This March sees an exhibition of large-scale drawings by Sophie Charalambous hosted by curator and gallerist Jessica Carlisle. The works on show capture the strange energy of the Thames foreshore – a place of washed out tones and washed up objects. Timeless characters pick through the sedimentary layers of history; silver and black flows past the Thames.
We caught up with Sophie to find out more about her own relationship with the Thames, her art historical influences and idiosyncratic approach to drawing and collage.
What does London mean to you, and how do you try to capture that in your work?
London is my home. I’ve been living in the city permanently since 1998. There is a constancy in London and also continual change. As an artist it keeps you on your toes; not only by trying to balance work and life but also by questioning what you’re making and why. I find it really exciting to be out in the city drawing: it’s like fighting back against its indifference. It makes you feel very connected.
What attracted you to the Thames foreshore and to produce work in response to it?
I belong to a boat club in King’s Cross, and we often cruise the Thames in our narrow boats, going right up to Oxford and beyond in the summer. Over the years I’ve spent quite a lot of time on the river, so am naturally drawn in by its history and folklore. Travelling along it, I’m always aware of its foreshore.
Some years ago I was staying with a friend who lives on the river at Rotherhithe and he mentioned a square of “Captains’ Houses” on the opposite bank. That was how I found Wapping Pier Head – it’s the oldest Georgian Square on the river and used to be the entrance to the docks before World War II. I really love drawing around there; the pier head itself but also going down the old stairs onto the shore where the mudlarkers are looking for treasure. It has a particular atmosphere and it’s quite deserted most of the time. I like the texture of things, how they become worn away and softened by the tides, the flotsam and jetsam and the fixtures and fittings of a past nautical history.
Jessica Carlisle [the exhibition’s curator] has likened your work to Stanley Spencer, and there’s definitely that sense of the past existing in the present as well as a slightly disorientating perspective. He was also an artist of the Thames. Do you see your work as drawing upon the art of the past in any way?
Looking at the work of other artists is an important part of my practice. Artists who have been inspired by the river have particular significance; Turner’s sketchbooks and Whistler’s ‘Nocturnes’ and ‘Thames Set’ etchings were inspiration for my own Foreshore drawings. I have looked at Stanley Spencer’s paintings a lot over the years too, especially the early work. I like the way he makes the local become universal or allegorical. A favourite is Swan Upping which hangs at Tate Britain (itself on The Thames). It’s such a beautiful painting and captures something essential about the Thames; the composition with the bridge, the sky and the silvery light on the water. It’s magical and mysterious; it’s a moment in time both fleeting and eternal. It definitely directly inspired my picture The Swans at Marsworth.
Your works are large-scale and involve layers of collage and different media. Could you describe your process a little and why you choose to work that way?
Sometimes I want to have freedom for drawings to grow without having the restraints of a particular sized rectangle, so I add bits on. It’s fairly easy to do with paper. I’m working on Khadi paper at the moment which is very thick and made out of rags, so it’s tough enough to withstand being torn up and glued. I’ve always been interested in drawing materials and different techniques – it’s about trying to respond to something directly through the choice of materials. I enjoy having control over what I’m doing but also the happy accidents which move your visual language forward.
You also work in theatre design – how much does this influence your work as an artist?
Yes, I trained at postgraduate level in theatre design and have designed quite a few productions. It has had a huge impact on my own work – especially on how I approach the figure in space. I think a lot about lighting, tone, scale, suggestion, and narrative. In theatre there is a lot of talk about creating “a world” – something completely believable and cohesive. That idea really resonates and is something I try to achieve in my own work.
From the Foreshore is hosted by Jessica Carlisle at 83 Kinnerton Street, London SW1X 8ED from 3rd to 8th March 2015.
Image credits (from top to bottom):
Sophie Charalambous, On the Foreshore, 2014, mixed media on Khadi paper, 112x151cm DETAIL
Sophie Charalambous, On the Foreshore at Dungeness, 2014, mixed media on Khadi paper, 112x151cm
Sophie Charalambous, Swans at Marsworth, 2011, mixed media on Khadi paper, 102x72cm