...And Repeat

11th April 2019

Famed for her witty animal-themed work and her quirky take on the lives of great painters, Holly Frean is an artist who revels in repetition.

Words by Gill Morgan

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I talk to Holly Frean in her bright, high-ceilinged home studio overlooking a leafy South London common. On the wall behind her are four gouache dog portraits and a ceiling-high monochrome painting of a figure, jumping, which dates back to a much earlier body of work. Across the room is a set of ceramic animals, and she shows me some of her new works: oil miniatures of famous paintings, or indeed artists, painted onto used palettes, complete with the residue of the previous artist's paint. The portrait’s face often becomes a blank where the thumbhole is. “I’m not interested in reproducing the face exactly, it's more about the shape and the feel of the whole painting as an object. It's a portrait second and a painting first.”

Frean is hard to pigeonhole. A commercially savvy and sought-after artist, she also retains a restless, questing spirit. The diverse range of her output has been a constant throughout her career and, as the daughter of parents who run their own design company, she has never been snooty about commercial applications of her work. She has collaborated with brands such as Burberry, Paul Smith and Anthropologie – most notably with her hugely popular chicken plates – and worked with interior designer Andrew Martin and hotelier Kit Kemp on fabrics, wallpaper and ceramics.

I’m not interested in reproducing the face exactly, it's more about the shape and the feel of the whole painting as an object. It's a portrait second and a painting first.

A recurring theme in her work is an almost obsessive drive to understand the essence of something by painting it many times, from many different viewpoints, or by juxtaposing it with lots of similar images. There’s something in the combination that both intrigues and amuses her. “It’s a kind of refining through repetition, really looking at something and working out what makes it what it is, reducing it to the essential,” she explains. 

If this makes Frean sound po-faced, nothing could be further from the truth. There’s a sense of mischief and very English wit about everything she does. In her palette portraits, for example – on sale at the New Craftsmen gallery in Mayfair – you can probably guess where she's placed the palette's thumbhole in her take on Michelangelo's David. But it's animals that have really made her name: chickens, dogs, blue bears, you name it. Her creatures are often depicted in crowds, a sea of bemused faces, posing as if for a school photograph or seated in a West End audience. "I don't know why it's funny, but it is,” she grins.

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Frean has worked on private commissions for fans as disparate as the Duchess of Northumberland, Ricky Gervais and Johnnie Boden and is now sold through Goodwood's nearneighbour, the Zimmer Stewart gallery in Arundel. She also has a US gallery, her own website and does frequent pop-ups and collaborations. Playful, irreverent and somehow quintessentially British, she may love repetition but Holly Frean is a one-off.

This article was taken from the Spring 2019 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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