Artist, Penel Kirk shares an insight into the inspiration and influences encapsulated within her landscape paintings of Stowe.
Where did you learn your craft?
I studied Fashion and Textiles at St Martins School of Art in the 1980s, a very cool place to study with a great reputation. As well as designing clothes, I produced printed textiles which involved a lot of painting and drawing, I loved that aspect of the course. Having a career in fashion, I was based in London but it enabled me to travel and work in New York, Hong Kong, India and eventually I set up a textile design studio in Melbourne, Australia. We produced designs for Ripcurl and the swim/surf market amongst others.
As a textile designer, I painted every day developing different styles and techniques and using different mediums which has definitely influenced my fine art work.
Your parents were teachers at Stowe: did the landscape inspire you to take up a creative career?
I was born in Buckingham and my Father, Michael Kirk (Former Staff 1963-1978) was a teacher and then Housemaster of Walpole – he was also Richard Branson’s careers master! My Mother worked as matron of Walpole and for a time as an art teacher. She would draw us in charcoal and I think that must be from where I got my inspiration. My sister and I won numerous art competitions when we were younger and I remember winning a huge talking doll, a Parker pen and a set of lovely Tonka Toy trucks.
My best friend Rebecca Morris lived opposite me as her father, Stuart, was Housemaster of Chandos and we spent our free time exploring the grounds on our bikes, having picnics sitting on the North or South Front lions or out in the woods. We also spied on the boys in the grounds and around the main house where there were so many places to hide. It was an amazing playground but I don’t think we really appreciated how lucky we were at the time as we had a huge amount of freedom to explore the extensive gardens and monuments.
Can you tell me a little about what inspires your paintings?
When we lived at Stowe, many of the monuments and buildings were in need of repair and were overgrown. The National Trust took over the grounds in 1989 and have done an amazing job of restoration. My childhood memories are of a wilder Stowe with a magical air of decay and a fairy tale like quality which I have portrayed in my paintings with the techniques I have used.
The grandness of the buildings and my memories of playing there as a child are what inspire my work. I have been back many times over the years and every time I find something new that sets off an idea for a painting.
Is there a particular view at Stowe that you love best?
There are so many vistas that have been opened up by the National Trust.
The Grecian Valley was the venue for many a picnic with the dogs with its view of the Temple of Concord and Victory. The view from the Temple of Ancient Virtue to the Temple of British Worthies and vice versa over the river are great subjects for paintings. The view from the South Front down to the Octagon Lake and beyond is a strong memory. We would cycle down the side of the golf course around the lake past the Cascade, the East and West lake Pavilions, down Bell Gate Drive and onto Mary and Theodore O’Connor’s riding stables where you could get a 50p pony ride around the grounds.
Another view I have chosen to paint is looking across from The Temple of Friendship to the Palladian Bridge with the Gothic temple in the distance.
As a child the Gothic Temple was completely empty and very spooky and the Palladian Bridge we were told was haunted by the Grey lady who could also, allegedly, be seen sitting on the South Front.
The entrance to Stowe over the Oxford Water is another iconic vista for any visitor or resident. This leads you up to the Boycott Pavilions (nicknamed The Pepperpots) from where we used to get the school bus down to Chackmore Primary School.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working on a view of the South Front from the opposite side of the Octagon Lake with a reflection of the School in the Lake. As well as the paintings, I am also working on a series of drawings which depict some of the other monuments and garden buildings, these are in the same style as the paintings but in graphite.
I’ve also done a series of drawings based on the novel Mistress Mashams Repose by T.H. White who was a teacher at Stowe in the 1930s. The story is about a ten year old orphan, Maria, who lives in a vast crumbling mansion very reminiscent of Stowe. Maria finds a community of Lilliputians from Gulliver’s Travels on an island in the middle of a lake much like the Octagon Lake at Stowe, which I have depicted as a solitary Lilliputian child in amongst the undergrowth.
I have shown two of these at the Mall Galleries as part of the Women Society of Artists Annual Exhibition.
I would very much like to show these Stowe paintings and drawings to a wider audience of both Old and new Stoics as well as anyone who has a love of the iconic grounds and monuments of Stowe School.