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Debbie Flack - Recreating Lost Landscapes

PUBLISHED: 16:59 20 February 2008 | UPDATED: 15:02 20 February 2013

Marldon from Yelland Meadow, c1890

Marldon from Yelland Meadow, c1890

After years as a textile designer, Debbie Flack has set out on a new artistic venture to paint scenes reconstructed from historical research

It's said that you never forget your first love and, in terms of art, For Debbie Flack, who has lived in the South Hams for more than 20 years, that love is painting. After a lifetime successfully designing and painting textiles, she has now returned to painting.

"In 1973 I did an art foundation course at Torquay Technical College before gaining a place to study fine art at Newport College of Art in 1975. But when I got there, the course was over-subscribed and I was transferred to a sculpture class, which I hated!

"I lasted only two months before getting myself transferred to Dartington College of Arts instead, and learned to work with textiles. I liked that a whole lot better. However, to please my father, I then went on to Rolle College to take a teaching certificate but, although I did my obligatory teaching practice, I never went into teaching. I hated being a pupil when I was a child and had no desire to be part of an institution ever again."

Over the years, Debbie has earned a good name and reputation for herself for her hand-dyed silk work.

A flair for colour and design

"It's an ill wind that blows nobody any good," laughs Debbie. "I found I had a flair for colour and design and for 30 years I made and sold scarves, ties, brooches, earrings and lots of other things using my hand-dyed silks. I have also designed and printed fabrics for the fashion trade for companies like Liberty. I've even designed and made clothes, both for me to wear and to sell. It earned me a living and I made lots of friends. From time to time I toyed with the idea of going back to painting, but it was only that - a vague idea that I might one day. And I might have carried on like that but for a chance remark in 2006 from local farmer Dave Berlyn."

Debbie rides regularly. She keeps two horses - one of them a rescue horse. She also has a much-loved cat. "Yes, and they keep me very busy, so I didn't know how I was going to fit painting in as well when Dave showed me an old newspaper photograph of his farm taken in 1948, and said he wondered what it would have looked like in colour. Well, haven't we all wondered that at some stage when looking at old black and white photos?"

The photo Debbie shows me is more grey and white than black and white, quite grainy, and rather faint. "Ah, but I instantly saw the potential!" Debbie says. "There were good written records of the farm, and besides, the colours of trees and fields and flowers don't change, so I said I would have a go at recreating Dave's old photo in watercolour. No promises as to how it would turn out - it had been a long time since I'd handled a paintbrush after all. I was very surprised, and obviously delighted, to find that after such a long absence from canvas and paint, I could still do it.

Artistic ability combines with love of research

"My husband, Robin, is a keen and knowledgeable local and family historian and after my painting for Dave was so well received, we came up with the idea of recreating lost landscapes. The aim is to reconstruct landscapes which have been lost forever using my artistic flair and Robin's love of research. Every picture produced is based, as far as is possible, on visual information that is available from the past and present - old and new photos, prints and old maps.

"Up to 150 hours' work is invested in the research, the draft sketches and painting of each original. I am open to suggestion for subjects for future paintings, but mounted prints of all my work are available and I don't limit these because I want people to have and want them for the imagery as much as the artistry."

Debbie's work has more of an oil-painting look to it, with deep, rich colours. And there will always be a few wildflowers in the foreground of her landscapes somewhere.

"And sometimes my seascapes," she says quickly. "In my first painting of Hallsands, the village tragically lost to the waves, I painted it from the sea. But when I went back the following spring, the cliff was vibrant with bluebells so I walked along the cliff path until I could incorporate that into a new and different painting."

Attention to detail

You get the impression that Debbie is meticulous in her research and her attention to detail. "Oh, yes," she says. "I make a big fuss about getting the colours, the shades, right. Although I love the atmospherics of dawn and dusk, I prefer to paint the bright light of the middle of the day because it is better for detail. I want a natural colour, as you would get in a good-quality colour photo. But," she laughs, "I'm the same with everything - furnishings, fabrics, crockery, clothes; it all has to be just the right shade for me."

Even though she already has a busy lifestyle, Debbie manages to paint every day. "Even if it's only in ten-minute snatches," she says, "it's better than nothing. Sometimes I will have the luxury of a whole hour at my easel, and occasionally, my idea of heaven, which is to be able to lose myself totally in my painting, untroubled by time and other commitments."

One of Debbie's most recent works is a painting of Compton Castle, recreating the period around 1895 when it had become semi-derelict, and before it had been restored by the Gilbert family.

"When people hear about what I am trying to do they are very helpful," Debbie says. "They will often provide me with old maps and drawings and photos to help me. So much of our countryside has vanished visually and I like to think that through my painting I can give people a glimpse back into a world that was less hurried and not covered in concrete - and not all black and white!"


Debbie Flack's hand-dyed silks are available from: Quayside Crafts, Exeter, South West Crafts, Tavistock and Lantic Gallery, Tiverton.

Her artwork can be seen at: Otterton Mill , Otterton and Chagford Galleries, Chagford.

For more information (01803 557582, mobile (07971 191076.

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