By Helen Murphy and Nick Pelling

A major retrospective for artists can be both a wonderful and a daunting thing. It is as if your whole artistic life will be put on display for others to dissect. But Tamsin Giles has had an extraordinary life. When she was a young woman in the 1950s – when the British art establishment was just waking up to people like Picasso and when female artists were barely a footnote in the art history books (as written by men) – she chose instead to dive in, immersing herself in the shifting cross-currents of art-thought; from geometric constructivism to American abstract colour theory and all stations in between. Indeed, for all of her life she has embraced and engaged with modernist debates. And for a dash of danger, for a while, she was married to a British spy. The Hastings Art Forum (HAF) gallery now brings us an opportunity to consider this exceptional life within art

Perhaps the most striking thing about Giles is the way she has continuously absorbed influences and almost restlessly evolved as an artist. Her father was the founding artistic inspiration. Laurent Giles was an innovative yacht designer and such an enthusiast for his work that he would often call his children up to his desk to discuss his technical breakthroughs and eureka design moments. Her father’s passion for working with, and understanding the magic of, different materials gave Tamsin a sure grasp of what the exhibition’s curator, Sally Mincher, has called “the poetry in mathematical structures.” Tamsin has taken her technical knowledge into the heart of her practice. She has, for example, used nature’s frequent Fibonacci sequences as a jumping-off point for work. 

CREDIT: Marcus de Mowbray

In 1952 she married Stephen de Mowbray who worked for British counter-intelligence in the early days of the Cold War. The marriage took her first to Baghdad but then to Montevideo in Uruguay. It was here that she attended the El Taller Torres Garcia Art School and began to absorb the very particular flavours of Latin American modernism.  Perhaps the key idea of this school of thought was the notion that artists should not seek to imitate the conventional look of things but instead look for elemental lines and directional rhythmic impulses. To see and feel the deep structure of things. 

In the 1960s Tamsin studied for an MA at The Corcoran College in Washington DC which was at that time dominated intellectually by the Washington Colour School.  Painters such as Kenneth Noland and Tim Downing taught the importance of pure flat colour and the need to be aware of the strange visual music that occurs when colours collide. And the sixties also conferred some of the fizz of Pop Art around her colour choices. Typically, Tamsin has never stood still. Her Quay Hill series, begun in the late sixties, was something of a new departure in that it combined her concerns for formal geometric lines with the emotional uncertainties of childhood memory. (Quay Hill being her home as a child in Lymington.) She was, somehow, trying to hold together the fleeting and the solid.

Back in Britain, her work flourished in all directions. She began to see the importance of artists working within and for a local community. She produced numerous projects as part of ‘The Hammersmith Art Experiment.’ The idea behind this group was to bring art into people’s day to day lives. Her Human Sundial, for example, is built into the playground of a primary school in Fulham. Children grasp something about the world whilst staring at their own shadow.  

CREDIT: Marcus de Mowbray

Her exhibition at the Hastings Art Forum is entitled Dissonances, Concinnities and Balance and spans some seven decades of her output. Interestingly, part of the show is being exhibited at her home and studio in Ivyhouse Lane, Hastings. The title is perhaps a little baffling – we should admit that we had to look up the word ‘concinnities.’  Apparently, it means the harmonious and almost mysterious fitting together of the parts of something. It may be an obscure word, but perhaps it does capture the very vibrant wisp that Tamsin has been chasing all her life. 

The whole exhibition is undoubtedly a testament to Tasmin’s restless intelligence and drive. Even at nearly 92, she is still working; still exploring. Anyone with the slightest curiosity about what it means to live as an artist should seek it out. 

The exhibition is on at two locations: HAF Gallery, 20 Marine Court, St Leonards, and at Woodhouse Lodge studio, Ivyhouse Lane, Hastings – by arrangement – ring 01424 257571. It runs from 19 April to 15 May. There is an open evening at the HAF Gallery on Friday 22 April from 6.00 pm.   

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