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Why are you an artist?

I am an artist because I love to paint and have done so from childhood. Paintings, sculptures and illustrations fed my imagination from early on and the experience of looking at pictures and being emotionally drawn into their world has always fascinated me.This includes theatre and films so narrative (or story) is central to my work. 


My extended family are very involved in art in many media. My grandmother was Lucette Cartwright, a figurative sculptor, and my mother, Lia de Fontenelle is an abstract painter. Both have been important to me in my development as a painter. Art was the language of my early years and has provided the foundation for my life.


Now I am working on paintings in in my studio in London


What is your art is about?

My present work is about being and belonging. I would say ‘being in relationship with’ is an important aspect of the current body of work.


Some of the inspiration for subject matter comes from the simple joy of illustrating and telling a story. For example, "For such a time as this" explores what and who is Queen Esther? What is her life really for? What is her relationship with the people around her, her society, her responsibilities and more mysteriously, to God and the Divine? I am attempting to make reference to layers of meaning and relationship in the biblical book of Esther bring and bring this story alive in a contemporary context. I am interested in symbols and literary connections and images (For example the horses refer to to the vision of the prophet Zechariah because the myrtle carries a strong significance of constant and unassuming virtue in the Hebrew tradition and is also’s Esther’s name )  Behind Esther I have tried to symbolically represent some significant moral challenges of our own time: nuclear destruction and looming environmental catastrophe, as well posing the question of how we should act at this crucial moment. I don’t know if this is wholly successful but these big questions seem to me to parallel questions in the Esther story since we are talking about Esther’s decision as to how to act in response to the possible genocide of her own people. My painting depicts her moment of decision. I do love the way painting can communicate on multiple levels, rather like music.


On a more domestic level the model for ‘Esther’ is a  friend and colleague. In my friend I see  qualities of strength through adversity, resilience and physical beauty which are also associated with ‘Esther’. So the painting is on the one hand an exploration of the biblical character but also a record and a celebration of a person living now and of my relationship with her. 


I belong to the church community of St James’s Piccadilly and am painting a series of portraits of people in the congregation who agree to sit. The sitter inspires the narrative and symbolic content. 


 ‘Pentecost’ is a painting imagining the disciples at Pentecost described in Acts 2:4. They are mostly (though not all) modelled by individuals from a contemporary christian spiritual community based in London. Each person was asked to pose as a disciple. In Christian imagery saints often have well known attributes. Traditional attributes are used in this painting to help viewers identify different disciples. There are three sources of inspiration for this painting: 1) Acts 2:4  2) the members of the community who in posing for the painting all wear their own clothes thus including a reflection of their modern lives and their own paths of seeking spiritual connectedness. 3) The Room itself because it is the worship space of this community, and was previously a private chapel built for and used by Anglican nuns and it is upstairs!


How  does it all fit together?

Subject matter is not always straightforward. Personally I have always wrestled with my subject matter. One cannot really choose it: it chooses you. Of course we are not always painting what we think we are painting. Because of my personal history, which is complex, being and belonging, being ‘of’ and ‘not of’ have come up in various guises and have been present in my painting throughout my life. My early work was a kind of personal diary and in my 20s and 30s I became more interested in narrative as a means to explore my personal journey. About 10 years ago I had a strong desire to look outwards and engage more fully with the world of others. In 2011 I won the Bulldog Portrait Prize and therefore focused on portraiture. Since that time I have been seeking ways of bringing together an ability to make portraits and  fascination and love affair with narrative painting which is tinged with a longing  for films.


Where you're going with your work?

Right now I am particularly interested in building up pictorial narrative compositions, particularly multi-figure compositions and in developing relationship between persons in the painting. 

I am interested in subject matter on the level of story and narrative told and in the formal painterly language that communicates emotion, deep feeling and other intangible aspects of what is being experienced.


 In the long term I hope to leave behind a body of work that gives others a similar pleasure paintings have given me. If my work is preserved long term and gives pleasure to other people then I think it will have been worth it.


How will you get there?

Well, being in the studio is very important. I  paint Monday to Friday in my studio mainly on portrait commissions for a living.  However I aim to paint more narrative paintings, which is more difficult because I am not paid for these. I would like my work to be collected and seen so if my paintings come to rest in Museums’ collections, for me that would be ideal so that people may occasionally have a chance to see them and  enjoy them for free. For this reason I am actively seeking relationships with museums and art collectors. However from the point of view of seeing the work museums and collections are by no means the only possibility. Places of worship, hospitals, libraries, schools and businesses or any other place where the paintings may bring pleasure and be well kept for future generations are of interest.


What you want to contribute, communicate, or add to the larger art world conversation around you?

What fascinates me is our relationship with ourselves, with others and with world around us. I hope to engage with people on an emotional level. If my paintings can captivate, and communicate some truth, about the mystery of being alive to other people as well as be a pleasure to look at then I hope they will contribute something of value.     

 Francesca de Fontenelle, 2021.

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