Yvonne Hawker

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yvonne Isobel Hawker, artist: born Madeira 14 July 1956; died Inverness 28 July 2001.

Yvonne Hawker personified all that can be admired in a Sassenach artist inspired by the physical reality of Scotland.

In 1983, with her then partner Richard Akerman, she decided to leave North Wales for Scotland, settling on a place, on moorland above Barrhill in Ayrshire, that was their ideal of a living and working space. It had been built as a Victorian shooting lodge but had lost its appeal to sportsmen. Its name was unforgettable – Black Clauchrie.

Their work could not have been more dissimilar. Akerman was a maker of popular prints which were successfully marketed world-wide. His idealised view of the world appealed to all those who needed to enjoy images of sunlit, brightly coloured gardens or rooms evoking an Arcadia far distant from Scotland. Hawker's paintings revealed the country she had chosen to inhabit, with its northern light and muted colours. She expressed her viewpoint from Black Clauchrie itself, far removed from her birthplace in Madeira (her father was a telecommunications engineer with Cable & Wireless), her schooling at the School of St Clare in Penzance, and her London-based years of art education first at Ravensbourne College, then at Goldsmiths' College, where she specialised in fashion and textile design.

Struan and Patricia Stevenson, Ayrshire friends and patrons of the visual arts, introduced me to Hawker, and in 1987, soon after my first visit, she had her first Edinburgh exhibition at the Demarco Gallery, moving in 1988 to the Bruton Gallery in Somerset (which specialised in presenting the work of Scottish artists such as Robin Philipson and James Howie to English collectors), her paintings being shown together with a group of sculptures from the Bruton collection including works by Rodin, Bourdelle and Maillol.

The exhibition was entitled "Five Rooms": The Danger Room, The Mews, The Laundry, The Dead Room and The Bird Room. Hawker's pictures demonstrated her capacity to observe and paint inanimate objects with astonishing accuracy – preferably in a state of decomposition. The human presence was not revealed, but implied. Her art focused on the dignity and beauty of inanimate objects in the process of being transmogrified by time. More often than not, they had little aesthetic value. Her eagle eye lit upon things – utensils, instruments, work spaces even – which had been abandoned.

Hawker had brought the essence of Black Clauchrie into the heart of Edinburgh. Standing there, I could visualise the road across the vast moorland which lies between Barrhill and that range of hills which define the wilderness of Galloway. I could see the house and its tree-filled gardens. I could hear the waters of the fast-flowing stream leading towards the little lake.

The nearest neighbour, John Edwards, had the responsibility as a farmer and falconer of keeping the surrounding landscape, as far as possible, from the encroachment of the Forestry Commission. I wondered then how long this idyll could last.

Sadly, Hawker's relationship with Akerman came to an end and she moved westwards to an isolated house at Kilrenzie, a few miles from the village of Colmonell. There she had the task of fighting against the overwhelming authority of Scottish Power with its plan for a £200m construction of 45 miles of gigantic pylons, from Coylton to Ballantrae, linking Scotland and Northern Ireland. Her beloved valley behind Kilrenzie was to have 20 of these giant constructions.

Hawker's name became associated with the leaders of the campaign known as "Stop the Overhead Powerlines" (or simply Stop). It involved thousands of protesters from Scotland to County Antrim; she enlisted the support of patrons of her paintings, among them Jools Holland, Brian Cox and David Puttnam. Alas, the campaign was to no avail and she was obliged to leave Ayrshire and settle much further north in the even more remote landscape of the north-west Highlands – in an isolated farm cottage near the village of Stoer, on the mountainous west coast of Sutherland.

In the Nineties, she was never short of commissions and, in 1994, one of her patrons, Chris Patten, invited her to Hong Kong as artist in residence. She had known Hong Kong as a teenager and she found inspiration in the fact that Hong Kong was ending its days as a British colony. Her still-lifes of slaughtered animals, gutted fish and hundred-year-old black eggs were shown, as "Pigs and Fishes", at the Redfern Gallery in London.

Soon afterwards, in 1995, after a routine check-up by her doctor, she learnt that she had ovarian cancer. This caused her to regard her Hong Kong paintings as a premonition of her illness. Undaunted by the painful treatment that followed, she worked hard on her paintings and also on an autobiographical filmscript that tells the moving story of an artist in Scotland who dies tragically of cancer. A film must surely result: with its premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival and a memorial exhibition.

Ten days before her death, and just after her 45th birthday, Yvonne Hawker was enjoying a ceilidh in the village hall. Her last painting was left on the easel in her studio, finished and still wet. Her funeral took place in the Lochinver Fishermen's Mission (Brian Cox making a moving oration to the accompaniment of the fiddle and accordion music of Duncan Chisholm and Phil Cunningham) and she was buried in the small walled cemetery of Stoer within sight of the sea.

Richard Demarco

Comments