Helen Simmonds: the restlessness of still life

Helen Simmonds’ poised and tranquil still-lifes offer a voyage of discovery, working as they do with artistic conventions on the use of line, tone and colour while also holding on to more transcendent truths. Aidan Quinn reflects upon Helen’s work ahead of a new exhibition of her work at Beaux Arts.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response is our truth and freedom.” Vicktor Frankle

In A Still Life, Beaux Arts’ 2020 short film on Helen Simmonds, the opening sequence features in close-up a pollen-laden bee landing on a purple cosmos flower, backdropped by Helen entering her studio to begin the day’s painting. At the time cameraman Mike Pitts was most intent on waiting for the bee to complete its orbit of this small, lush patch of garden, and touch down again on our chosen flower filaments. However it is the fuzzy background movement of the artist into the converted garage, and its location among the flourishing blossom and greenery, which is particularly pertinent to the works in this latest collection.

The title of the film is in part a misnomer, as this is Helen’s fifth atelier in the rambling old Victorian schoolhouse she shares with her sculptor husband Richard. Her life is anything but still. She has moved her working space peripatetically, seeking with each change a new dialogue with natural light and silence, and drawing as ever on threads that previous paintings left undone. For her the process of painting itself is one of call and response, not unlike the bee to the flower, or how writer W. G. Sebald described his modus operandi as “the way a dog crosses a field, sniffing from one scent to the next, not seeing or describing the field”.

The beautiful flowers, heirloom enamel jugs, tiles, vases and bowls all suggest a quiet stasis – an artistically engineered state of tranquility which is largely what the paintings engender in the viewer. But this can be misleading. There is a tendency to project a narrative on to any place we have found ourselves in life, suggesting the fulfilment of a conscious arc, no more true in the completion of a painting as it is in one’s moment to moment existence.

Being so proximate to the patch of garden where her anemones, cosmos, clematis, snow goose roses, honeysuckle, narcissi all bloom… the corresponding work reflects this burgeoning foliage and blossom

So how has she come to paint what she paints? Having been interested in set-design, Helen trained as a sculptor at Bath Academy of Art, turning to painting immediately after graduating in 1985. Her training is important in her compositions, in understanding the physical presence of objects in space. There is no apparent narrative in her work. It is simply a grouping of objects. She has described this as at times a “raw, uncompromising state”. It is a voyage of discovery, attempting to work with (and through) artistic conventions on the use of line, tone and colour for their own sake while holding on to more transcendent truths; the ‘deep reality’ that Thomas Hardy referred to as “underlying the scenic, the expression of what are sometimes called abstract imaginings”.

Helen, like many women artists past and present, is unable through domestic circumstance to stray far from home and garden for her subject matter. She is however able, as she puts it, “to look outside of myself at what is there, around me. I can consider the unconsidered, suggest the possibility of allowing for a spacious moment within the clutter.” Thus does she tend to the deep reality that Hardy spoke about.

What to look for as potential subject matter is not a consideration. What she responds to is what matters. Being so proximate to the patch of garden where her anemones, cosmos, clematis, snow goose roses, honeysuckle, narcissi all bloom at their given time, the corresponding work reflects this burgeoning foliage and blossom. There are more leaves and more flowers than in previous expositions. There is more veridian and more Indian yellow. This fecundity in the paintings is, I would suggest, a sign that things in her life are at present trundling along smoothly, and not too many threads are being ineluctably frayed.

Above: Yellow Freesias, Just Before Opening, 2022, 61 x 56cm
Above: A Touch of Spring, 2021, 76 x 61cm

In a similar way the positioning of objects, their relationship to each other, the figures lightly drawn (or not) on the oriental vases and bowls, all are subtly indicative in one way or another, of the artist’s state of being. “In order for painting to have meaning and significance for me, I have to stay receptive to what I see in front of me at all times, and so not look at it with preconceived ideas of how to translate the truth I witness. To do this demands all that is a part of me, my existence, and so inevitably this includes my vulnerability and pain.” She continues, “Each painting holds within it the life force of all my previous paintings. The assimilated experience is gathered together into each brush stroke. I see this more clearly when a body of work is at a point of readiness.”

Meeting with Helen three studios ago, over a decade in the past, she is puzzled at my request to watch her work. By way of explanation I ask what, for example, she did the previous day. “Mostly moved these four cups around” she responds. So each work’s genesis is a process too. “Starting a painting,” Helen explains, “is like falling in love. There is the glow of attraction, excitement, and then a mutual exploration ensues. I give, the painting gives back. There may be frustration, miscommunication, the painting then gives, I relax and we work in harmony. At the end I stand back and see who it is in front of me. I may then be satisfied, or not. The questions, doubts, these may become the next love affair.”

Sitting in the garden more recently on a summer afternoon in 2021, Helen and I are discussing Desert Island Disc music selections. She highlights Steve Reich’s Duet for two violins and strings (recorded at the Gewendhaus in Leipzig). It is not a tune I am familiar with. An important aspect of this musician’s work, and this tune in particular, is the fact that his parents divorced when he was only one year old, and large chunks of his childhood were spent travelling to and from New York and California by train. This is the pulse and the undertow in the music. Helen’s life has thrown her off balance. Her paintings are a restoration, an attempt to regain equanimity. They are not therapy though they are therapeutic. There is the gentle buzz of a tuning fork, of ‘hope and history rhyming’, humming all the way through this beautiful collection of paintings.

“My life experience is part of what influences the decisions I make in painting, but it is not the explanation for it. It is an act of hope, and embodies for me an ongoing attempt to lead a better, kinder, more responsive life, jettisoning all that is superfluous and keeping in focus the critical elements of connection. I am, have become more so, an anxious person. When I witness and am faced with something which calms me, and brings a sense of stillness, and creates space around the ongoing chaos in my mind, I am eased, grateful. I then have more chance to feel loving, to make better choices. If I can offer anything close to a bit of this for others, that is good enough.”

Helen Simmonds: New Paintings is at Beaux Arts from 8 October – 5 November; beauxartsbath.co.uk

Featured image: A Touch of Spring, 2021, 76 x 61cm