Moorland Views

Devon Today
Becky Moran enters the world of acclaimed Devon artist Katharine Lightfoot

Hostile, remote and unforgiving, the bleak Dartmoor landscape and its hardy inhabitants have been inspiring Katharine Lightfoot’s dramatic oil canvases for 10 years. Sheep, with their stubborn ability to survive the elements, their inquisitive natures and mad, uneasy stares, are the frequent subjects of her large paintings, alongside cattle, horses, ponies and dogs.

Katharine grew up in Salcombe, but spent her early years at Peter Tavy on the moor. Even at primary school, she knew she wanted to be an artist — her uncle, mother and older brother are all talented oil painters — and in 1995, she graduated from the University of Plymouth with a degree in fine art. But it wasn’t until she moved to Dartmoor in 1998 that she started painting full-time.

“I started off painting landscapes, but always had an animal as a focal point because the moor can be so bleak,” she said. “Widgery did it with a river or tor, but I tended to do it with a sheep in the distance. I painted a sheep once and someone loved it and bought it, then their friend wanted one. As a child I had always been surrounded by a menagerie. I just love animals and it suits my style. The animal became the subject rather than part of a landscape.”

When the outbreak of foot-and-mouth in 2001 closed much of the moor to the public, Katharine was forced to change direction and style. She began to paint seascapes of the North Cornwall coast, using minimal colours to evoke overcast, misty winter scenes and the swift changing moods of the sea. “I was quite frustrated because I couldn’t go on the moor. However, I thought I would do something else,” she explained. “We were allowed down to the coast, places like Crackington Haven, and it was a fantastic opportunity to do some seascapes. I had a new style in my head I wanted to try out, and I did some really large canvases.”

Six months spent in Orkney were equally as productive, and led to Katharine’s first major exhibition at the Arndean Gallery in London’s Cork Street. It was a gamble that paid off.

“We sat there for three days and didn’t sell as much as I had hoped. I was thinking ‘oh my God, what have I done’,” admitted Katharine. “Luckily a customer came in said ‘I want that one and that one’, two of my really big ones, both seascapes. From there on I’ve sold about two thirds of the work. That was the start and the encouragement I need to carry on as a full-time painter.” Katharine now lives in Crediton with her husband Mark and two dogs, but goes to Dartmoor at least three times a week where she never fails to find inspiration for her work.

“My favourite spot is the valley by the Warren House Inn, where the old mines are,” she said. “I love going down there because it’s sheltered, you can find somewhere to sit and you can find beasties.

“I did some lovely ponies recently, who came and nibbled my camera! They are used to walkers down there, so the sheep didn’t run away either. I go all over the moor, Chagford in particular — anywhere round there I love. Manaton is nice, and Haytor as well.

“Sheep are quite happy while you are in the car because they see a car as an inanimate object. The minute you step out they run away! But if you don’t make eye contact they are usually okay. I do use photographs, particularly during the winter, but I make the background up. I make the animal as large as I can, a bit like Beryl Cook’s large ladies — she doesn’t like doing backgrounds either.

“People love animals, especially sheep and cows, because they are neutral, not personal “Sometimes if I do a landscape, people want to know where it is and why I painted it. Cows and sheep are things you don’t notice when you are in the car but when you get out and look at them they are just amazing.”

With no exhibitions planned for the moment, every corner of Katharine’s home is stacked with huge canvases, some jostling for space on the walls and others tantalisingly wrapped in brown paper ready to be sent off to their new owners. Even after 10 years, sheep remain her favourite subject.

“I love Dartmoor and I just associate them with it. Wherever you go on the moor, you will always see a sheep watching you,” she said. “Even in the bleakest, most remote part of Dartmoor, there will always be a pair of eyes watching you. I just love them for that reason.”