Fiona Moate (1959-2024): A Celebration Of The Person - And Her Practice

Moate would often express both delight and sly (but affectionate) mockery of [a] nostalgic vision of England
Chris Lethbridge
March 6, 2024

The flat lands of East Yorkshire are a strange and ancient landscape. Estuarine, liminal, saltmarsh, fen, mud flat, winding ribbon of silver blue river, ditch and dike, shifting spits, twisted by a grey North Sea. Mist, fog bank, trawler, marker buoy. A layering of sky, land and sea. Olive green, slate grey, peat brown. Beneath the towering powerscape of Megawatt Valley the earth might be stained by the remnants of a Saxon sword. The black, wet, barnacled bones of a Danish longship might emerge from a riverine mudbank, next to the cranes and wharves of a port town. A land where our land was forged and where the painter Fiona Moate (1959-2024) was born and grew, a land she loved throughout her life and a land that would form the background context for so much of her art.

Training in Hull, a move to complete an MA in Manchester in the early 80s made sense. Both art schools belonged to a small ‘cartel’ of English painting departments in the 70s and 80s that devoted themselves to ‘painterly painting’ with an almost religious fervour. Sitting as it does between the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ worlds, British abstraction in this period brought together influences from American abstract expressionism and its European counterpart ‘Abstraction Lyrique’. The leading figures of an older generation included artists such as John Hoyland, Gillian Ayres and Albert Irvine, with a number of painters sharing the tuition circuit between the art schools espousing the genre. Sadly for Fiona Moate’s generation, as young artists entering the latter stages of the movement their potential ‘moment’ was stymied by the emergence onto the scene of 80s ‘New Image’ painting exemplified internationally by artists such as Julian Schnabel, Francesco Clementeor, David Salle and at home by the macho figuration of the ‘New Glasgow Boys’. This combined with a wilful disdain for the professionalisation of one’s practice, perhaps an overly romanticised self-image of the ‘poor artist’ and a location in a post-industrial city far removed from the worlds art capitals has meant that both Moate and many of her immediate milieu of contemporaries have been neglected - even on ‘home turf’ - and not accorded with the critical assessment they merit. A fate then that was partly subject to international critical developments and partly self inflicted.

Watching for Pigeons 33.5x30cm Gouache on Paper 2018 3a-01
Fiona Moate: Watching for Pigeons 33.5x30cm Gouache on Paper 2018 3a-01 - From The Mura Ma Holding Up! Exhibition (8-23 March)

Although outward looking in its influences from wider international developments in mid-century painting, Fiona Moate’s immediate inspiration turned to the English tradition, a lineage that can be traced back through John Piper and Paul Nash to Samuel Palmer or Turner. And although not immediately apparent in the work, she was also influenced by her love of mid-century illustrative artists such as, Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden. Perhaps affected by childhood memories, she relished the illustrations of Ladybird books - the Rowland Hilders and Charles Tunnicliffes of this world. An exploration of Englishness, unfashionably expressed with love rather than self-loathing is fundamental to the work and in it one can detect a mournful, elegiac quality looking back to the country’s sense of self, its identity and a national mythologising now questioned or lost. In works on paper, collage and in titles, one might find quotations from memorials in churches, or from the now outdated guide books of Arthur Mee: verbose, saccharine and sometimes a touch blimpish. Whilst never overtly political, Moate would often express both delight and sly (but affectionate) mockery of this nostalgic vision of England, from time to time gleefully reading out loud the more outrageous contributions to the letters pages of publications such as ‘This England’.

Despite spending the majority of her adult life living and working in Greater Manchester, Moate professed not to like the city. Nonetheless, its urban landscape found its way into her work with increasingly representational imagery as her career progressed. Not as you might imagine through the stereotypical images of post-industrial Manchester but through her love - and encyclopaedic knowledge - of late 19th and early 20th Century architecture and design, especially ecclesiastical building. Instead, Moate’s Manchester was the city of the affluent outer suburbs of North Cheshire - built where the air was fresh and clean, a place of ‘Tudorbethan’ black and white timbering, watery-stained stained glass in tessellated landing windows, neatly trimmed privet hedges topping terracotta topped walls, of spiky florid churches in Accrington brick, built to serve new parishes, of meandering pathways through civic parks, of the upper Mersey floodplain with its stands of Lombardy poplar. In her final years, when a lack of studio and diminishing energy precluded making large works on canvas, Moate produced prolific sketchbooks and small works on paper, frequently taking long bus journeys around the suburbs, sketching from the top deck.

Fiona Moate
Fiona Moate

Above, I have described influences and imagery that contributed to the pot of Fiona Moate’s painting. However a key means to understanding and appreciating her work is to understand that it does not merely seek to convey or portray a particular place or sense of place in literal terms. The work should be read as creating and becoming a place in its own right. Each piece a small, self-contained, micro-environment made up of colour, form, depth, texture and line. A place where you might let your eye and mind wander along those silver riverbanks, through stands of ash, poplar and oak, though gardens of colour, lemon, veridian, alizarin and rose.

Now based in West Cornwall and originally trained as an artist, Chris Lethbridge lived in Manchester for 27 years working in visual arts and creative industries management and development. He worked with Fiona Moate professionally on many occasions and knew her as a long standing personal friend.

Header Image: Fiona Moate, photographed in her studio in 1987 by Len Grant