Interview with Hastings artist Laetitia Yhap


There's still time – just – to visit Pallant House Gallery's stunning Laetitia Yhap exhibition, Fishermen of Hastings Stade

Hastings resident for 46  years, Laetitia Yhap has seen the seaside town go through many waves of regeneration. Now it has a reputation as a centre for the visual arts. In 1967, such was not the case. When she moved to the town with her former partner Jeffery Camp, “I barely knew about the Battle of Hastings, barely knew where it was, that it had a fishing fleet or any of its history.”The artist’s latest exhibition, at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester, closes on 7 April. Entitled Fishermen of Hastings Stade, the exhibition has a strong narrative arc, progressing from initial sketches to fully realised paintings and following the artist’s personal absorbtion into the industry of the Stade.Laetitia never used photography in her work, so the drawings and paintings you see in the exhibition are the result of untold hours of exposure to wind, rain and (less frequently) sun. “I have a huge body of work from the Seventies, because it was a period when I did nothing but draw for about 18 months. It was what I would call a research period for all the paintings that followed. I didn’t do any painting during that time, it was just drawing every day, out of doors and on the spot.” Art had been a serious and important activity from early in childhood. “I didn’t grow up surrounded by art or the idea of art, it really came from instinct. It became as important an activity as reading to me because it meant I could just escape into this magical other world, when my own world was actually rather unpleasant.”Laetitia went to Camberwell School of Art in 1958. Four years of study were followed by a scholarship to travel for a year in Italy. “The journey was my own Grand Tour through Renaissance art. I had the advantage of not being in a tourist group, so I saw the great works on my own most of the time, not in crowded galleries. That was a tremendous privilege.”Laetitia’s postgraduate studies were at The Slade and her first exhibition followed when she was 26.  “That was in the Piccadilly Gallery in Cork Street, at the heart of galleryland. The owner sold small works in the basement but in the ground floor window he showed contemporary artists. Anyone who was doing the West End art trek would see the work. I had three shows there in my twenties and thirties so London was where it all started.”She moved to Hastings in 1967, “so I tend to say I have done my time!” By then, the sea was important to Laetitia, having “discovered” it whilst living with Camp in East Anglia, but it was 10 years before Hastings itself began to seep into her work.“I have never wanted to repeat myself, and I felt like I needed a great change. I could articulate that, intellectualise it, but to actually get it to happen was quite difficult. I knew I needed to introduce the human element back into my work.“Luckily I had my moment of illumination in the early Seventies. I suddenly saw how I could create a world that was mine personally.” All Laetitia’s working methods had to change; she had not painted the human form since studying life drawing at Camberwell; all her work had been done indoors before; and she had to do what she feared most – working exposed and isolated on the spot in The Stade.“At first I tried to be as inconspicuous as I could be. That was quite difficult because the stretch of beach isn’t very large! I didn’t want the distraction of people being aware of what I did.”The drawing started straight away, with the necessity of speedy workmanship. Laetitia was on duty every day, trying to snatch her impressions before the action moved on. “I got to be aware of how long it takes to get a boat up the beach or down the beach, or get the nets in and out, all by drawing it.” Frequently one drawing would be abandoned because something more thrilling was happening a little further down the beach, and many of the drawings remained unfinished. “I devised ways of having several things on the go at once,” says Laetitia.  “I wasn’t thinking about the drawings as something to be exhibited.”Various rivalries and political implications were simmering underneath the surface in the fishing community, “There was definitely a sense of ‘what do you want to go and draw them for!’” laughs Laetitia. It all got even more complicated when Laetitia met her second partner, an ‘incomer’ fisherman, “And I ended up being part of the community on one level when I had a child.”After 18 months of sketching, she was faced with the huge technical and conceptual challenges of evolving paintings from her drawings. She also made the structures and boards onto whose intensively prepared gesso surfaces she painted. “I had to become very practical!” says Laetitia, who was also facing a change of medium from watercolours through drawing to oil painting. Those drawings that did not lead directly to paintings were still important, because they each held a piece of information, of knowledge gained.Now, of course, Hastings is something of a centre for the arts, and has received considerable national attention as such since the opening of the Jerwood Gallery. “The first wave that came along was some time in the early Eighties, when people were coming out of art school and needing somewhere cheap to live. We had the first community gallery then, in St Mary in the Castle, and it was a very good time. There was a feeling of renewal.The controversy surrounding the Jerwood Gallery is troubling to Laetitia. “I’m in a difficult position. The first thing is the location. That space was always where the fishermen would put out their trawl nets because they are very long and they have to be laid out to mend. The Jerwood is a beautiful gallery inside and out, but I rather wish it wasn’t right on top of territory that I regard as belonging to the fishermen.  I can see it both ways. I can see why any architect would want to put it where it is, but at the same time all my sympathies are with the fishing community and a great many of them still feel hugely affronted.”  

Entry to the exhibition is free.Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 774 557