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A world apart

PUBLISHED: 09:00 25 May 2014

'Damascus Gate, Ethiopian Easter Day' Oil on Canvas by Sophie Walbeoffe

'Damascus Gate, Ethiopian Easter Day' Oil on Canvas by Sophie Walbeoffe


Devon-born artist Sophie Walbeoffe has travelled the world recording life as she sees it - and now she has returned home with a new exhibition of work recording her travels

'Pigeon Wars from my Jerusalum Studio'  by Sophie Walbeoffe'Pigeon Wars from my Jerusalum Studio' by Sophie Walbeoffe

Sophie Walbeoffe has a theory that people live in bubbles, not matter where they are. And she’s done the research. After almost a quarter of a century in Kenya – with husband Piers Simpkin and lived with him and his camels for 24 years (he is a scientist and specialist in camels and arid lands). Her time there inspired many works - including an exhibition entitled Camels in My Garden.

Her next stop was Jerusalem, Israel – her studio sat by some of the most religious sites in the world – and is the subject of her current exhibition ‘Golden Jerusalem, our Splintered World’ at the Osborne Studio Gallery, London.

Artist Sophie Walbeoffe in her Devon studioArtist Sophie Walbeoffe in her Devon studio

“It was the most interesting two years I have ever had,” Sophie says of her time in Jerusalem. “We were with the Red Cross so I had to be very neutral. I used to draw the people a lot: women, children, old men – all trying to live a life in one of the most dangerous of places – it’s like they have transparent borders, because nobody looks at each other, everybody ignores everybody. And I became transparent too: it’s like there are two countries in one country.”

This layering of two countries, and the layers of conflict which have come to define Israel and Palestine, influenced her painting, not only its subject but her style too, leading her to create works that were themselves materially layered. Her studio sat close to Temple Mount and the holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity: al Aqsa Mosque, the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

“My response to Jerusalem and its many splintered facets has liberated me to paint much more freely and brightly,” she says of her new style. “It has put many reliable methods I had learned aside, introduced new ones and led to the colour being separated from the subject matter allowing the colours to radiate an energy of their own.

“I painted everything I saw – I stood on the roof of my studio and painted the three most holy sites in the world.

“The work of an artist needs three elements, the real, the symbolic and the imaginary – when these work together it works in a fourth dimension: as a work of art.”

Schooled in a convent in Torquay, she says the sites in the Old City were incredibly familiar to her. “I always thought Jerusalem was a wonderful place to visit. I made a series of etchings of the Via Dolorosa and the Stations of the Cross. I just found it really amazing.”

Now returned to her family home of Colston House, Buckfastleigh, she admits to being delighted to being home again after so many years away.“I am so happy to be back. Talking about the world recently, someone said to me, ‘we are in such a bubble in Devon,’ but so are the people in Jerusalem, and in Kenya it was a Colonial bubble. “Devon is so incredibly beautiful – it’s just in my veins – it’s the best bubble.”

The dramatic change of landscape, physically and politically, has again begun to show in her work. She admits to spending time working in print, and is being seduced by the spring flowers in the hedgerows of Devon. “It’s just a great place to be,” she says of her home. “The River Dart is flowing in front of the house and is full of life. It’s the most beautiful place in the whole world.”

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