Beyond the shoreline

Boats lay on the sand like beached fish. Nets hung in clusters, the webs of "sea spiders." Salt and sand whipped our faces and the wind sang out of tune. My parents and I stood transfixed. Out to sea an old man in a top hat and suit was sailing about on a barrel! Often he fell off into the icy water and scrabbled frantically to get back aboard to continue paddling around in tight circles. After half an hour of foolery he came in and walked dripping up the beach. These infant recollections of Hastings are amongst my earliest memories. The Old Man of the Sea has long since gone, but the boats and fishing tackle remain. There is a new generation of fishermen, but they perform much the same tasks as ever.

Hastings beach holds a strong sense of place. It is here that Laetitia Yhap has found her subject, her concern. She was a Londoner with a Chinese father and a Viennese mother, and she lived between London and Hastings for many years.During that time her work had little to do with Hastings and less to do with human figures. A three-year inner search ended a few yards away on Hasting beach. There she suddenly "noticed" a man leaning on a fishing boat, and "it was the way he leaned" that demanded her attention.

Stanley Spencer was lucky to find in his native Cookham the ingredients of his universal art. For others like Laetitia Yhap the vision is not so decisive. At first the boats and huts looked antique and carried a heavy charge of nostalgia. The beach was already littered with artists trying to capture the picturesque. It took time to see the quality they had missed altogether in their obsession for prettiness.

From working drawings of the men and boys in and around their boats, Laetitia recalls the experience, the struggling to transform it into paint. Away in her room the painting is distilled from memories, affections, and designs. Beyond her subjects is a determination full of personal colour and simple, rhythmic lines and shapes. All these reinforce the feeling of saltiness, the raw hard work of fishing, and the sea's wildness. They are paintings from someone who, like Conrad, knows the sea and its realities.

Laetitia Yhap uses shaped canvases which often reflect the forms of boats. Like Alfred Wallis and Ben Nicholson, she has found that the traditional rectangle is not necessarily the most useful form. Many of her compositions use the outer edges of the board to echo the shapes inside. These outlines seem to recall the forms to be seen in that place, as if we were looking through the frame of a hull or the spaces between boats. We are there with the fishermen. The nearness is established not only by the close proximity in which the artist makes her drawings but by her spiritual intimacy with the fishermen. This affinity is made more potent by her system of working. She clarifies her images and they emerge in paint, their substance strengthened and stripped of all embellishments.

Hastings beach, or at least that part of it that escapes the ravages and fussings of holiday-makers, still holds the hard truths of gutted fish, smashed crabs, and patched boats. The fishermen preserve a wisdom similar to those old farmers who understood the earth rather than imposed upon it. It is this serious understanding which, like the sting of sand in our faces, reminds us of the truths of the sea. Laetitia Yhap has found subject matter that might in other hands remain rooted in one place. Her paintings take us beyond the shoreline into wider truths, truths of the sea, of men and of paint.

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