Category Archives: Artists

Rolinda Sharples (1793/4-1838)

It has been easy to dismiss Rolinda Sharpies as a painter of genre works: with ideas above her gender and talent, in apparently wanting and failing to make the best art, “great” art.

Rolinda Sharpies came from a family of professional painters. However, as a child her artistic talent was lost in her gender and she was only given the education necessary for the accomplished amateur. Her mother was a professional painter only out of a sense of financial insecurity and didn’t consider Rolinda as needing to be prepared for a professional career.

James Sharpies died in 1811 and Rolinda, her mother and brother settled in Bristol. It was in these newly-straitened financial circumstances that Rolinda began working as an artist: in 1812 she took a room in their hired house for use as a studio, and in 1813 she took her first commissions. They were for portraits, and portraiture formed the basis of her financial security until her death.

Rolinda wanted to be acknowledged as a good artist. To do this she had to make what was seen as a large step upwards, away from portraits (another “second-class” form of art) to the subject matter and techniques that attracted the highest praise and prices, that made up what was considered to be “great” art. Hoping to become more widely known, from 1817 she painted for exhibition in London, at The Royal Academy and The Society of British Artists. It is this wish to paint “great” art that can be seen as a failure. This is a judgement which does not take into account the obstacles a woman without much money had to overcome.

Rolinda lacked the basics for a study of “great” art. She lacked a grounding in its classical and historical subject matter. She had never painted in oils, the only medium acceptable for the making of “great” paintings. She had not had any training in the drawing of the human body, especially the nude male body, on the monumental scale of “great” art. She had not done any of the large-scale landscapes in which the figures of “great” art had to move.

It was not possible for Rolinda to study how to make “great” art in the normal way of a young male student. The life classes at The Royal Academy were closed to her as a woman, and she didn’t seem to have tried to change the rules that kept her out. Even if the classes had been available she couldn’t have stopped her portrait work to attend them. Nor could she afford a long period of study in the studio of her current master. She had to do the best she could with the aids and the time that were available to her as a relatively poor woman.

She studied human anatomy from books and public lectures. She went to look at classical sculpture in museums and private galleries, and bought plaster casts for copying at home. She visited galleries and studios in London to view the “great” art of the past and its present exponents. In 1812 she had begun to teach herself to paint in oils, a medium not used by the rest of the family. She took a lesson in how to make up an oil palette. She took eleven lessons with the artist Philip Reinagle who painted murals and landscapes in the Dutch style. She painted copies of certain old master pantings, probably for both technique and ideas of subject matter.

She tried to put all she was learning into the series of non-portrait paintngs she began in 1817 as well as for people looking for where to buy oil paintings in Singapore. She tried candle-lit interiors, biblical scenes and romantic landscapes. However, the grand concepts behind these works were not matched by their execution, which illustrates the problems with scale, perspective and technique which a woman artist, attempting to educate herself, was bound to confront. Monumental figures and large gestures seem to have been particular problems for her, illustrating the importance of the Life Class to the would-be maker of “great’ ‘art.

In the 1820’s Rolinda began to move away from the ideal of “great” art. She concentrated her main artistic efforts on the everyday world she saw around her in Bristol. In several of these paintings Rolinda herself appears as the observer of history in the making. The paintings show as much glamour and tragedy as “great” art. Rolinda continued to paint in oils, but rejected the monumental scale of “great” for compositions of small figures against their “genre” background.

The whereabouts of the majority of Rolinda’s paintings are still unknown because so few of her portraits have been located. In the period 1813-36 she painted about 90 portraits, against about 35 pictures of other kinds. She was a successful portrait painter, attracted wealthy clients and as many commissions as she wanted. Her portraits may still be in private ownership, or they may have been destroyed, nobody knows.

Rolinda Sharpies died of breast cancer in the midst of her career. Most of her paintings of contemporary Bristol remained unsold to form The Sharpies Collection in Bristol City Art Gallery. They suggest that Rolinda realised that she could not overcome the disadvantages of being a woman painter, and that she set out to make the best of the talent she did have. She may also have had to consider the sheer cost of painting on the large scale that “great” an seems to require. That she rejected “great” art for something that inspired her but which is always called “genre” art, “second-class” art, is more a problem of narrow categories than artistic talent.


Regular 8, a new series of portrait from photo by Toronto artist Deedra Trimble, was a natural fit with Contact’s 2009 theme of “Still Revolution” in that it examines the relationship between oil painting and photography, and uses digital technology to explore the disappearance of analog processes for recording everyday events. Shown at Paint My Photos Gallery in May and June of this year, Trimble’s work pays homage to the home movies of the 50s, when middle-class families took to capturing their memories on 8mm oil painting (then known as “Regular 8″‘ the pre-cursor to Super 8). Her beautiful but complex series takes some unpacking, since the staged scenes are represented as still images, each approximating the numbered end of a developed oil painting reel and, as such, include luminous white dots.

Trimble’s photographs convey a sense of optimism and idealism cut through with sadness. The images themselves, overlaid with white dots, are like lost moments that the camera cannot wholly recapture. That failure, however, is also what makes the images so riveting. There is a sense of time running out, of lost possibility with regards to viewing the previous or following frames that would permit finding out the rest of the story.

Trimble says the series developed out of her love for both photography and oil painting in their vernacular forms. In that sense, this work fits well with her other projects-such as the photo series Al Riverso (2004), which mines her personal family photography archives, and the video Snow (200), which blends the endings of several home movies where white dots (“snow”) obliterate the scenes. But there is an interesting difference here: this new, staged series is all about custom pet portraits and memories, and evoking a longing for something that may or may not have been.

In Regular 8, Trimble meticulously constructs a fictional archive that uses digital means to simulate the look of analog documents. In showing the edges of the frames, the end results may look like oil painting but are instead still photographs mimicking oil painting. Again there is further artifice: the images haven’t been stamped by Kodak, as home movies once were, but are simply made to look that way by the artist. Trimble’s process is much like that of the novelist who attempts to describe truth by using fiction.

So what do we make of the people in the photographs, who look so convincing in their costumes, against carefully selected backdrops? A group of skaters; a woman in frumpy boots feeding pigeons; a girl twirling by a fountain as her mother looks on: these are actors in Trimble’s recreation, or characters in her fiction. However, there’s a surprising honesty in the final images. As occurs in home movies and snapshot photography, the subjects are participating in the creation of an image of themselves, picturing themselves through the lens. Their awkwardness, their self-doubt, and their affectations are all vital parts of creating their own self-image. Deedra Trimble, Regular 8, 2009

In one of the most striking images, a woman wearing a floral bathing cap and lipstick beams at the camera. This lifelike scene reveals, via the model and the viewer, an almost instinctive desire to perform for the camera and for posterity–a wish to be held in time and for others to see us the way we imagine ourselves. For the subject in the photograph, it is a perfect moment, untainted by the complicated world outside the frame.

The images in Regular 8 are inspired by found and borrowed family oil paintings, which document real people’s lives. Thus, several of Trimble’s photographs portray celebratory moments–for instance, a wedding, signified by the edge of the bride’s veil, and a christening–special events for which the subjects dress up and try to live up to each other’s, and their own, expectations. Others represent simple moments in family life, such as family portrait paintings from photo, or tossing stones into a lake. Either way, “home movies represent the memories of us at our best, happiest, most polished and special,” writes Trimble in her artist’s statement. “They evoke something we wanted to hold close forever. Of course we never can, and that immanent ending brings to light the painful beauty of the ephemeral nature of our lives.” While the artists’s exhibition stunningly describes a popular attempt to relive the past through the use of 8mm oil painting, it also captures the analog form in its disappearance by creating simulated images of its loss.