Artist Laetitia Yhap has spent 20 years capturing the fishing community of Hasting Stade. As the series goes on show in the De’Longhi Print Room at Pallant House Gallery, she talks to Curator Katy Norris.
Katy Norris What was your path into becoming an artist?
Laetitia Yhap I wasn’t part of an ‘art world’ and I didn’t have any friends who were artists. I might have gone to the National Gallery either with the school or possibly my mother, but I didn’t have that sort of privileged background. It was a very solitary and dislocated upbringing. I think that is why I eventually turned to making images. From a young age I was looking for something else, something magical, and when I took up art I discovered another world I suppose.
KN Do you think your mixed Chinese and Viennese parentage has informed your work either directly or indirectly?
LY I’ve always been very conscious of a conflicted personality from my mixed heritage and in many ways I’m still conflicted to this day. Anyone thinking of Chinese painting usually thinks of the landscape. It’s definitely there in the work, particularly in the watercolours which I started after leaving the Slade. I felt very at home with that for a long while – paper, pigment, water – without human beings as a focus. I had to go against my nature in many ways to do those fishermen drawings, part of me just couldn’t see a place for the figure in the scheme of things.
KN What was your experience of being an art student at Camberwell in London during the late 1950s and early 1960s?
LY In those days as a student you had to be prepared to submit to your teacher’s methods. But at the same time, I didn’t necessarily see that (Euan) Uglow’s or Frank Auerbach’s methods would work for me, although I respected some of their attitudes. They demanded a profound engagement with paper and pencil in front of the model, and I remember some of Frank’s followers would attack the paper so violently in the course of the drawing that they would pierce it. I had a strong drive in me to acquire knowledge and was eager to learn, but instinctively I knew I had to row my own boat. In any case things were changing and by the time I entered the Slade in people were saying that ‘painting was dead’. If one did painting at all it was abstract, or there was video art, sit-ins and installation. I couldn’t ignore what was happening either so I made my own eccentric art, most of which I destroyed.
KN When you left the Slade did you feel that you needed to make a statement about what kind of artist you were going to be?
LY There is huge pressure nowadays for young artists to produce an exhibition straight away, but I just wasn’t in that state of mind. I’d spent two years at the Slade doing a post-grad and also prior to that a year in Italy travelling with a stopover at the BritishSchool in Rome where I learnt and saw a great deal.It was a lot to digest and I felt I was in a state of recovery from it all. By this time I was living with Jeffrey Camp in East Anglia. I was his subject matter, his muse and at the same time trying to sort out my thoughts. Jeffrey had the studio and I had a spacein the bedroom on the enlarged window sill. Each day consisted of whatever happened in front of that window. At first I began creating a single idea on a piece of paper, about postcard size. It was minimal means and minimal intervention. The view was literally the sea, that’s all I had and it occupied me for five years. Artists make do and I suppose I was making do and waiting for the right subject matter.
KN What was is that eventually attracted you to the fishermen on Hastings beach?
LY Jeffrey and I moved together to Hastings after the death of his parents. I was certain I still wanted to be by the sea but I had no knowledge of the area or of the fishing industry. What is surprising to me even now is that it took so long to make the discovery of the beach. I had been living in Hastings for ten years before I started on the fishermen drawings.
KN Were you looking for a new direction?
LY Yes, I was in a state of conflict when I was painting the watercolours. Technically I had done a lot with the medium, but I had brought the cycle to a conclusion and I thought there was more that I could be saying. I wanted to find my way back to the figure so I did portraits of myself and I drew Coldstream in his office. I also did drawing of Euan Uglow, Norman Rosenthal and Helen Lessore of the Beaux Arts Gallery, but I soon discovered it was a blind alley; I didn’t see myself as a portrait artist. I began looking at people in activity such as labourers and even surfers and yachters along the coast. But I couldn’t engage, it just didn’t work. The discovery of the fishermen was like a religious moment, a certainty that I was onto something. I didn’t have a method or a plan, other than to get down there and start drawing.
KN Was the choice of medium significant?
LY It is the particular identity of an individual which has always interested me and drawing is a very direct and succinct method of recording those particularities. I wasn’t just looking for a human being in general but the person, that’s why I drew Coldstream in his office.The same thing struck me whilst I was down on the beach, this wasn’t just a fisherman but a real person with a real life. It’s an obvious thing to say but there are so many artists who have done perfectly good, generalised descriptions of the human figure in a realsituation, such as Josef Herman or Henry Moore. I wanted to go further. My drawing process was closer to documentary film making. I was very aware of video and photography but I made a conscious decision not to pursue that. In those days cameras were huge and it would have got in the way. I didn’t want anything to get between me and the subject.
KN How did the fishermen respond? Did they accept you?
LY I was there every minute that I could be, even on the most deadly days of the year. The fishermen realised that I wasn’t there for pleasure, but actually on duty just as they were. They looked at my drawings, which they often said were barely comprehensible, and began asking when I was going to finish. That was the mystery for them that I was satisfied in sitting there doing something that didn’t seem to add up to anything. As things developed they had me doing odd jobs, I remember they thought I’d be particularly useful painting the RX registration numbers on boats.
Eventually they invited me to go out to sea, which I did a few of times. It was a very unlikely situation, women are thought to be unlucky on boats, but looking back I didn’t really identify myself as being different because I was female.
KN One of the drawings in the exhibition, The Skeleton, documents the discovery of human remains. Is this a conscious comment on the risks involved in fishing at sea?
LY It is actually a record of a real event. I remember that the message came back that a body had been found at sea. An undertaker and mortician turned up with this enormous coffin. When the boat came in they hauled the nets out slowly until they got to the part with body. There had been storm and they hadn’t been able to bring the nets in for several days so it just went on and on. The only one who was willing to remove the body was Podge. It was an amazing thing to witness, he just got down on his hands and knees; it was so delicate and also quite mechanical. I remember thinking, is this something I really want to witness, but I just stood it out like everybody else. I went home and started drawing, as a way of exorcising what I had seen. Eventually the idea for a painting evolved, although I didn’t start by thinking that this was how it would end. We later found out that it was a woman and she’d been in the sea quite a while.
KN Why did it take you so long to move from the drawings to creating the paintings?
LY There was a huge conflict of interest because all the time I was in the studio I was aware that I could be missing something important on the beach. Also the problem of how I might actually take it further presented a real dichotomy. All those drawings represent incredible moments and were a true record of what I had experienced. I didn’t want to kill that dead. The important step was the first monochrome, … which began as a drawing using oil pastels. I eventually turned it into a painting by melting the pastels with turps so that I could manipulate and spread the pigment. I tricked myself I suppose, by inventing a method that gradually eased from drawing to painting. I also loved that you could evoke a hot, sunny day with black and white and a few shades in between. Even when I moved to colour I knew that I had to stay true to the natural light. The light is beautiful down there, the sea creates an incredible reflective surface and the air is very pure.
I avoided mixing pigment too much so that the colours remained fresh, like I’d seen in the frescoes in Italy.
KN Did you feel that you were taking risks in undertaking the project?
LY Yes I had no certainty that the series would have a universal interest. Feminist writers asked why I didn’t depict any women in my paintings and I had to defend that. But it is obvious that there are female and male aspects to all of us. In the fishermen drawings there are vulnerabilities, companionships and the familial relationships between the men which you might not expect. I was also intrigued by how it all worked. There are ancient rights to fish and land on the beach, even today you can’t buy a place on the stade; it is not for sale. It was endlessly fascinating and, as you can tell, still alive for me now.
KN An Ending is your final painting of the series but it also marked the end of an era for Hastings fishing industry. Was this a deliberate ambiguity?
LY On one level An Ending represents the modernisation of the fishing industry. The introduction of tractors to the Stade meant there were a lot less people involved and the whole dynamic of the beach changed. At the same time there was the growing awareness that I was actually allergic to the oil paints and solvents I had used for so long. By that time I could barely stand up when I was working. You’ll notice that the surface is very gestural because I was using my hands much of the time. I came to my own realisation that the cycle had reached its conclusion. I had been on a journey but I couldn’t prolong it artificially.
It had been such a physical affair – the making of the paintings had been so tied up with the activity of the fishermen that I couldn’t carry on in another medium without endangering the integrity of their experience or mine. But I didn’t view the fishermen as a dying community and I still don’t.
Things have changed and they are in a minority, but there is something extraordinary still thriving there. It is wonderful they will continue to fish down there on their terms no matter what.