Elspeth Cornish is a British watercolour artist who lives in Stockholm with her Swedish husband, and will have her first solo exhibition in a Stockholm gallery this month. With a background in interior design, Elspeth has gone back to her first love, painting. This self taught artist is very passionate about pollinators and she celebrates the plants that nourish them, which is how the Let it Bee series came about. With the increasing use of strong pesticides the lives of bees are becoming endangered so any attention that we can bring to them is important. Her beautiful, delicate and detailed paintings are done directly from nature, and never from photographs. Here’s a little background on the artist.
Your mother Helen Eltis is a botanical artist. How did this influence your artistic practice?
Yes that’s right, my mother is a brilliant artist and I have always looked up to her. I can remember being about 4 years old and living in a beautiful farmhouse outside Cambridge which my father inherited from his farming family, and my mother was always painting floral still lifes in watercolour. She graduated top of her class from St. Martins before I was born and her work was incredibly popular when I was little. She would regularly have sell out shows at galleries in London such as Christie’s and The Medici Gallery. We then moved to the Virgin Islands when I was 4 and then Costa Rica when I was 8 and she supported the family of four children by painting incredible trompe l’oeil murals in luxury villas and hotels. My parents divorced when I was 5 and I had to move away from her at the age of 11 to live with my father in Cambridge so I could go to school. As I missed her terribly at this time I buried myself in my school art department. I was determined to become as good as her in drawing and painting and at a time when she didn’t even have a phone to connect us, drawing brought me closer to her. I took several years to really grasp the ability to draw still life but by the time I was 16 I won the school art prize at St Mary’s in Cambridge.
You worked in interior design, when did you decide to be a full time artist?
I actually studied Architecture first from 2003 at University College London at an architecture school called The Bartlett. I was only 18 and had really wanted to study Fine Art, but my father wanted me to have a profession. However I found living alone in London and studying a topic that I knew very little about quite hard. I wanted to transfer to study fine art at the Slade, which is the art school of UCL, but my dad wasn’t very keen on it. So I continued with architecture for 2 years until a tutor told me I wasn’t ready to finish the course and needed to go and work in the field. I then went to work at two firms, NBBJ and Gebler Tooth Architects, but in interior design. For me, architecture was too black and white and I missed working with colour so interior design was a good compromise. However, I really missed painting. I received my first painting commission at the age of 21 from a Saudi Princess’s art consultant. I did large flowers in oil on canvas for that commission. Then in my early twenties I bought a set of watercolours and a small pad when I went to visit a friend in the South of France and I started to paint in watercolour for the first time. At this point I had a full time job as a model scout for Vidal Sassoon and I was the lead singer of a pop band called The Awe Kids, so there wasn’t much time. Then in 2012 I exhibited my work for the first time at Chelsea Art Society’s summer show; you had to submit 3 paintings and the committee selected the ones to be part of their summer exhibition. Two of my three watercolours were accepted.
It wasn’t until I moved to Sweden in 2016 that I took up the brush with the intention to be a full time artist, greatly in thanks to a Cambridge professor called Dr Paul Beattie, who commissioned me to paint a series of 10 paintings inspired by Georgia O’Keefe. The commission was an opportunity from him, to give me time to paint. Then in late 2018, after being made redundant from an interior design job I had found in the interim, I started to paint watercolours again of my garden flowers. In the Spring of 2019 I approached the British Ambassador’s wife, Mrs Sharon Cairns and offered to collaborate with her and the non profit she started called Stockholm Love Pollinators and paint for the cause. She asked me to paint a series of pollinator friendly plants with the pollinators included. I exhibited these at the British Ambassador’s Residence and soon afterwards nearly all of them had sold to Swedish collectors, so that was the launch that I needed and since then I have kept “painting for pollinators” as I like to call it.
What is your process when starting a new painting?
The first thing I need to start a new piece is inspiration. My paintings are very time consuming. A small painting will take me 4 or 5 days, a large painting can take me a few weeks. So I need to be inspired. Then once I have an idea or a vision of what I am going to create I set up my easel, sharpen my pencil and draw the still life. I can only paint from still life – not imagination or photos. It takes me a day or two to draw the still life and then at least 4 days to paint it. I use a small brush and paint each little brush stroke with care and precision. My aim is not to create a photo but instead a very realistic impression of my subject.
Tell us about the “Let it Bee” series.
I started to paint the Let it Bee series just after my work was shown at the British Ambassador’s Residence. The first painting of the Let it Bee collection sold that summer in 2019, as a gift to someone well known in the music industry, ironically I had titled that piece Golden Summer Dreams which I think sounds like a song title. It was a still life of a view of yellow poppies in my garden which had so many bumble bees on them. For this series I wanted to look at where the bees were and then go and paint that. I took my paints with me that summer when my husband and I drove to the South of France and when we went to Monaco for the day I painted a piece there in the Princess Grace Rose Garden, again I looked at where the bees were and painted that rose. My aim is to celebrate the plants that nourish the bees and pollinators and highlight the importance of pollinator friendly plants, as bees and pollinators have a hard time finding flowers to feed from and I believe it’s our duty to help them, as bees help us to pollinate 70% of our crops so we really need to look after them. Wild flowers are especially good for bees so I did a few paintings where I sat outside and painted the wild flowers. I am really happy with these and I have had them made into trays by the Swedish tray makers, Åry Trays, which will be available at my upcoming exhibition.
As you paint flowers, is there a particular time of year that you find you are at your most productive and inspired?
The spring, summer and autumn are the most inspiring. But I still get inspired to paint in the winter, I do more cut flowers rather than sitting in the nature capturing the bees and butterflies at work which I can do during the warmer months.
You grew up in the Virgin Islands, Costa Rica and in the U.K, quite a mix! Would we be seeing an exotic flower series in the future?
Yes I hope so! My mother and step father have just finished building a house in Costa Rica and after not seeing my mother for 3 years I would like to go and visit her soon. If I can go for long enough then I can try to paint while I am there. But as one small painting takes me at least a week I will have to go for a while to paint a series there, but I hope that will happen at some point. I would love to go and paint with my mother, we haven’t had the chance to do that in years.
Watercolour seems to be your preferred medium, do you work with anything else?
I am best at watercolour now as it’s the medium I am most experienced in. However I also like to paint in oil, but to paint in oil I need a studio and in Stockholm I have yet to find an art studio to work from. If I could find a studio I would like to do that as I like painting in oil and would like to keep at it. I have also painted in acrylic and I like to do pencil drawings too.
What do you find the most challenging when working with watercolours?
The need to let the paint dry in order to avoid smudging is a challenge for me, I get impatient. Also the fact that you cannot erase anything is hard sometimes when I want to take something away, as it’s just not possible. With watercolour you have to be patient and precise.
What is key to a good composition?
For a classic still life you want the subject matter in the middle on the paper, with enough space at the top to avoid it feeling squashed. But for my nature paintings I like to show the composition of the plant I am painting, so there isn’t really a rule then. I like to break the rules in regards to composition. Framers get annoyed with me as I draw and paint to the edge of the paper, but I don’t think things should always be perfectly in the middle. Life isn’t like that. Nature isn’t like that. It grows over the edge.
What are your favourite flowers?
Lavender – I love how much the bees love this plant.
Sunflowers – I did a painting of these and it is my title piece of the collection called Let it Bee.
Yellow Poppies – the bumble bees love these and so do I.
Roses that have a strong, delicious, rose smell – yummy!
Crocuses – these pop up early in the spring in my garden in Stockholm, and it’s always a relief to see them after winter. The Queen bumblebees which rely on them after hibernation, and I, are very happy when they blossom.
Which are your favourite gardens?
The garden at Highnam Court in the Cotswolds is really amazing, I did some Interior Design work for this private stately home in 2014/15 and the property is owned by a man called Roger Head who is really into gardening. I would like to go and paint there This summer I went to Sofiero Castle and I was blown away by the garden there, I wish I could go and sit there with my easel and paint the gorgeous plants as the bees busily collect their nectar. Wouldn’t it be great if I could create a collection celebrating their garden, which was created partly by the British Princess Margareta.
What will you be showing at your solo exhibition at the Art and Form gallery in Stockholm this fall?
I’ll be showing my complete works of floral watercolours that I have been working on since Autumn of 2018. From floral still lifes to the Let it Bee series and some from my latest collection titled Petit’s series. These are flowers that I have acquired from the florist Petit Marche as well as in reference to the birth of our baby girl, Isabella, who arrived this June. This will be the first chance for people to see the originals and have the chance to buy them. My art has also just been taken on by Carina Haslam Art Gallery in the U.K.
What advice would you give to city dwellers on being more bee friendly?
Please plant for bees. Tulips are not pollinator friendly, nor are many flowers. We need to learn what is good for bees and then plant these on balconies, in window boxes and in gardens. I would also advise anyone with a garden to look into getting a bee hive. You can rent one from bee hive supplier, Biman AB. They will look after it completely so you can just enjoy the buzzing sound and the honey. I’ve invited them to take part in my exhibition and have given them a gallery window to put a bee hive in. I hope that the buildings around the gallery and all over Stockholm might consider having a hive on their roof or in their gardens as bees really need us to help them. A third of bee hives perish each year. This is believed to be from pesticides as well as from the lack of food. Neonicotinoids are especially bad for bees, they cause the bee to lose orientation and not be able to find their way back to the hive. This causes colony collapse disorder, which is a huge problem. Humans are having to be employed to pollinate crops in some parts of China and California. The bees work so hard I don’t understand why we are ok with letting them be poisoned, I’m certainly not, and that’s what my Let it Bee collection is about.
LET IT BEE Collection by Elspeth Cornish
Exhibiting from 24th September – 3rd October 2020
ART & FORM GALLERI, Kommendörsgatan 11, Stockholm.