An Interview with Joan Somerville: 'There & Back Again'

As she prepares to launch her new one-woman show at ScotlandArt.com after an eight-year hiatus, Glasgow painter Joan Somerville, 54, talks to Sam Reilly about her recent clubbing exploits, why her paintings are like ‘pub grub’, and why she is taking more pleasure from them than ever before.

Pouting divas in their gaudy fineries; sly, dark-suited men leering from stage-left; the outsized frames of a couple mid-catfight – all the vibrant everyday comedies we’d expect to see acted out in a Joan Somerville painting are here. But as she unveils her latest collection of work, Joan informs me that ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ depicts a scene with which the artist is far from familiar.

‘In my entire life, and I’ll be 54 tomorrow, I can count the number of times I’ve been clubbing on one hand. It was fantastic - all these colourful characters, the bouncers, everyone all glammed up. It’s exactly what I’ve always liked doing, trying to paint real-life situations which people can identify with.’.

Beyond demonstrating a new lease of life for this much-loved artist, the queue of a nightclub certainly seems an especially fitting subject for someone who professes always to have been inspired by art in its more convivial functions. Though Joan was exposed to art from a very early age – her father was an artist for the BBC, and began teaching her the tricks of the trade aged just two – she turned down an offer for the Glasgow School of Art in order to begin a career in local government. It was only when she was thirty years old that a visit to La Stampa restaurant, in Dublin, revived Joan’s desire to paint professionally.

‘The walls were decked out with these huge canvasses, stretching from floor to ceiling, by an artist called Graham Knuttel. It was the most incredible restaurant I’d ever been in. They were vast, figurative works – not quite caricature, not quite portrait, but very bold, very colourful. When I got back home, I started sketching figures, and that was when I thought “You know, I could really do this”.’

It’s a far cry from the traditional, austere image of the art gallery – and continuing the culinary analogy, Joan describes her work to me as ‘more like good pub grub than fine dining’. A typically modest appraisal, especially considering that by the end of her whirlwind first year on the art scene in 1996 – which began with her nervously approaching local galleries in Clachan of Clampsie, portfolio clutched under her arm – Joan’s reimagining of William Wallace and his brash, brawny train in her inimitable style had become part of the permanent collection of The Smith Art Gallery in Stirling, who named her as one of five winners in the first professional competition she had ever entered. By 2001, Joan was conducting sell-out solo shows in exclusive New York galleries – the intensely human charm of her work ensured not only this prestigious representation, but that her paintings were selling from London to Singapore.

Joan laughs when I remind her of a painting dated from around that period – a vigorously satirical piece entitled ‘Arty Farty Nonsense’ – which typically draws our attention away from the hopelessly samey collection of orange abstract paintings in the background to the comically haughty expressions of their observers, noses upturned – the holier-than-thou profile of one lady in particular undermined by the prominence Joan gives to the vast rump contained within her luridly pink dress.

‘I do think that piece is indicative of my work as a whole. I do like a quick glance at a gallery, but often it is just a glance – though will always very much admire the work of Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook. Still, it’s always expressions that have tickled people. And one of the nicest things, especially these days, is that often I’m a little surprised by how they’ve turned out – how this or that comic glance has come off.’

No surprise that Joan seems far more enthused about her re-immersion in the painting process from the context of her comfortably bustling life in Glasgow – after a long and difficult time out occasioned by a litany of personal bereavements and injuries – than any return to the heady heights of years gone by. While standing in the late-night club queue, she observes with excitement the germ of her new painting; when she lands upon the title in her studio, the composition takes shape, and she can bring the colourful characters she sees to life.

‘Now I feel the pressure is gone, I’m coming back with a totally different attitude. I’m painting for total enjoyment – I can take as much time over each work as I need, rather than painting to order – and I think I’ll be moving from strength to strength.’

Joan Somerville’s comeback show, ‘There and Back Again’, will open at scotlandart.com galleries, 193 Bath Street, G2 4HU, on June 6th. The artist will be present, and happy to answer any questions about her work, from 4pm.

To learn more about the event, please click here or to register to attend the launch event please email us at enquiries@scotlandart.com or call 0141 221 4502.

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