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Interview with OM Tania Still, Artist

Tania Still is a Fine Artist whose work focuses on different breeds of hounds, horses and quarry,  and the changing attitudes within rural life. She attended Queen Mary’s between 1985 and 1992, where she was Head Girl, before going on to The King’s School, Canterbury, then Newcastle College and Northumbria University. She moved to London in 1996 to study at the City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington, where she completed her diploma and postgraduate studies in Fine Art Painting.

Tania has a studio in London, where she lives with her husband Shola, daughter Isabella and son Maximilian. Today her paintings – described as ‘exciting, alive and dynamic’ – can be found in many private collections in the UK, Europe, USA and Argentina.

We spoke to her about her about the significance of her formative years spent at Queen Mary’s and her career to date.

What was your first impression of Queen Mary’s?

My first memory of Queen Mary’s was arriving as a new girl in the Summer Term of 1985. The school was about to move from Duncombe Park to Baldersby Park and as my mother was an old girl, she was very keen for me to start at Duncombe. I had a shiny trunk (which I had painted my name and butterflies on in nail varnish) and so many new clothes! I remember walking into the Saloon with my good neighbour Emma Maitland-Carew and I was so excited, although a little nervous. I remember it being utterly magical.

How would you describe your time at the school?  

Queen Mary’s is a very special place, it was so much more than a school. It was a home from home, with the best sisters on the planet.

What are your memories from your school days?

There was so much that happened in the nine years I was there. Memories from Duncombe… the fire alarm going off at midnight on a Saturday and then going to find Mr Toad by the closed temple, followed by hot chocolate and then bed again! Building dens, the freezing changing rooms in the old stables. The smell of the roses and wild garlic in the sunken garden in the summer. Getting stuck in a hail storm whilst having a riding lesson with Mr Barker – he was so calm during the event but admitted when we got back that he was as scared as we all were!

I have hundreds of fond memories of fun and innocent mischief: sledging on mattresses down the mahogany staircase: running in the corridor and being caught every time by Mr Walker! Going up the S3 stairs because it was SO far to use the others…

When the school moved to Baldersby, it was like starting anew. There was an outside pool which was amazing for roller-skating in. Unlike the girls today, we weren’t allowed to go near the river,  which we all longed to do. We built dens on the rhododendron walk, played British Bulldogs on the square and ‘laggy’ when it rained, in the Great Hall.

I remember summer term and the Sixth Form garden, I was with Juliet Marshall and we had a disaster the day before judging, so we turned our garden into a pond, but it ended up being a mud bath – unsurprisingly, we didn’t win!

I loved doing the summer term projects: I loved drawing diagrams and writing as few words as possible. Charlotte Fletcher always won: her projects were amazing and the size of an encyclopaedia!

Drama was a big part of life at QM and plays were so exciting to do – I remember in particular The Tempest, Peer Gynt and Cold Comfort Farm.

We also had some fantastic trips – including an art trip to Paris and an incredible Chapel Choir tour of  Russia with Mr Carter, where we sang in Moscow and St Petersburg.

When Cadie Ling and I were heads of school we were asked to read at St Paul’s Cathedral in front of thousands of people for the Woodard Corporation’s Centenary. Afterwards, we went up to the Whispering Gallery, which I’ll never forget.

Who were the most influential members of staff?

Mr and Mrs Belward were like parents away from your parents and always encouraged us to think for ourselves. [ I remember my parents telling me a story at the time about a girl a few years above me who was very homesick. Mr Belward had heard she was planning to run away, so he took her to the front steps of the school and asked her if she had prepared for her imminent departure. She replied that she hadn’t, so he said ‘Right, let’s get ready’. He started in the Geography department, where they got maps and a compass. Then they went to the dorm and packed an overnight bag. He found a sleeping bag and then they went to the kitchen and they made some sandwiches and got a bottle of water. They returned to the steps and got out the map to plan her journey. Her face was quite shocked when she realised how far away her parents lived. Mr Belward knew her aunt lived closer, so he suggested she visit her instead. So they then planned how to get there, which would take two days on foot. Unsurprisingly, she seemed rather daunted at setting off, so he made a final suggestion… “Why don’t you come back inside, Mrs Belward can make you a hot chocolate, and you can ring your parents,” which she duly accepted! ]

Mr Burnham was a rather terrifying character to me at school but I met him a few times later on and he was such an amazing, kind and generous man. He once drew me as a Puritan for a lesson and tagged me ‘Sinless Still’ – alas I haven’t quite lived up to that description! I drew him a picture of Versailles and it hung in Pixiedale. He remarked when I last saw him that he was very annoyed it had got lost when he moved.

What are the biggest lessons you learned at school?

The ethos of the school is still part of what makes me, me. I learned that there are no limits to what you can achieve, the fact you couldn’t do something didn’t mean that you shouldn’t try it, as you might surprise yourself.

I also learned the importance of kindness, which if I seem to remember correctly, was one of the four cornerstones of the school.

Mr Belward said to my mother when she dropped me off on the first day ‘You’re giving us your daughter, we will give you the same girl back’. As Queen Mary’s girls we were not expected to change the people we were, in order to fit in and conform to an educational environment – rather we were able to flourish and become the person that we should be. I strongly feel that this is to be commended, the school wasn’t box ticking, rather it encouraged a different kind of life education where independent thought was fostered.

Do you keep in touch with any old pupils today?

Yes, I have some fantastic friends from my year and years above and below and some several years above. Oh, I want to list everyone! Social media has made it possible to keep in contact even with people who are in far flung places and those who just live round the corner. Queen Mary’s girls are terribly loyal to each other.

How did you embark on your career?

This was a long lesson in perseverance… I didn’t do particularly well at GCSE art, so decided to study different subjects at A level, but missed Art so much that  I went to the Art Department and asked if I could retake my GCSE. I was asked to draw a skull, which I did rather well. I dropped Maths A level, took Art instead and got an A!

I then went to Newcastle College to do an art foundation course, which was rather unremarkable, but I decided to study Fine Art Painting. I then applied to Northumbria Uni and was told I had to do Sculpture because that course was undersubscribed and that I might be able to move to painting after the first year. After much cajoling I moved courses and spent the first half of that term in the Life Room. At the end of term critique with my tutor, I proudly showed her an enormous pile of A1 paper with charcoals, paint, mixed media explorations of the figure, only to be told: ‘That’s not art!’…. so I left.

Finally, I found the oasis that was City and Guilds of London Art School in Kennington, where they still taught life drawing and painting, which was heaven! I graduated with a Diploma and Post Grad and had the most inspirational tutors and regained my passion for art, which set me on the path to where I am today.

Can you describe a typical day at work?

I am normally at the easel by 8.30am and then work until lunch and then until 6pm or longer if I have a good splash going! I do like to take my own photographs and meet the dogs or horses that I am painting – there is so much more to these willing family members than just fur. It’s important to see the character which you can’t just get from a photograph. So I do road trips and try to get as many potential painting commissions done in one go and then I can lock myself in the studio. If my sporadic attendance at College taught me anything, it was that if I wanted to do this as a career I had to treat it as a job. From the first moment I had my own studio, I treated it as if I was going into an office. A current QM parent used to try and lure me to the pub for lunch (which was conveniently next door) but I would turn her down! People sometimes seem to think that you are ‘just’ an artist, but you are also the business manager, bookkeeper, commission finder and creative director. It’s just you and if you don’t do it, it simply won’t get done.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to embark on a career in your industry?

Enjoy the learning process and try every process, because it’s only through trying that you learn what works and what doesn’t. Don’t beat yourself up if it doesn’t work, you will still have learned something from that.

Accept that it doesn’t always work! I have put enough Stanley knives through canvases, and it’s never easy to say ‘it wasn’t working’.

My mother has always said you are only as good as your last piece : she is right, but it’s through daily painting that you develop your style and your voice about what you want to say. Tracy Emin said: ‘I am a writer, but I choose to paint my words’.

What are the best parts and worst parts of your job?

Meeting some amazing animals, clients and the journey that you share in getting to a final painting. I have never been sad for a painting to leave the studio (I know it is going to be loved, wherever it ends up) but I do have a sense of loss when the relationship with a really lovely client has drawn to its conclusion.

What is your biggest achievement in your career?

Most importantly it’s when a client is happy with the final picture, it’s really something to witness someone when they see their painting as it evokes a strong emotion. I have seen many tears.

On a tangible point, it would be last year when I had two paintings hanging in the house exhibition ‘The Dog’ at Chatsworth House, alongside my heroes, Stubbs, Hockney, Cuneo, Aldin, Phipps, Frink, Koons and Gormley! That was an amazing feeling.

I also love supporting charities: I have four main charities that I support – Marie Curie, Racing Welfare, Hunt Staff Benefit Society and the Countryside Alliance and over the years have donated over £92,000 worth of paintings to them.

What are you working at the moment?

I have a rather exciting secret commission coming up in aid of Racing Welfare which is a charity that I do a lot of work with, it involves about 10 foals, but that’s all I can tell you!

To view Tania’s work please go to www.taniastill.com

 

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