Artist and politician's wife shines a bright light on the politics of art and the art of politics.
How long have you lived in the area?
David (Willetts, MP for Havant 1992-2015) and I moved here in the autumn of '87 when I was pregnant with our daughter Imogen who was born in Queen Charlotte's. We were driving along Goldhawk Road on our way to a party when David said, isn't one of the houses you're interested in near here? We looked at the house and I thought, I could raise a family here, so we put in an offer that afternoon.
What inspired you to become an artist?
When I was a baby I spent a lot of time scribbling on a wall. I was in love with that wall, the size, the smoothness. I remember having a cuddle with my mum and she asked me, what are you going to be when you grow up? I said, an artist. She said, I've got another idea but I'll tell you when you're older. I said, please tell me now, and she said, architect. I didn't know what that was. My mother was born and raised in New York and had had a liberal arts education. I remember mum taking me to a William Blake exhibition when I was 13 and I spent hours there that passed like minutes because I was so interested. As a teenager I was bewitched by the nineteenth century French Impressionists and the Italian Renaissance painters, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Piero della Francesca. But dad was quite firm about art school and said I couldn't go till I'd done a degree. He said, architecture, law, medicine or theology, Sarah. I was good at physics. I took my physics A-level in Nottingham in a year because we had to move when I was 17. Everyone else's father worked for the Raleigh Cycle Factory – they were all from India or Pakistan – and we all got As in physics. That was my ticket to architecture school. I particularly enjoyed making models – one looked like Sydney Opera House. I did end up qualifying as an architect and I worked in Palo Alto in California, which was wonderful.
I got 27 different jobs to support myself
Did training as an architect inform your art?
The architecture gave me the mental discipline over how things arrive on the canvas, particularly in the case of the golden section, squares within rectangles. Not that I ever learnt any of that at architecture school. At art school afterwards I had a wonderful tutor who had this golden section detector like a compass with three prongs that moved in constant golden ratio. He went round all my paintings when I arrived and saw that everything was in golden ratio so it must have been instinctive.
What is golden ratio?
When the ratio of the smaller part to the bigger part is the same as the bigger part to the sum of the two. I went to art school because I wanted to learn to paint light. He showed me how to paint light with complementary colours. It's how you keep the colour in the shadow true.
What are complementary colours?
If you imagine a colour wheel, with the three primary colours, red, yellow and blue split into thirds, the colours that are really magical are the in-between colours mixed with those three primaries. So if you mix yellow and blue you get green, which is opposite red. Red and green are complementary. If you want to make a deep red, you need look no further than the green directly opposite. You take a little green and mix it with the red to get a deeper red. And it works the other way round: add just a little red to green and you get a deeper green – red in the shade and green in the shade.
Another trick is to half close your eyes, not just to see without the detail but to see tone. Reduced light levels trigger the rods in the eye which can only react to light and dark. By half closing your eyes you can gauge the light and dark.
I desperately want to share what I've learnt. I've started putting films on YouTube. It's great fun. My daughter, Immy, who's interested in film, helped using a granny's wheelchair to pan the camera through the National Gallery.
Why did you give up architecture?
I ran out of work. Kind people started asking me to do a mural, or a picture of their house, or their children, and I said to David, last week I had no work as an architect, but now I have all this work as an artist. In a way it chose me.
Did your parents approve?
I think they thought they were indulging me. When I was at the Ruskin (School of Art) my father paid for the rent on my room and the fees, but I got 27 different jobs to support myself. I taught tennis, did waitressing, and I was the art critic for the Oxford Mail for my last year. And I sold my work. Foolishly I sold some of my best work before my final show, but I got the commendation anyway so I was very lucky.
Do you come from an artistic family?
My father liked to draw. He was a professor of medicine at Guy's Hospital working on diabetes. When I was 17 he was asked to organise a medical school at Nottingham University so we moved in the middle of my A-levels, which was a bit tough. After that he set up a medical school at Addenbrooke's (Hospital) in Cambridge, and became Master of Downing College and Vice-Chancellor of the University. He was very popular. Once some students got into a bit of trouble and he secretly paid their fine. His father, my grandfather, was creative; he won a five-pound bet to build a lightweight motorbike at 18 and he set up a factory in Birmingham. He called it Levis which means light. An interesting aside: opposite that factory was a sweet shop run by my husband's grandfather. When the Depression hit, my father can remember counting 148 motorbikes in the back garden because his father spent every penny buying the motorbikes to keep the men in work. He hid them in the garden hoping for better times. It was tragic. They went bankrupt and moved to Stechford, which is why my father chose to be Lord Butterfield of Stechford. My granny, who really was artistic and had drive, would look for tumbledown cottages. She'd do them up and they'd move on every six months. She also had a shop and used to go to Paris. I remember fabulous gilt furniture that she'd bought for a song and done up. She rescued the family and managed to get two boys to Oxford (University).
With a father in the House of Lords and a husband in Cabinet (Minister of State for Universities and Science, 2010-14), were you obliged to censor your work?
No. I did one show with a whole series of naked figures. Henry Moore said there's something landscapey about the nude and something nudey about a landscape. I didn't feel I had to run it past David because he was completely relaxed about it.
How do you decide what to paint?
The triggers are everywhere. On holiday in Turkey I saw a couple on a motorbike pass by the café where I was sitting with my family and took a photo. I don't usually work from photos. They were dots in the distance but the result was a huge diptych, two panels.
One series of sunsets came from a comment. A friend in Havant, my husband's constituency, mentioned that we were enjoying particularly amazing sunsets over the Solent. After the sun has sunk you get the most beautiful colours, but you have to be quick. I had to work in the dark with a hurricane lamp. I probably did 55 small sketches in oil. It's hard work because you just have to do it or you'll lose it. When I had a few to choose from, I could decide what to scale up. I'm not afraid to work big.
Is confidence essential for good art?
I think you only get the confidence by working really hard. Our two children, Matthew and Immy, work very hard and I hope they do that because they know their parents work really hard. Posh and Becks say to their children, just work hard. But it must be fun. I remember dropping in on an ancient history lecture and learning that the Greeks were the first to ascribe reason to natural phenomena. Even though they believed Zeus did throw lightning, they were the first civilization to explore what caused lightning and that was the beginning of science. I thought that was more interesting than anything I'd learned that year.
I did as much as I could. I reckoned it would be two evenings a week plus the weekends in his constituency.
Was your art a refuge from politics?
Maybe the politics is a refuge from the art. When you work alone it's wonderful to meet interesting people. I am interested in politics, and everything David does is so interesting.
What were the political highlights?
We were at Central Office in '87 when Mrs T won for the third time and that felt like a historic moment. I remember in '97 when John Major lost. He came over to me and said, my talented friend. It was typical of him to say something so kind and generous, even when his world had just been rocked.
And the lows?
David shielded me from the worst. Any time it's been stressful, with arguments flashing on all the front pages, I've always thought David was in the right and said the truth. That's sustaining so I never felt crumbly and wretched.
Artists are considered to be leftwing and your husband isn't. How do you square that?
Years ago, a musician came up to me and said, you can't be an artist and married to a Conservative, but the art world is much more elitist than it likes to admit. If you buy Tracey Emin's bed you need an enormous home to house it. I think her bed is wonderful but so much of that Young British Art is meant as public art, not to be taken home. David Cameron has one of her neon lights above a door at No 10 that says, more passion. I'm not sure passion is always a good thing for a politician. It's better to be balanced. Really good politics is a balance of opposites. As they get older most leftwing politicians come to realise they have to balance the books and most Conservative MPs become more leftwing, more understanding.
Did you try to influence his policy making?
No. We don't discuss politics all the time. I remember in the 90s when house prices were starting to rise and David pointed out that mortgages were reducing as a proportion and I said, but that'll be terrible for our children. After that he wrote a book called 'The Pinch' and sweetly said I'd influenced his thinking. I do care. It would be impossible to be a politician's wife if you didn't care.
What are you working on now?
I'm going back to China. At my last China show I met Hulhun Hu, an important figure at the China National Academy of Art. She bought a painting and said, I wish my students could paint like you, and I said, I'd be happy to teach them everything I know. So they invited me over and I'll be exhibiting in Beijing and Hangzhou in January (2016). I've done 36 paintings for the exhibition, 30 brand new. For the marketing, my Chinese backers didn't want testimonials from my clients, like Jon Snow, they wanted peer review from three other artists, who were very generous.
How do you price your work?
I don't think about prices when I paint a picture and I don't know what will sell. The galleries have their guides. It's ridiculous because small is always cheaper than medium and medium cheaper than big. Even if I've put a lot of work into a small painting and want to charge more, I've yet to find a gallery that'll agree. Last year when I went to China it was the bigger pictures that sold, the more abstract work. They didn't want the neo-Impressionism. They wanted the ones that could only have been done by Sarah Butterfield. I realised I'd done my apprenticeship and there are things in me that I now have the confidence to put down on canvas.
Thank you, Sarah. It's been a real pleasure to meet you.
You can see more of Sarah's work in our sponsor Finlay Brewer's office in Askew Road or via her website www.sarahbutterfield.co.uk.
Interviewed Nov 2015 by Jo Reynolds