Hannah Webb was born in Cambridge in 1973, and studied illustration (BA Graphic Design, as it was then) at the University of Brighton from 1993-1996. She now teaches drawing and printmaking for students of illustration at Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University, and printmaking at the Curwen Print Study Centre at Linton, near Cambridge.
The still, unembellished immediacy of her 2011 self-portrait – the luminous clarity of her open regard as she scrutinises herself in the mirror of her small Cambridgeshire bathroom – is striking. She was prompted to make this work – ‘making self-portraits is not part of my usual practice’ – after picking up a Ruth Borchard competition flier at Kings Place, considering it then ‘a good excuse to work on something closer and more sustained. As it was, production of it was left to the afternoon/evening of the deadline and occurred in all of three hours. Far from being a problem it might be said that there’s something to be gained from battling against the elements. Being studio-less, my paintings are predominantly made outside, fighting time restriction, the cold, the passing light, movement and physical discomfort. That these needs seem to present themselves in the pace of the work, is exciting: a physical manifestation of circumstance as well as a response to the thing being observed.’
In her painting generally, ‘there is no initial plan or drawing-out or any under-painting, and I try to work with as few marks as possible which makes the observation of colour tone, saturation and shape necessarily more acute. Drawing with the paint means that each contact with the board has some energy to it. When it’s going well, the sensation this affords is like catching the crest of a wave and being sped along on it.
‘I’m right-handed but because there was no space in our tiny bathroom in which to place the easel on my right side, I worked most of the image using my left hand. Standing almost nose-to-mirror meant I could paint without wearing glasses, which was important both emotionally and technically: to present the view I have most often of myself which is in the bathroom mirror, pre-cosmetic construction! Although everything appears wonky and bereft of much finesse, these two factors (working without glasses and using my left hand) frustrated my usual routine of handling paint. This seemed to best reflect the duality of both looking without and within – which is what the self-portrait, uniquely, is about.’
She feels that a self-portrait has the potential to convey the ambiguous, universal human ‘condition of living in flux in that indeterminate area between knowing and not knowing, telling and withholding, confessing and hiding. Figurative painting is an illusion but much of what we present to others is, in many ways, illusory too. I like the work of painters whose work both explores a sense of self-restraint and self-confession – and in which the illusory nature of the materiality of paint itself, is not hidden. Gwen John’s portraits and the lovely Samuel Palmer self-portrait are examples of this. I don’t know that Mary Potter ever made a self-portrait but the exquisite colour, tone and the immediacy of her handling of paint is another inspiration.’
‘Drawing with the paint’ gives this self-portrait dynamic actuality in vigorously rendering untethered strands of hair, variegated tonality of skin on face and neck, glimmers of light falling above and below the right eye and mouth, and in the free yet precise delineation of green eyes. The off-white jersey is made up of innumerable strokes, immensely diverse in shape and subtle hue whose overall coalescing effect absorbs rather than distracts the viewer. Near background details such as an opaque, creamy-glassed shaving mirror and what may be an aqueous blue vase on a shelf (or even a painting or poster of a vase-like object on the wall) and maybe toothbrushes and a mug on a shelf are adumbrated with pristine painterly abandon.
She says that her faith necessarily affects the way she regards herself: ‘A self-portrait must respond to ideas about the nature of existence and for me this has to do with both a sense of my own fallibility and the hope I find in Christ.’
Other portraits Webb has made are customarily painted with her right hand (!) A portrait of music director, Ian de Massini made over two afternoons as he was rehearsing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on piano in the ancient Church of St Cyriac and St Julitta in the village of Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire, is notable for the way it conveys intense absorption in the task (literally) at hand – and for the contrast between undulating rhythms of his vivacious turquoise shirt and austere pale stone colours of the ecclesiastical interior. A portrait of friend and illustrator, Paula Metcalf, sitting in a glowingly alert posture, was painted on a warm summer night – ‘the paint was behaving fluidly, not thickly like it does when outside on cold days and as with Ian, the sitter’s heightened emotions and shifts in movement, were important.’
She says, ‘when I’m looking this intensely at people, especially at myself, the thing I think about most is the amazing, astonishing condition of being alive and of being mortal.’