Josephine Trotter lives at one with the landscape that surrounds in her in the Oxfordshire hills. Her home exudes an atmosphere of wellbeing, warmth, nature and art that spills over into the celebration of life that makes her paintings so distinctive. For the last two years, landscape has engaged her most although throughout her long career she has also painted still-lifes and portraits. She has often travelled to paint in sunnier spots, Greece, Turkey, Italy and France, but now it is in the landscapes of Britain that she finds her inspiration, especially in their wonderful variety of greens.
Trotter’s gift for distilling in her paintings that first ecstatic response to a scene brings to mind Van Gogh, an artist she admires. Like Van Gogh, she reacts immediately and powerfully to a motif that she finds compelling. ‘I get an absolute bolt in the head’, she explains, adding ‘I can’t explain it – it’s very powerful.’ Away from home, in Cumbria or Wales, she begins by ‘mapping’ her territory by driving around a region to survey the landscape until she is seized by a particular view. Like Van Gogh, she paints en plein air in a single creative burst, usually finishing a painting in one day. The early morning light determines the feel of a painting. She dislikes the ‘flattening light’ of midday and as the sun moves across her subject throughout the day, rather than adjusting the tones of her composition to the shifting conditions, she remains true to that first light that ignited her imagination. She does no preparatory sketches and never relies on photographs, but draws the broad outlines of the composition with a brush loaded with thinly diluted paint. Once a painting is finished, she never revises in the studio. This truth to nature is often physically challenging. Like Monet struggling with the weather on the beaches of Normandy, or Van Gogh with the Mistral in Provence, Trotter sometimes has to weight her easel with bags of stones to stop high winds carrying her canvas away.
As with Van Gogh, the spontaneity of Trotter’s work belies the thought and the thorough grounding in technique that lie behind it. She may paint quickly but there is no doubt that an innate sense of organisation and structure contribute to the force of her paintings. Her pigments, she explains, are always arranged in the same sequence on her palette and this helps her organise colour relationships on the canvas. And, like Cézanne, she builds up her composition across the canvas as a whole, constantly aware of how each part relates to the whole.
A love of landscape was instilled in Trotter from the very beginning of her career. As a teenager, she took private lessons with the painter Maurice Field, a teacher at the Slade and who encouraged his students to paint in the open air and to record their observation with direct sincerity. He took her sketching in the footsteps of Constable on Hampstead Heath and introduced her to the artist’s oil sketches in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Drawing classes with the distinguished post-war artist Euan Uglow at St. Alban’s School of Art gave her a thorough grounding in draughtsmanship and pictorial structure.
At Chelsea School of Art Trotter deepened her understanding of drawing by attending life classes for two hours every evening, a discipline that would have a lasting impact on her technique and her approach. Today, she often sees the swells and hollows of the landscape in terms of the human figure. But, most importantly, at Chelsea she also discovered colour. New paint ranges in tubes offered exhilarating possibilities – ‘at least five different greens’. ‘Colour came bursting out of me’, she recalls, and before long a brilliant rush of colour banished the muted palette of her earlier work.
Not surprisingly, it was in the early twentieth-century colourists, Matisse, Derain and the Fauves that Trotter found her artistic mentors. And it is perhaps in her still-lifes that Trotter is closest to the Fauves.
She also learned from artists who emphasised the underlying structure of a composition, Georges Braque or Juan Gris, and especially Cézanne whose drawings she studied at the British Museum and who is still the artist whom perhaps she admires the most. Certainly, an innate structure in her own compositions grounds and balances the vivid colour and the emotional immediacy.
But it is above all in landscape that Trotter has immersed herself in her recent work. She returns again and again to the benign, rolling countryside that surrounds her Oxfordshire home. While this particular landscape is fundamental to her current work, she has also explored more dramatic landscapes in Yorkshire, Wales, Yorkshire and Cumbria. During an expedition to Cumbria in the summer of 2015, she was captivated by the Blue Howgills hills, the rise and fall, the sweep and bend, the fluid shapes of the hills rushing up to the sky – Gerard Manley Hopkins’s line ‘Landscape plotted and pieced — fold, fallow, and plough’
Trotter’s latest work shows her at the height of her powers. She is an artist rooted in the tradition of modern Post-Impressionist painting but her deeply felt, poetic response to her native landscape brings a strong and totally individual vision to her subjects. She is a superlative painter in the truest sense of the word. ‘I absolutely love putting paint on’, she declares, ‘I love paint, the smell of paint and its texture.’ In the end, her art is about the stuff of painting, and it is in the visceral essence of the material itself that she has always found herself and the reason why her paintings speak so vividly to us.