There’s a playfulness to Moira Frith’s artworks that makes me smile. The British artist paints small, closely cropped watercolours of people, animals, birds and plants. Some are recognisable – a pigeon, a green parakeet – while others are fantastical hybrids, among them a bear-dog creature and a cat-squirrel beast.
“I had an unconventional route into art,” Moira tells me. “I loved painting and drawing as a child, in the way that lots of children do – it’s uncomplicated at that stage, you can just mess about with stuff, it doesn’t have to be good.” After studying art at school, she set it aside to pursue a career in natural sciences; a Bachelor’s in zoology was followed by a Master’s in ecology and a PhD in molecular ecology. It wasn’t until 2015, while on maternity leave, more than a decade after leaving school, that she picked up her brushes again.
“It’s that shift in tempo when you go from working full-time to being on leave for a year,” she says. “Yes, you don’t have much free time because there’s a baby to look after, but you do have these stretches during the day when you’re at home and you can do quiet things.” For Moira, those stretches involved drawing and painting. Early on she dabbled in printmaking, too, but soon settled on watercolours, a medium she likes for its immediacy and fluidity. When she went back to work, she kept at it.
Moira is sitting at her dining room in Newcastle, which is also her studio. When she tells me she paints at the table, and I ask if she has to sweep everything off it at mealtimes, she says it’s less a sweep than a pile-up. “My daughter, Agnes, is eight, so she makes a mess as well,” she adds, with a laugh. On the wall is a splodgy colour chart Agnes painted when she was four: “She was just dipping the brush in and really going for it; I like the dirtiness combined with all the bright colours.”
Scattered across the top of two chests of drawers are a collection of shells, a mainstay in Moira’s work. Her practice often begins with observation, though the end result – flat and free-flowing – is neither realistic nor abstract. In one painting, a green crab with a dotty crimson fringe and black legs wraps its claws around one such shell. In another, a red-and-cream striped shell and what could be coral become the blooming skirt and ruched collar of two dancers. “I think it’s important for me to go out and observe and draw from real life, but I’m not doing that with the intention of translating whatever I’ve sketched into an abstracted version,” she says. ‘It’s more about collecting and gathering visual elements that can be stored in my head for the future.”
It was Moria’s dancers that prompted the commission from TOAST. With this season’s theme of Everyday Theatre, Moira looked to the circus. Sharing a wall with Agnes’s wobbly chart is a mood board of ballooning tents, banded quilts and colourful swatches of fabric. Quick sketches of dancers twisting and twirling by Auguste Rodin. Circus performers by Marc Chagall.
From these, Moira created a series of portraits of tightrope walkers, hula hoopers, jugglers. A single performer per sheet, body bending and stretching to reach the paper’s corners and edges, throwing shapes. My favourite shows someone standing on their head, legs akimbo. Of course, the clothes are also the stars: puff-sleeved shirts; striped jumpsuits; a swinging skirt in a rosy harlequin print.
Painted in watercolour, Moira’s figures are loose and washy, though with an attention to detail: golden buttons on a jacket; unfurling ribbons; pompoms on the toes of boots. “Initially, when I was using watercolour, I took the traditional approach of adding one layer and letting it dry before painting another thin layer on top,” she says. “It was very slow and very controlled, which isn’t how I like to work at all.” Now, she paints wet on wet, enjoying the way the colours bleed into one another. When she’s done for the day, she leaves her paints to dry on her palette rather than wiping them away because she likes to use the resulting murky, muddy shades as her next base.
Like the natural world that inspires her, Moira’s watercolours are intuitive and free. She continues to work in wildlife conservation, picking up her brushes in the pockets of time in and around her day job at the RSPB. The medium is also unpredictable. “When you’re working in that very wet, loose way, you can never create the same painting twice,” she says. And therein lies the beauty of her work, which slips and slides, refusing to be pinned down.
Interview by Chloë Ashby.
Photographs by India Hobson.
Moira wears our Grid Check Organic Ikat Dress.
To celebrate the launch of the collection, we have commissioned Moira Frith to create a series of artworks for our shop windows and exclusive prints. Visit our shops to see the series depicting tightrope walkers, hula hoopers and acrobats painted in vivid watercolour hues.