Jo Denbury, Features Writer
When artist Anne-Louise Bellis was a child she spent long, dreamy summers at her grandparents’ farm in Dorset. One of her earliest memories is basking in the sunshine with her sister and “wearing as brooches” the live butterflies that came to settle on their brightly coloured clothes. Anne- Louise always vowed that one day she would return to Dorset to bring up her own children.
So it was no surprise that, after 10 years in London, she and her husband decided to look for a place down here. They came upon an old farm in Glanvilles Wootton and set about renovating it themselves – a project that has taken another decade. Last year, however, Anne- Louise finally finished converting the cow shed into a new arts venue, which works as her studio and a space for both exhibitions and workshops. Its name? The Old Cow Shed Studio, of course. Anne-Louise began her career as an artist at Winchester School of Art, where she was studying her foundation. Her initial interest was in theatre design, but her tutor noticed her unusual way of working and remarked that she ought to study fine art. He was right and she was soon on a BA course at Newport School of Art. “I knew I wanted to paint landscapes, so I didn’t want to study in London,” she says. “At Newport we were very lucky, because it was a modern building with huge glass windows that looked out directly over the valley.” It was a stunning view – one that kicked-started her painting.
“My paintings start in the landscape tradition, although I push them to abstraction. My interest is in the natural environment as a starting point and my reaction to it,” she explains. “On the school run – along the top Sherborne road to Dorchester – I often see a fantastic sky or scape where one field stands out in particular.” Her eyes light up. “That will really inspire me.”
Anne-Louise’s work tends to be on large canvasses, with blocks of colour that have been worked towards abstraction. She uses dry acrylics, working in short bursts in order to allow them to dry, then building up layers and texture. The effect is of bold colour and a looseness of style evocative of the artist Ivon Hitchens, whom she cites as an influence alongside Ben Nicholson and the late work of J. M. W. Turner.
One thing she does not do is take pictures to jog her memory. “I can’t really work from photographs – something changes if I do,” she explains. “I would rather just remember and try to capture that feeling I had when I saw the landscape. My paintings are not necessarily straight representations of what I see. Rather, it’s taking that one spark of light that catches my eye and translating it onto the canvas.”
Although Anne-Louise has always painted, it hasn’t always been her career. After graduating she spent a year working for a design company in Australia and another two years as curator for a public gallery in New Zealand. She returned because she missed the “hedges and patchwork fields” of England. Back in London, Anne Louise found work with a number of art dealers while also running her own online art business. While assisting the well-known dealer Thomas Gibson, who deals in 20th-century exhibition-quality art, she had to deliver two Van Gogh paintings to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “I had a seat,” she laughs, “and the paintings had a seat next to me!”
Although the experiences were many and varied, Anne-Louise knew that her life in London was not forever. “Dorset is somewhere very special and I always knew I would come back here,” she says. Throughout it all, she continued to paint and sell her abstracts and, this May, she will be exhibiting her work alongside three other artists in a show she has curated for The Old Cow Shed Studio.
The title of the show, ‘Time & Tide,’ comes, as Anne- Louise explains, from the Dorset landscape. “I wanted the theme to be something that can be taken literally and in a more philosophical way. I love painting the sea and the Jurassic coast but also, more philosophically speaking, it is about how time and the landscape are constantly changing. The sky that you see now is gone in a few moments.”
The artists whom she has brought together for the show are all friends she made while she was working at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, but they too are all also very influenced by the Dorset landscape. Catrina Bruce’s work reflects her interest in wildlife and its habitats and their erosion by man. Liz Bath’s print-making focuses on the sense of place and safety within the landscape. Meanwhile, Mags Maxwell’s jewellery – all made from reclaimed silver – looks at how natural forms such as pebbles and shells can be translated into design.
Anne-Louise’s own paintings reflect her passion for nature, pared down. The colours are subtle and rich in depth, seeming at times to hover in their space like the glimpse of a passing rain shower or bright yellow rapeseed field. “I like simplicity,” she declares. “I try to break things down into simple shapes and colour, but still capture a fleeting moment. That is the aim for me.” As ever, her passion for our locality abounds. “Living here is brilliant – step outside your door and you will see something amazing. You don’t have to go far.”