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Shattered Window Pane, Laetitia Yhap

The sandstone walls of Undercliff House have, for the last few months, been adorned with scenes of Hastings and South London. They are large, delicate watercolours depicting scenes of glassy skies, transient weather conditions and distant activity seen through the window of a domestic interior.

This small and intimate display shows the early work of celebrated Hastings artist, Laetitia Yhap and marks the fiftieth anniversary of her arrival in Hastings. She had recently finished at London’s Slade School of Art and her move to Hastings didn’t immediately impact her painting. Gradually though, she was becoming immersed in Hastings, and by the late seventies she had found the subject she would come to focus on exclusively for the next twenty years – the fishing community of Hastings and the portion of their lives spent on the Stade. The paintings at Undercliff House are from this decade of transition.

Yhap and her then partner were both working as artists when they decided to look for a place on the coast. He was teaching at the Slade and she had been a student there. “There was a feeling that if you were an artist you had to be in London”, she tells me, “but we both needed to be by the sea for at least a portion of our time, he had grown up in East Anglia and, though I was born in London, I had also become used to having access to the sea. We still needed to be within easy reach of London for work but needed a place which felt removed enough for it be different … there was no point in being in Brighton, of course.”

In March, they spent a day driving along the south coast looking for somewhere they could see themselves settling and by the time they arrived in St Leonards it had started snowing. “We couldn’t even get out of the car,” Yhap tells me, “but as we drove along the front I felt it would be OK; the geography of the place and the contrasting architecture, and the fact it was so run down – I could tell there would be something here.”

On a more thorough recce she soon found the house in Old Town in which she still lives. “The view has barely changed at all but the town then bears no resemblance to now. It was impossible to buy a vegetable on the High Street and George Street still had traffic. I’d grown up with street markets. So I grew vegetables and we brought everything else with us, coffee, cheese – this went on for a long time.”

With her life still based in London, for the first few years she found herself making secret day trips to the town, “I’d walk about trying to absorb something or other, find out what this place was about just by being here, and then jump on the train back to London. It was my secret with myself and how the place started having an effect on me. It was a significant decision for me to turn my back on London, I didn’t like living this half-life and the thought of being in London to attend all the private views was unsatisfactory, so I finally decided to spend most of my time down here.”

The paintings on display in Undercliff House are from this transitional period, most are the large watercolours she had gained much respect for towards the end of her time at the Slade. “It felt like I never had a studio, just a window sill and so that became the view I painted – it provided a useful surface, things could be seen through it or things may land on it. I knew I wanted to bring figures back into my work – something as an art student I had felt was not acceptable, so working on a view from my window I could start to introduce small characters into my paintings by engaging them in activity in the distance.”

The last of these paintings shows the window pane broken and a large flock of birds circling above. The painting holds an enormous sense of release and freedom. “A chair had bashed into the window, it had been an accident, and I knew I had to paint it like that.”, she says. This was 1974.

Also in 1974 she found herself on the beach closest to her house watching the fishermen. She took out whatever paper she could find in her bag and started drawing. She would go back on an almost daily basis – eventually going to sea, getting her hands on the work itself and becoming an integrated part of life on the Stade in her own right. The paintings she produced over these subsequent years were displayed at the Stade Hall in 2015 and are in private and public collections internationally.