YORKSHIRE POST: Shelf portraits
Artist Roo Waterhouse has invented the “Shelf Portrait”. Sharon Dale reports on how capturing the significance and the joy of treasured books has changed Roo’s life. Inventing a new artistic genre is quite a feat, especially when it’s one that has mass appeal and a snappy title. Yet tucked away on the top floor of Northlight Studios in Hebden Bridge, Roo Waterhouse is largely oblivious to the achievement. “I’ve never really thought of them like that,” she says of her splendid Shelf Portraits that are sending book lovers into a frenzy.
The oil paintings capture people’s most treasured books, usually lined up on a shelf with the spines on display. Roo describes them as a “colourful glimpse into individual lives: little personal poems celebrating the significance of our treasured books and exploring how the books we accumulate build up a portrait of ourselves.” They began five years ago when she painted a row of old Penguin paperbacks she found in a Lake District holiday cottage. “It struck me then that reading is a very intimate thing and that you can tell a lot about a person from their bookshelf,” she says.
She then painted her own “Shelf Portrait”, which sparked a huge amount of interest. It includes nature books she remembers from her childhood home, along with others she has read more recently. “Viewers really connected to it and it started them off on a long journey talking about their own favourite books. “It was such a joy and that encouraged me to do more of them.”
She now has a series of themed prints from paintings featuring everything from a collection of books by Ted Hughes, to favourite children’s books and her mum’s vintage cookery books. She also does bespoke commissions of people’s favourite books. “If they don’t live nearby they send a photograph for me to work from or they just tell me what their favourite books are and I have to find them,” she says.
Her latest commission is for a mum who wants her daughter’s favourite books from childhood painted as a present for her 18th birthday. She is also working on a request for a shelf of books by authors who had Alzheimer’s disease. It includes works by Agatha Christie, Enid Blyton, Joyce Chen and Terry Pratchett. One of the greatest joys of painting other people’s book collections is that Roo has discovered a love of reading.
Her How to Build a Girl print, which takes its title from the semi-autobiography by Caitlin Moran, tells the story and also features Jane Eyre, Cold Comfort Farm, Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. She says: “That’s really about me and my late journey into reading brought about by my Shelf Portrait commissions. I started reading some of the books I painted. “I’d just read the Caitlin Moran and it made me realise that the books were helping me to grow. I just wish I had discovered them earlier. I think they’d have given me more idea on how to approach life.” Her new-found interest made her realise that she isn’t keen on Franz Kafka and that To Kill a Mockingbird, which was a turn-off at school is, in fact, a masterpiece.
She had little interest in literature when she was young and read very little. “I liked the poetry books best at primary school but that’s because they had illustrations and I remember the Carbonel books by Barbara Slight but I wasn’t a reader and I failed English O-level. “Everyone in the classroom reading a sentence at a time didn’t inspire me,” says Roo, an architect’s daughter from London, who won a place at the Chelsea School of Art in 1984 before studying typographic design at the London College of Printing.
She landed in Hebden Bridge after visiting the town in the early 1980s after falling for its alternative culture. By that point she had lost touch with art but embraced it again after her children started school. She enrolled on an art access course at Todmorden Community College, followed by a degree, where she discovered her love of painting in oils.
Her work was immediately picked out as original and noteworthy thanks to her love of her large-scale paintings of familiar everyday objects. “It’s our relationship with them that really interests me. I get very emotional about things and the stories attached to them. Like Alan Bennett, I have a favourite mug, a favourite plate and a favourite fork,” she says, adding: “The stronger my attachment to what I’m painting, the more people comment on it.”
Exhibitions titled Moments of Awareness and The Comfort of Things zoomed in on household items and made them larger than life. They included a 4ft square canvas of a chipped teapot that belonged to a favourite aunt and a super-size oil of an old hand whisk that belonged to her mum. In her studio, there’s a depiction of the coats cupboard at her parents’ house filled with “my dad’s army jacket, my grandfather’s raincoat, coats for gardening and for wearing at bonfires and on wet walks and a scarf my sister knitted. They all have their own little story.”
One painting shows breakfast at her mum’s house. Part-way through her bananas on toast, she dashed for a camera to capture the scene and paint it. “I call it ‘life in progress’ rather than ‘still life’,” she says. “It just captures a moment and the things on the table, like the plates, brings back memories.”
Shelf Portraits take up much of her time now and she says: “I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of doing them because every single one is different and I get to talk to people about their favourite books and why they love them. I’ve just done a Shelf Portrait for someone, which included the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. I’ve just read it. It was brilliant.”
Roo Waterhouse’s art prints can be found at Spirals in Hebden Bridge, Dean Clough Gallery shop in Halifax and in on her Etsy.com shop. To commission a Shelf Portrait visitwww.ordinaryrooart.wordpress.com