It’s taken a while for Robyn Litchfield to see herself as a ‘business woman’, and to sign up to the New Zealand Business Women’s Network in London. It’s also taken some time for the London-based painter to build her profile as a professional artist. Her long fascination with the ancient sunken forests of her homeland led in 2022 to a significant commercial commission: a permanent installation of a 16-metre interior mural in the Frank Gehry-designed London office of Meta on Lewis Cubitt Square, King’s Cross. After 15 years exploring elements of NZ’s colonial history and its backcountry geographies through her painting, Robyn’s recent solo exhibition “Let Time Be Still” (2023) demonstrated the maturing of her distinctive style.This body of work, featuring twelve new works depicting Kahikatea swamp forests, is named after words from Kiwi poet James K. Baxter.
Back in New Zealand in the early eighties, Robyn had run her own clothing business at Cook Street Market in Auckland, before arriving in the UK in 1984 after three years in Melbourne. With her background in fashion design and computing, Robyn felt immediately drawn to London’s modern design scene. She worked for many years as a pattern cutter and couturier, also freelance from home, before giving this up to focus on her painting. Robyn retrained in fine arts at the City Literary Institute, and went on to complete her BA at the School of Art, Architecture and Design at London Metropolitan University, later graduating in 2017 with distinction with a Masters in Fine Arts from City and Guilds of London Art School. Since this time, she has maintained her own painting studio in Hoxton.
Robyn’s artistic interests are embedded in experiences of being an immigrant-explorer, and seeing older landscapes with new eyes. Her portfolio is characterised by monochrome oil paintings that evoke the luminous emulsion on glass-plates typical of early photographs of colonial New Zealand. Her great-grandfather was a photographer, producing early travel guides. Robyn’s art practice is inspired by his images, historic postcards and stories of her own family’s early settlement in New Zealand. She was struck by the early settlers’ attraction to New Zealand’s ancient landscapes, as well as the dramatic stories of shipwreck, capture, perilous travel and displacement that were passed down by the early global adventurers in her family.
Robyn herself is a great traveller, having emigrated to the UK after exploring Asia in the early 1980s. While at first she felt quite an outsider, living in London at that time was easier than now, as “you could give up your room, your job, go travelling and just find another one when you got back. I used to live in Brixton in a house-share for 20 pounds a month!” Apart from a two-year return to working in the fashion industry in NZ in the early nineties, Robyn has kept a London base throughout. Her art however remains steeped in her memories of New Zealand and its subtropical landscapes. The lowland forests and dank wetlands Robyn depicted in her 2023 solo show were however the first time she had used her own photographs as sources, from a recent trip back to New Zealand. She laughs that her intention to capture dramatic, verdant images on camera, evoking ideas of memory, longing and loss, was somewhat impeded by the fabulous dry weather experienced by the South Island at the time: “It was great for me as a person, but less ideal for my art!”
Robyn exhibits widely in the UK, with gallery owners and independently, and has been awarded numerous prizes for contemporary painting. Her work has been recently shown at the London Art Fair and the Summer Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts. She finds that large-scale paintings are best suited to her subject matter and working style, although she also tries to build “the expansive feeling” into her smaller works. Her art-making usually starts with watercolour sketches, then she begins to work in oil, her expressive brushstrokes modified by scraping and overlayering: “I sort of draw into it, and remove the paint. So it needs to stay wet for a long time.” The scale of the mural installation at Meta’s London office was thus an enormous challenge. As she couldn’t work on-site in oils, but wanted their depth of effect, “I photographed the initial studio paintings at very high resolution, printed and installed them on-site and then I added elements of acrylic paint to them on the wall. I had to plan everything ahead, and I had just two weeks to install it.”
It sometimes means working long hours to tight deadlines, but commissions, exhibitions and the admin of managing her artworks for display are an essential part of moving her business forward: “You can have the best artwork of the world, but if you don’t build a reputation for being reliable, if you don’t apply for things, or care for your works, or get discouraged, then it just sits in a cupboard somewhere.” She’d love to see more Kiwi artists exhibiting in Europe, and taking advantage of the many residencies on offer. “I’d also love to show in New Zealand, but there’s the cost of transporting the art and the lower prices that you get in NZ - but it would be really lovely to do.”
After her recent run of shows, Robyn is planning an explorative, developmental year in 2024, including international travel and open-ended creative time in the studio. Working seven days a week for months on end for her showcase exhibitions was physically as well as creatively demanding. “Now I’m trying to keep a good balance so that I build strength again this year, while producing a good body of work as well. So that I can go on and do it again!”