This month here in Oxfordshire, as the Thames sparkles its way from the west to the east of the county under summer sun, it’s Henley Regatta season during which elegant slimline boats skim over the surface of the water powered by impressive musculature from around the world.
Oxfordshire Artweeks artist Annabel Eyres has long been inspired by both the river and rowing upon it. She moved to Oxford to study art the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art and learnt to row whilst a student at Pembroke College; although she describes how she managed to resist it for the first year, deterred by the 6am starts on the river in the cold winter months, the lure of the river in sunshine pulled her in the following summer and she was hooked.
From the college eight, she progressed to the women’s blue boat, taking part in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race before competing as part of the GB rowing team: it was during this time that Annabel began to design rowing and river-inspired clothing setting up the popular Rock the Boat brand to help her pay her way while she was training. “Ever since then I have never lived further than half a mile from the Thames,” she grins, “whether I was in London, Henley, Radley or here in Oxford where I now live again. The pull of the river is too strong to resist.”
Today, Annabel now runs rowing courses for local youngsters to introduce them to rowing and to the river. These take place at Magdalen College Boat Club on the Isis where she first learnt to row and scull. “It’s funny how life comes full circle at times,” she laughs, acknowledging the influence of boats, the sport of rowing and the Thames still in the clean lines and fluid designs of her artwork and graphic designs: these include kaleidoscopic ‘snowflakes’ of VIIIs, printed or papercut with touches of gold leaf, the bright bold colours of college rowing clubs, concentric rings of the puddles forming around the oars in the water and the figures of rowers progressing through the stroke.
“Many of my designs have a repeating pattern that reflects the ethos of rowing. It’s a sport full of patterns – if you listen to a rowing eight travelling along the river you can hear a bellnote at the ‘catch’ where all eight blades drop into the water at the same moment, followed by the sound of the bubbles created running beneath the speeding hull, and then a ‘clunk’ as all eight rowers lift their blades from the water in unison. There’s a wonderful rhythm I find very evocative and almost meditative.”
Annabel describes how she loves the neat repetition in rowing, where every stroke of the oar you take is identical to those that have gone before, crisp and tight characteristics that are also clear in her artwork. “There’s a perfect balance when all the crew members are physically doing exactly the same thing as one another, and the boat runs smooth, fast and sleek. There’s a geometry to the way the parts move and a symmetry to the way the boats move whether viewed from the front or above and these are all beautiful from a design point of view.
In a wooden studio in Wallingford infused with gentle light and a view of the river across a lush grassy field, a second Artweeks artist, Fay Ford, also finds herself primarily inspired by the flowing waters of the Thames. From her easel she watches the motor cruisers passing – usually white against the summer greens – and walkers in multi-coloured jackets striding along the bank, and her paintings and textile designs have a daintiness combined with the light-hearted charm of children’s picture books, alongside prints and textiles inspired by her daily dog walks.
“I walk my dogs Ewok and Yogi along the local Thames Path every day and many of my paintings are of the wildlife I see. There’s a cormorant who greets me almost every day, and I see lots of geese and swans, herons and the occasional kingfisher. Just once I saw an otter who watched me as – moving barely a muscle – I got my phone out to take a picture of him. And then, as I was about to snap a shot, he slid into the water and was gone.
“I see the rowers pass too as I stroll, competing with the kingfisher to be the brightest thing on the river; a flash of vibrant red and pale blue as they sweep across the surface as majestic as swans and surprisingly fast. Wallingford Rowing Club has been part of the town for more than 70 years, their club house is an old brick structure near the bridge with riverside garden and a smaller building nestled under a giant tree, so I have painted that too.”
She has also painted the Thames Path as a series of neat scenes laid along the river as it wends its way from source to sea. “I had a lot of fun visiting places all the way along it to do the insets, and I am planning to walk from end to end next year, from the humble roots in Kemble where there’s just a trickle of water to London where it’s grand and stately. It’s amazing how water has such a life of its own, and such incredible power too, both to cut through the landscape and transfix the people who live nearby.”
She chose to use just greys and Tower Bridge blue for the cameo scenes along the snake of water across the painting, adding only tiny accents of red or orange that add an element of surprise and delight as the viewer notices them, just as visitors to the riverbank spot wildlife. “It’s fun to have those tiny details, and occasionally I add a walking character for someone,” she smiles from beneath shining golden-red curls, and that’s when I noticed on her own Thames Path a tiny curly splash of bright orange hair as a tiny figure strolls along with two dogs enjoying the abundance of plants, animals and birdlife she encounters.