‘Interview’ is quite a grand word for what was really a snatch of questions, but I did manage a few. Here’s what I found.
Frances Simpson (known to many as Franny) has painted in watercolour for years, encouraged, she told me, by her husband’s wedding gift to her…a studio.
We visited Franny at her home in Naivasha, Kenya at the end of 2018. The family were still in the same house, expanded a little – both family and house – and using the same studios.
It was a holiday for us, but also a rare chance for me to try to find out a little more about Franny the artist.
The few days of our stay were packed and wonderful, with little chance for the ‘interview’ until the last morning of our visit. Even then Franny, never one to pose for scrutiny, proved as hard to catch as a butterfly.
The moment came at last. We were in a new old studio, crowded by bougainvillea and palm on the outside, and with its doors wide open to the sun.
There was space and quiet, and time to think.
I gathered my questions as Franny picked out a selection of paintings from various drawers, added finishing touches to a few, then placed them beside others to be rolled and packed.
Outside chickens clucked across the lawn, and the dogs came and went.
I’ve known Franny ever since I married her brother, but, as we’ve never lived nearby, it’s her art I know better than her.
A few pictures, mostly gifts from her, have followed us around the world as we’ve travelled. Most are light, bright images of Kenya, the country where she and her four siblings were born, and all are evidence of Franny’s exceptional talents – mostly self-taught, and worked relentlessly over the years in Kenya for the benefit of her family.
For us, the wider family, Franny’s talents are an embedded truth, but search for information on her or her work and there isn’t much out there. Timing and location haven’t helped. Her profile developed before the social media era, and was deeply tied to the demands of three young children and life in rural Kenya. Her skills have been poured into the family, and work from home, with little left for self-promotion.
I watched as she moved around the room. She was totally absorbed and at ease – it was clearly the place she loved to be.
Finally she straightened up and looked at me…ready to begin. I began with the basics.
Born in Kenya. I knew that part, and that when she was five, the family had left Kenya and spent the next six years in South Africa.
From South Africa they moved to Zimbabwe where Franny did her secondary schooling, her days filled with music and art – ‘always drawing’ she said. Then she got thrown out of the art class for not showing due deference to the teacher.
With art sent to detention, she allowed the music to take over at school, and after school it took her to Cambridge in England where she got a degree in music, her specialities being piano and flute.
“Not at ‘the’ Cambridge,” she told me, grinning. Franny’s green eyes laugh – they often do. “Anyway, even though I love music, the course made me realise I didn’t want to be a musician.”
She said it quickly, the words like her – lean, and without flounce.
“Do you listen to music while you paint?” I asked
“Too distracting,” she replied. “If I do play any, I start to listen to what’s going on in the music. If I did put some on it would be jazz or a band like Dire Straits.”
After Cambridge Franny went to London for eight years to restore ceramics. The first two years she spent as an apprentice in a studio in Fulham, and the rest as a self-employed restorer.
The work taught her about colour, she said, and it introduced her to the ceramic artist Eric Mellon whose work she saw at an exhibition in Salisbury, Wiltshire, where she had been to sing in the cathedral.
That introduction led to a visit to his home in Sussex, and to the weekly life drawing classes that he held in a studio on the Chelsea Embankment, usually followed by evenings in the pub.
I asked if she had done any painting while in England.
“No. It was too green,” she replied, seriously.
She moved to Kenya in the 1980s, where the second of her four sisters was about to be married in Nairobi. At first it was just to make her sister’s wedding dress, but while there she met and married the Kenyan, Hugh Simpson.
The studio he built for her was still at the heart of the home, and it was where she developed her career as a self-taught, self-employed commercial artist.
Locally, Franny’s stamina and success are well-known. She has had solo exhibitions in Nairobi, and her art is in both private and corporate collections, including some large commissions for CFC Stanbic Bank in Nairobi, for Sarova Hotels, and for Serena Hotel. Many other paintings are now in homes in Europe and America…including ours.
At this point – after about fifteen minutes of chat – I sensed that Franny, in her paint-spattered apron, was getting restless. I asked quickly about the African influences on her work, about what inspired her ideas. She did not hesitate:
“Cattle dust and tribal fabric,” she answered moving away.
I tried one last question:
“What are your plans?” She paused and looked back at me.
“I want to paint more loosely, to be more abstract, to keep painting from life but painting the moment…and to use more mixed media.”
I closed my notebook. Perhaps I had a little more, but not much.
On my way out I took a last photograph of the sea paintings – so fresh I could feel the wind.
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2019