Nicola Slattery was born in Coventry in 1963. Even at a very young age, she had a compelling feeling she would be a painter, and, as a child, was moved by the angels in John Piper’s stained glass windows in Coventry Cathedral. After graduating from Coventry School of Art in 1986, she moved with her husband Paul Whymark to live in rural Norfolk near the sea (first at Thunder Hill Farm, a rather magical location, later in a secluded home and studio with its own paddock views of geese and hens and fields of sheep beyond). With a busy life as a mother, painter and art teacher, she says that though she loves ‘peace and quiet and walking on my own, I find I have a lot less time to have it myself – so in a way the figures in my pictures have it for me’.
In her 2015 self-portrait, painted when she was fifty-two, ”There is an element of the ‘green man’ or woman in the image. Living down a country lane in Norfolk, I feel part of the landscape I see around me daily. The ivy has a timeless element being evergreen – perhaps in contrast with the emerging grey in my hair indicating inevitable changes that come with age. I’m looking directly at the viewer with no attempt to hide myself behind leaves or smokescreens or by creating distortions of focus. I like to think I am saying, ‘this is me, this is my art, make of it what you will’.’
The artist boldly faces the viewer (and herself), an imperturbable standing presence in a wildly fecund green landscape – the left side of her face illumined with eery grace by crepuscular rays. Her unsmiling, unwavering countenance, with emphatically large brown eyes, robustly outfaces any of the viewer’s expectations or preconceptions about who the person portrayed may be. The low-cut, variegated crimson and purple top, one of velvety luxuriance, is antique in appearance yet with a stylish modern simplicity. Strands of ivy twine around her figure seem to signify she has been transfixed to this spot for a whole season – these evergreen trails echo long silvery strands in her black-brown hair. It is as though, with determined delicacy, the ivy has ensnared her to the spot – but this is a situation she appears happy with. The faces of the wild flowers – an unknown variety, suggesting a mix of cosmos and other pinks – turn to us too, half-lit, half-shadowed just like the artist’s face. Above all, the picture is suffused with what the artist calls ‘thoughtful peacefulness’. The subtly sparkling accents of white-tipped, yellow-hearted pinks may seem to symbolise creative flowerings of Slattery’s art that have ‘come with age’. There are overtones here of the precise yet elaborate art of historical miniaturist painting (such as Nicolas Hillard’s Young Man among Roses (c.1585-95)).
Often what she calls ‘the gem or germ of an idea arises in conversation or in a line in a book or from reading a poem, and then follows the actual painting… I usually start painting a pale white or cream underlay, then introduce some warmth into it – I love cadmium orange, yellow and red – and then I take the colours back with soft pewter greys. Then maybe then there is a strong blue, maybe cobalt or ultra-marine. I like to mute down certain areas, taking back the colours, making them quieter in a way.’
This multi-layering, and quietening down, of her pictures corresponds to the way she builds up subtle impressions of character and impalpable stillness in the people and animals she portrays. She likes her paintings to be initially accessible, ‘upfront’ but then ‘with ambiguous layers behind and beyond that’.
In her many paintings of singular women – some identifiably self-portraits, others with elements of self-portraiture but also with diverse familial resemblances – there is an affinity in both treatment of subjects and their ruminative dignity to Tudor portraits of courtly ladies, such as, notably, Hans Holbein’s A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (c.1526-28) – a period in art history which she is immensely drawn to.
Her painting Hear the Wind (2014) sounds a fierce, exclamatory note. ‘One night I saw trees silhouetted against a hanging moon; it looked very mysterious. The woman, immersed in the grasses around her, is seen to connect with the elements.’ The figure stands monumentally immobile while long strands of red hair undulate in the wind, like tongues of flame.
Another self-portrait (2014) shows a young woman being bombarded by Night Flowers (peonies, lupins, lime green flowers) from a background of dazzling darkness. This composition has a fierce Expressionist tenor (tellingly, one of Slattery’s favourite paintings is Alexej Von Jawlensky’s 1909 Portrait of the Dancer Alexander Sacharoff).
Painted at a time of dreadful turbulence in world events, Dove at Dusk (2014) –’with its sky colour – unusually for me, one of yellow with currents of red – with an electric charge in the air’ – portrays a young subject (partially resembling herself, partially aspects of her two teenage daughters). Her hair turbulent against a vibrant, apocalyptic sky, this figure is seen cradling a serene dove in her outstretched palm. ‘I don’t consciously paint lots of doves as a call for “Peace in the World” but I do think there should be more doves in it!”
In 2015, Nicola Slattery was elected to the Royal Society of British Artists.