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A Maker’s Story: spiritualism and sympathetic magic abound in Sophie Coryndon’s mixed-media art

On the site of an old Quaker meeting house on the outskirts of Lewes, Sophie Coryndon creates large-scale wall hangings that combine carpentry with fine art, historical craft and new materials, each imbued with just a smattering of spirituality

Rosily Roberts
Paul Whitbread
A Maker’s Story: spiritualism and sympathetic magic abound in Sophie Coryndon’s mixed-media art

The back of a cattle farm on the South Downs is, perhaps, an unlikely place for an artist’s studio. And yet it is here, under the vaulted ceiling of a large barn – on the site of a former Quaker meeting house – that you’ll find Sophie Coryndon. She is, most likely, working on one of her many large-scale pieces that have caught the eye of fashion houses such as Chanel and Dior. The low rumble of cows mooing punctuates the silence while she works.

Sophie’s art is, by her own admission, difficult to define. Physically, it takes the form of monumental three-dimensional wall hangings that bring together her art-college education with the skills she picked up as an apprentice in her father’s cabinetmaking workshop. She then worked as a furniture painter herself, before turning her hand to epic botanical paintings that secured her representation in a London gallery.

Since 2010, when Sophie moved away from pure painting in search of something with another dimension, she has sought to combine historical techniques with contemporary materials. As well as selling directly from her studio in the UK, she is represented by Todd Merrill in New York City and her commissions continue to be highly sought after. In fact, she’s about to send one off to hang in the newly refurbished lobby of London’s Dorchester hotel. Her work, she tells Inigo, is the result of a combination of sparks of inspiration, insomnia-fuelled thinking and hours of precise, repetitive, meditative labour – a process she explains to us on our visit.

“My art is always based on the natural world, in particular its intricacies. With, say, a field of wildflowers, it’s the details of the plants themselves that interest me, not the vista. I’m trying to illuminate the complex details I find enchanting by blowing them up to a large scale. And there is an environmental element too, though I don’t want to approach it in a morose, doom-filled way; I want my pieces to be awe-inspiring, to create a sense of wonder and appreciation for nature.

“Alongside that, there’s always a historical process involved. I’m very inspired by Renaissance altarpieces, which combined sculpture, painting and craft techniques. That’s what I try to do too, and my work spans the same three areas. My apprenticeship was in lacquer, gilding and other traditional craft techniques, so I draw on those too, but often incorporating contemporary materials. There is always a contemporary lens.

“The outcome is usually a large-scale wall panel. Although, saying that, I do make little framed pieces too. Sometimes I will go in close, observationally, on something, although that is usually a means to an end, which is to then blow something up in scale or include it as part of a very large piece.

“I’m really interested in sympathetic magic and mimicry in the natural world. For example, a bee orchid pretending to be a bee, in order to attract pollinators, or butterflies that disguise themselves as leaves. The level of intricacy in that is amazing. The same thing is at play in my work as well. For instance, my ‘embroidery’ pieces are not embroidery. They’re cast plaster made to look like goldwork. There’s a layer of theatre to it too – what you see isn’t what you get.

“I’ve always noticed that the space in which I live and work has an effect on my pieces. We used to live in a little cottage with low ceilings and lots of beams, and my work got really small. Then we moved to a Victorian townhouse with high ceilings and I started making big architectural pictures. There used to be a Quaker meeting house on this bit of land, and this building has a lovely feel to it, with its hugely high ceilings. There is a real sense of stillness here, which has an almost church-like quality. Moving here, about six years ago, definitely changed the nature of my work. It added a more spiritual quality to it. And there is something almost spiritual about the process too. So much of my work is the result of hours of repetitive labour. It almost becomes a form of meditation.

“When we came to look at this place, the agent who showed us around kept saying: ‘It’s wind- and watertight!’ But it’s definitely not – there are often birds in here when I come in in the morning, and at night the rafters are full of bats. We’ve filled it with old pieces of furniture from Ardingly antiques fair, such as the armoire that was once used as a postal cabinet and still has the notices inside. The table came from Glyndebourne and had been used in a production of Cinderella. It’s reinforced, because it was designed to be danced on.

“In his workshop, my father had wonderful drawers full of shark skins and marquetry and bits that had broken off pieces of furniture; I always thought it was a genuine treasure chest. So my chest of drawers, full of tools and materials, is a homage to him.”

Further reading

Sophie Coryndon

Sophie Coryndon on Instagram

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