Interview with Elizabeth Acland – June 2022 – by Polly Marix Evans
I’ve been so excited about doing this interview, partly because I get to visit Lizzie at her home in Penrith (in the very street I dream about living in) and partly because she’s just a really nice person, it’s like going to see my mum!
Her studio occupies a large, light filled room at the front of her house. While she sorts out the young whippet pup for the dog walker, I take the time to snoop a wee bit from my comfy spinney chair. The room is full of colour, pattern and light. The bookshelves crammed full of orange spined Penguin Classics, photographs of her family and other curiosities (including a fabulous ballerina snow-globe which she later tells me was used as a prop in a play she directed, ‘Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis’ by Charlotte James.) The large window looks out over the beautiful front garden, also crammed full of colour and proper-country-garden-flowers.
Lizzie’s life sounds every bit as exciting as her studio looks. Born in Ireland, she comes from a huge extended family. She spent her childhood summer holidays on the west coast of Ireland and the memories of that are reflected through her artwork. There’s one really beautiful painting I admire in the hall, it’s of a single figure on a beach with a threatening sky – ‘that’s what summer holidays in Ireland were like, lovely but you always watch the sky for rain’ – not too different from Cumbria then!
She studied English Literature at Belfast, and then trained to be a teacher at The University of Edinburgh. Lizzie taught English both here and abroad, living in Finland in the 1960s which again influenced her work, and then in Kenya for two years, before returning the England where she lived on the Suffolk coast whilst her children were little.
She is entirely self-taught as an artist. She shows me a paint box she thinks she bought during her years in Finland, it was only used a few times until she retired from teaching due to ill health. A series of events seemed to lead her into the visual arts – firstly her ME (chronic fatigue syndrome), her children going off to universities, and the death of her first husband. Once she realised she’d never be able to go back to teaching, and a small amount of energy returned, she used the ‘enforced idleness’ to throw herself into art and directing plays.
She loves to ‘mix things up and experiment.’ She started out with that Finnish paintbox, working in watercolours. ‘It’s just paint and water, but everyone told me it’s actually a really tricky medium.’ There’s definitely a great range of style and medium now: the wistful West Coast Irish paintings; the moody dark trees; colourful flowers; and, my favourite this time, the Italian bee hive with tiny dots of golden bees whooshing out (I’ve asked her to reserve this for me!)
Lizzie loves working in pastels too – ‘they’re so versatile, you can rub them out, work on top of them, draw over anything with them.’ Her desk holds endless bottles of inks too, in a vast array of colours.
She doesn’t think her work is special or good or important, but she enjoys making it. She says her family aren’t really that interested, she gives them paintings she’s done of places they know and ‘they’re still on the wall when I visit, so I guess they like them, or tolerate them!’
The money she makes from selling her artwork goes to supporting two girls in Kampala, through the charity Educate For Change. She tells me how wonderful it is that something she enjoys doing, and gets pleasure from, gives so much to these two young women, and how it really has made so much difference to their lives. They’re 19 and 21 now and are on the cusp of choosing whether to continue their educations further still or strike out into the world of employment.
She loves working with Penrith Players too, ‘not on the stage, I don’t want everyone looking at me, but I like telling them what to do.’ They’re currently working on ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas. ‘It’s an intense six weeks or so of work, retired people but all with skills to offer, and then four nights of performing.’
She tells me about visual direction, how it can make or break a performance; about meaningful grouping; set design and building. All the things you never really think about when you watch a performance, or you don’t think about them if it’s been done well.
Lizzie may not want to be the centre of attraction in the spotlight, but she definitely enjoys being busy and in the buzz of things.
‘I’m Irish, I love being around people, come back again soon.’ She tells me as I leave, and gives me a big hug whilst hanging onto the dog who seems determined to escape the garden. I don’t know why; I could happily stay there for hours!