Issue 208
May/June 2019

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May 26, 2019

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Musician, painter, sculptor – oh! – and welder, too

Mary Gladstone meets a woman who has exploited all her talents over a very full life

IT'S HARD NOT to envy Penny Wheatley. From the beginning of her life, she has displayed bags of talent, not only in the visual arts, but also in music.

While studying the viola with Keith Cummings at Trinity College of Music, London, Penny also learned to sculpt with David Wynne, (1926-2014), renowned for his 1964 sculpture of The Beatles and for introducing them to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, whose portrait in bronze he is also responsible for.

Success came quickly. After graduating, she showed her bronzes, for two years running, at London's Leicester Galleries, at that time, a prestigious venue. She also exhibited at Ackermann of Old Bond Street, Piccadilly and The Tryon.

On moving to Scotland, she won an award for a bronze portrait at the Royal Scottish Academy. Over the years, Penny has staged group and solo shows at The Lamp of Lothian Trust, Haddington, the Scottish Gallery and exhibited in Kendal, Edinburgh, Galashiels and Adelaide, Australia.

Penny is frank about how, following her early success, difficulties ensued: an unhappy marriage, then single parenthood, bringing up two sons alone and ill health. While raising her teenage boys, she created a life-size bronze sculpture of an otter commissioned by the Galloway Wildlife Trust for a memorial to author and naturalist, Gavin Maxwell. Then the Forestry Commission got her to do another for the Raiders' Road in Galloway.

When Penny was still quite young, she studied welding at a technical college. "Along with blacksmiths and builders I was a bit of a freak there. Everybody gawked at this young woman with long, fair hair, wearing a boiler suit!"

Her welding classes resulted in several commissions: a wall sculpture for the Albion Steel Works in Edinburgh, another at the Department of Experimental Psychology, Oxford and a welded steel and bronze for The Earl Haig's garden near Melrose.

Throughout her early adult life, Penny continued to play the viola. "Although my true talent lies with the visual arts. I'm most in love with music," she says.

Sadly, she was denied that outlet. Due to an unstable shoulder joint, she had to stop playing.

"It was a terrible blow. At that time, I was playing more music than working in sculpture. I had a string quartet of my own, played in four different orchestras and when playing, felt happier and more fulfilled than at any other time in my life."

She gave up music for a long time.

After marrying again in the mid 80s, but still suffering from ill health, Penny was diagnosed in 1992 with ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) or chronic fatigue syndrome. Downhearted but undaunted, she gave up sculpture and took up painting, in gouache and increasingly, as her physical strength diminished, in water colour.

Her subjects are animals (she has sculpted many, not only otters but racehorses, when she lived in Newmarket) and her great love, big cats. Inspired by William Blake's 'tyger', she painted a tiger in oils and, helped by David Attenborough, sold the painting at London Zoo, raising money for tigers in the wild.

The Amur leopard is the most endangered big cat in the world (only 50 exist in East Russia and 10 in NW China, although breeding programmes in zoos are introducing them into the wild). Hunted for its fur and threatened by the destruction of its habitat, the Amur leopard shares its territory with the Amur tiger and Snow leopard. Penny is deeply committed to saving 'these creatures.'

Since the death of her husband in 2015, she took a break from painting big cats and began to play music again. After attending a concert in the Borders and listening to an inspiring young cellist, she realised, even at such a late stage in her life (she was well into her 70s), she should learn to play the cello and "wanted to get good enough to experience again the joys of playing chamber music.

"It hasn't been easy. I can't play for very long at a time and only practice every other day but I am sticking to it through thick and thin."

With her love of music and singular gift for capturing with intensity, movement on paper and canvas, it wasn't long before Penny was sketching musicians, particularly cellists.

"I was so inspired to play a stringed instrument that I needed to paint the scene as well. I wanted to portray the musician so engrossed in what he was doing that he was lost to the world. .To date, she has painted Yo-Yo Ma performing the Bach suites, Sheku Kanneh-Mason, winner of the 2016 BBC Young Musician of the Year award, Joshua Bell, playing the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Steven Isserlis, the Fauré Sonata No 2 in G Minor and Nicola Benedetti, Max Bruch's Violin Concerto.

Penny's commitment to playing the cello and painting portraits of musicians, does not overshadow her fascination with big cats in action. She has recently painted in water colour cheetahs chasing Thomson gazelles, capturing grace both in predator and prey as they leap, twist and turn, faster and more beautifully than any other animal on the planet. "I try to capture 'the force lines' and 'energy arcs' underlying a burst of speed."

Attempting to depict lions in water colour, she discovered that only oils could express a male lion's power, as the colours must be vivid enough to match this animal's majesty.

Not content merely with portraiture of musicians and studies of big cats, this indefatigable artist has now turned to painting portraits of children. By doing so, her artistic career has turned full circle. Towards the beginning of her life as a sculptor, she once modelled exquisitely in bronze the head of her infant firstborn as he slept.

Apart from her unmistakable talent, Penny Wheatley is more than a survivor; she is positively heroic.

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