Penny and Lally MacBeth: Interview

‘Horror Vacui’: Saturday, 18th April – Friday, 1st May

Mother-daughter team Penny and Lally MacBeth had an unforgettable, burst-of-colour exhibition at the Glorious Gallery earlier this year, titled ‘Gilding the Lily’. Now, the pair have returned, this time joined by Lally’s brother, George MacBeth.

So, the question we’ve all been wondering since catching a glimpse of the MacBeth world – what’s it like to grow up surrounded by art?

“When I was little,” Lally started, “my mum always encouraged George and I to paint, draw and make things, so I suppose I have always loved it. When I was a teenager I got very under-confident about making things, through a combination of bad teaching and peer pressure, so I completely ran away from it for a number of years. It was only when I was studying Fashion History at Central Saint Martin’s that I realised I really wanted to paint and start taking pictures again. Now I really can’t imagine how I stopped doing it for all those years!”

Penny raised her children in a creative atmosphere – but what about her own childhood? “I grew up in a family of collectors – dolls, porcelain, books, plants – so I was always around the world of decorative objects,” she revealed. “I’ve always been drawn to saturated colour – living through Celtic winters has only exaggerated my need for colour, so I surround myself in a Mediterranean bubble! My mother’s family were Italian – it is where the ‘Ronchetti’ in my daughter Lally’s name comes from – so maybe part of me is trying to get back to Lake Como where we came from originally. Occasionally I have been able to travel to the places that my work seems to echo, but mostly I content myself with artefacts and photos from other, warmer and more brightly-coloured cultures as source material.”

Penny is the kind of artist who fully submerges into a theme. “I line up art and source materials in the studio for some months before beginning work, usually dovetailing this with the end of the last exhibition, so that I never have a gap between serial obsessions! By the time I start work, I’ve absorbed a lot of subliminal influences from my surrounding ‘installation’, and often know instinctively what I want to create.”

Also talking about her creative process, Lally said, “I’m fairly fluid when it comes to creating things. All my work tends to start with photography that I then either collage or paint on. I tend, in the initial stages, to have a theme or concept and then let it grow as I work. The end of the piece is often the moment that it all clicks into place and I think ‘so that’s what it was all about’. I suppose I work backwards from the way most people are taught in art school!”

Their last exhibition, ‘Gilding the Lily’, was inspired by Penny’s poem. “It’s based on the story of Trelissick Gardens near Truro, where I live,” Penny explained. “The property is now owned by The National Trust but was previously in the hands of a succession of different owners , with the final owner being part of the Copeland family – manufacturers of fine decorative porcelain. The particular narrative I have chosen tells how, with failing eyesight, Ronald Copeland went out into the garden with his companion Lily to select some of the most perfect Rhododendron specimens from the gardens, to be sent to the painters at the Copeland Factory in Staffordshire, to copy onto a dinner service for the house.

My interest in the story was that in the recent sale of the contents of the house, this service was one of the few objects that the Trust was able to purchase back. I see it as a symbol of all that is fragile in ownership – made of china ,with decorations which represent delicate and perishable blossom. In many ways, it is a final residue of a system of aristocratic ownership that is unsustainable. Transposed into art , the house and the gardens in my mind represent the difference between the art object (‘the house’) which is fragile, perishable, and to some extent elitist – and the inexhaustible creativity ( ‘the garden’), which underlies art production and could be seen as part of the same drive that pushes up the plants.”

I asked Lally about the build-up to the ‘Horror Vacui’ exhibition. “I recently, along with my mum, aunt and cousin, saved a huge of body of family photographs from my granddad’s very dank and damp shed,” she said. “Sifting through them I found that my great-auntie, Bar, had saved documents, photographs and correspondence from several generations of my family. Amongst the hoard are some truly beautiful photographs, and it set my mind whirring.

Horror Vacui,” Lally continued, “is defined as the fear of empty space. All three of us are creating work which responds to our own fear of the void, and how we act to populate it. I think my biggest fear is the loss of people, so I tend to attach great significance to objects, therefore the archive of photographs provided an amazing resource for re-creating the stories of all my relatives that are no longer here. My void will be populated with these long lost relatives alongside photographs of myself in a piece entitled ‘Postcards to My Lost Relatives’. I also have a larger piece in the works called ‘Everything I have Ever Lost’; it’s a large scale tapestry based on folk tapestries from South America detailing all the people, objects, homes and animals that I’ve lost! This piece is a big undertaking so won’t be finished by the exhibition sadly, but there will be a preparatory painting and drawings.”

When I askPenny MacBeth: Horror Vacuied Penny if she had a favourite of her own pieces from the exhibition, she said, “The one I am about to make is always my favourite! I’m quite pleased with the painting I made yesterday [pictured left], but ‘quite pleased’ is the best it gets for me with things that have been made. A degree of dissatisfaction is necessary with all previous work, otherwise I would have to stop making things!”

Penny and Lally’s ‘Gilding the Lily’ was exceptional in its vibrant use of colour and texture, and of course, the undeniable uniqueness of their familial bond. “I’m very lucky to have such a supportive backdrop to my career and a family which completely understand my need to make things,” Lally said. “It is such a rarity to be encouraged and backed so fully in ones creative endeavours, so I’m extremely grateful to my mum and brother for that!”

And Penny’s thoughts? “My children grew up around constant art activities, so it’s inevitable that some aspects of my own making process are carried over. What fascinates me more than the similarities, though, are the differences. It was obvious from an early age that they both had their own preoccupations, both in subject and process. We all benefit from the mutual support of the ‘family firm’, and are one another’s fiercest supporters and also – hopefully – honest critics. It’s such a privilege and a pleasure to be able to share something as a family which for many artists can be quite a solitary even an isolating experience.”

You can follow Penny’s work here, and Lally’s work here.

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