go to her bookshelf and revisit Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards.

Hil says: “I read that when it came out in the Eighties and I did some of the exercises, where you draw upside down.

“It’s all about unhooking the bit of your brain that says, ‘Oh, hello, it’s a face, it’s going to have two eyes, a nose and a mouth’ and you actually look at angles and so on.

“Combine that with speed, where you simply don’t have time to faff around, and you just have to go for it. If it looks like it’s going wrong halfway through, who cares, you just carry on.

“To my great surprise, the portraits kind of worked. They were pretty sketchy at the beginning and I do tend to relocate ears and things because I don’t draw a face as a whole.”

Hil and John met while playing in Crowthorne Symphony Orchestra.

She started playing the viola at the age of 40, while John has been playing the cello since he was a boy.

He says: “Someone over the road had an old cello and gave it to my dad and said, ‘Would one of your children like to play?’ I just happened to be the right age at the right time — I never chose it, it chose me.”

, Places and Faces is at the Old Fire Station Gallery in Upper Market Place, Henley, from Thursday to Tuesday, August 18 to 23, from 10.30am to 4pm daily. For more information, visit

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