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Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007
Celebrating Sarah Millward – Artist
`she's a farmer's daughter from Wirksworth in the Derbyshire Peak District'
They inhabited different worlds at opposite ends of the social spectrum, and there is almost a century of time between them; he was a famous writer, poet, playwright, and art-critic from London, she a farmer’s daughter from Wirksworth in the Derbyshire Peak District.
`true art never expresses anything but itself'
But Oscar Wilde could well have been refering to Sarah Millward when he wrote that `true art never expresses anything but itself’ - for the Wirksworth-born artist is surely the very personification of `true art’ and her work living proof that Wilde was right!
Sarah Millward is a nationally acclaimed professional artist who was born to paint; her talent and skill are, it would seem, natural gifts, for she has never had an art lesson or any formal training in her life.
Sarah is one of those rare and naturally gifted individuals who are blessed with an innate creative impulse and an exquisite talent for expression and execution; indeed, she has always nurtured an insatiable desire to create, and declared to her parents when she was just five years old that she was going to be an artist with her own studio and gallery!
Since then her art has been her life, and painting her consuming passion; she sold her first picture before she was eleven, won her first competition when still a fourteen year-old schoolgirl, and had exhibited and sold at galleries across the country, including the famous Christie’s gallery in London before she had reached her twenty-first birthday.
Now, at the age of twenty eight Sarah has a burgeoning international reputation and her work has been added to many private collections worldwide. Her paintings have been published in limited edition prints, and she also has her own exclusive collection of greeting cards on sale. Furthermore, in fulfilment of her own prophetic destiny, Sarah has recently opened her own award-winning studio and art-gallery in the centre of her home town of Wirksworth!
I went along to the innovative `Living Gallery’ at the Old Grammar School in Wirksworth, recent recipient of a Daily Telegraph Design Award, to find out more about it’s owner and artist-in-residence:
“I grew up on my parent’s farm just outside Wirksworth, surrounded and inspired by the beautiful Derbyshire scenery, and as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to draw and paint”, she told me.
Sarah entered competitions from the age of ten and learned to use oils at eleven. Her early work mainly featured the local environment, it’s wildlife, landscape and buildings.
“My parents gave me wonderful support and encouragement, and I especially enjoyed my childhood holidays with them amongst the resident colony of artists in St.Ives, Cornwall, they were very happy times”.
Sarah was educated at the Presentation Convent in Matlock, and then from thirteen years of age at St. Elphin’s School, Darley Dale, from where she gained nine GCSE’s before leaving at seventeen.
Why didn’t she go on to university?
“I entered and won a `Bridges of Derbyshire’ competition when I was fourteen, and one of the judges, an art lecturer from Derby University advised me against it; he told me that I didn’t need to learn technique because I’d already mastered it, and he advised me to, `go home and explore, paint’ - which is exactly what I wanted to do – and did”, she added.
Her work began to be exhibited, first in local libraries, at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery, then at local galleries in Derby and Sheffield, and as far as Chester, Liverpool and London.
Whilst still a teenager Sarah was already taking commissioned work and selling local landscapes, street scenes and townscapes, wildlife and pet portraits, and working part-time in the office of her parent’s business.
“They diversified, like many farmers have had to do in recent years, and went into the plant-hire business which they ran from the farm” she said.
On her eighteenth birthday her parents gave Sarah an old barn, which she decided to convert into living accommodation, complete with studio and exhibition gallery.
“I’ve always done whatever I say I’m going to do, and I never change my mind” she said positively. “It took me three years to complete the barn conversion, and in the interim, I bred (and painted!) horses, lived in a mobile home on the farm, and painted in what I called my `garden studio’, which was really in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by wonderful wildlife including resident barn owls, a really inspirational environment”.
Sarah was twenty one when her new home was finished and had built up a collection of paintings, but exhibiting at her new studio/gallery proved to be a problem.
“It wasn’t an easy place to find, and was difficult to get to along narrow country lanes, and I couldn’t give all my attention to solving the problem because the horses took up much of my time, and kept me away from my painting”, she said.
Sarah had a choice to make, horses or art. Art won – and she sold the horses and focussed on her art work. A solo exhibition at Christmas 1998 at the Guild Hall in Derby sold-out of all forty exhibits, and has become an annual event. She broadened her subject matter which now included wildlife, birds and animal studies; architectural townscapes, house portraits, figurative work, botanical illustrations and abstracts, and commissions poured in.
“Then three years ago, I saw this Old Grammar School building for sale in an estate agents window. I wasn’t really looking, in fact I was on my way home from the pub, but I immediately saw it’s potential” said Sarah.
The Grade Two listed former Anthony Gell school building had been used as a woodwork shop, but together with her parents, Sarah bought it in December 2001 and immediately sold her barn conversion and moved into the cottage next door to the Old Grammar School.
“When we first bought the school, the exterior features were intact but the interior was like a cave and had no floors, there was just a compacted earth floor at ground level, and it’s been almost three years of hard work”, said Sarah. “An excellent result, but the downside is that I haven’t been able to do any painting for two and a half years! In 2003 it was partly completed, and we opened up for the Wirksworth Festival during August and had three and a half thousand visitors through the door, and this year it was the same, so at the moment the gallery is like a big blank canvass waiting to be filled”.
The Living Gallery, so called because it also doubles as Sarah’s home is south-facing and set on two levels with wide, open plan staircase dividing the main floor, which at ground floor level is white porcelain tiles and at first floor level light oak boards, both with underfloor heating. The whole is a minimalist work of art, with the interior of the external walls clad in white porcelain, which allows no distraction and focusses the eye on any hint of colour. At first floor level the interior dividing walls are glass and steel. Individual units on the ground floor allow separate displays, and all are accessed along a glass-walled corridor which allows full daylight into the interior from the floor-to-ceiling original wrought-iron windows.
Sarah’s studio is at ground floor level and here she works, preferably in acrylics “because it’s so vivid, versatile and dries quickly, and allows you to capture the essence of your idea or inspiration immediately” she explains.
Sarah works in all other mediums, including oils, water colours, pastels, inks, crayon and charcoal and uses mainly canvass, and sometimes illustration board. “I like to experiment, and use different surfaces for a variety of different textured effects” she said. Her wildlife portraits are especially breathtaking, and her precise and detailed execution is the hallmark of her excellence.
With her original lifetime ambition achieved, I asked Sarah about her future plans:
“Well, I plan to hold eight to ten exhibitions a year as a private gallery and invite other artists to exhibit, but I kept a notebook during the two and a half years spent converting this place,and every time I had an inspiration to paint something, I wrote it down for future reference……and I’ve got about thirty years work in the book, and some empty gallery spaces to fill……..!”
A walk around the Living Gallery in the heart of Wirksworth is an awe inspiring experience; the work on display speaks entirely for itself, Oscar would have liked it, for it is living proof of the veracity of his words - `true art expresses nothing but itself’.