Shadow (with leaf), oil on canvas, 120x240cm, diptych

by Simon Tait - Editor of Arts Industry Magazine, a critic for the London Magazine and former president of the Critics’ Circle.

The art of Elizabeth Hannaford

There is a popular myth about artists, that they are insular, inclined to work inside their own psyches and to be single-minded about what they expect from a finished canvas. It may be true for some, but Elizabeth Hannaford is a perfect example of an artist that puts the lie to the myth.

Her work, abstract and figurative, is a direct response to outside influences. It might well be a scene or a landscape, but just as easily a piece of music or poetry, a snippet of news, a memory, an event like climate change, a personality such as the ethnographer Mary Kingsley, or her own story. The abstracts are lyrical, blended oil paint poured on to canvas, but they are not random: there is a control that gives a form and a statement to each piece, and she says that she knows when a work is finished when it takes on a life of its own “and speaks to me”. That life begins on the floor, there is no easel in her studio, which obviates gravity as a consideration in the movement of paint.

Although images can sweep across different canvases, her use of colour seems precise, and often she paints in diptychs, tryptychs, even series of panels which should be read like a line of prose or a melody, with a beginning and an end; some will be textured by the addition of sand or grit to the painting process. And they are invariably the result of experiment, perhaps the artist’s most precious tool.

Her paintings are stamped by a confidence in her own sensory reaction which might come from sheer force of personality, but informed by years of training and practice; personality is an immediate quality in her work, 

In concerts she has drawn performers – including Rostropovich, Marin Alsop, Jeffrey Tate, more recently Thomas Adès – but for the last two decades has also collaborated with musicians, in particular the organist and composer Christopher Bowers-Broadbent and the jazz and classical musician David Gordon, when she will paint or draw as the musicians play.  Embracing new technology, she has responded on her iPhone to Gordon’s work with his jazz trio at St Martin-in-the-Fields, creating a series of “Jazz iArt Boxes”.

And poetry is often part of the praxis, sometimes by favourites such as T S Eliot, sometimes her own. Her poignant eight-part serial work, Sometimes like now I feel that hurt that was shown in a pre-Tate Modern Bankside exhibition in 1999, takes its title from her poem about her father.

But a recent haunting diptych, Shadow (with leaf), which speaks of her fear of climate change and in part of which her own hazy shape hovers, was finished before she was inspired to write:


A studio floor, dark, grey
Messy with paint 
A landscape emerges, dark
As does my shadow (busy, working)

The shadow looms. Asking questions
What are we doing to our world?

A studio window, studio view
Ash trees whispering
Ash trees, dying?
Branches brushing against the panes

A leaf flutters, Asking questions
What are we doing to our world?

“Shadow (with leaf)”     oil on canvas, with harpsichord accompaniment by David Gordon.

“Shadow (with leaf)” oil on canvas, with harpsichord accompaniment by David Gordon.