SARAH Moncrieff used to pass the Cowley motor works – the subject of several of the paintings in her Oxfordshire Artweeks exhibition – every day, as she went to school in Oxford from her family’s home in Littlemore.

“It is a place I have been familiar with for a long time,” she said.

“I am quite curious about what is on my doorstep — the little places tucked away that we like to ignore. They are what motivate me and stimulate me.

“My interest in the urban scene started in Coventry, which is a city encircled by a ring road,” Sarah said.

“I worked in an advice centre in an area that received a lot of bad press – for example, it was listed by the Daily Mail as one of the 10 worst places to live – but the folks who ran the centre were such positive people I decided to try to counteract this image by painting the road and some of the buildings.”

She chooses places that are superficially ugly or bland, and extracts the elements that enable the viewer to appreciate them as dramatic, thought-provoking and visually appealing.

“I am interested in the way artists take visual information and process and edit it. For example, if I were going to paint my garden, I wouldn’t paint the million leaves I see — it’s not possible to paint it all.”

She works in oils, with a very limited palette these days – blues, greys and white feature heavily – and her paintings are characterised by contrast and a sort of sombre sweeping energy which is hard to describe but very distinctive.

“I do not have figures in my work – that gives it a kind of loneliness, or eeriness” she said.

Among the artists who have influenced her approach to painting are Frank Auerbach, his teacher at Borough Polytechnic David Bomberg, and his fellow-student Leon Kossoff, whose dramatic London cityscapes she much admires.

“Also a contemporary painter of very vigorous landscapes, David Tress, and the Welsh artist who died a few years ago, Peter Prendergast. I like his work very much.”

A former pupil at Oxford High School, and then Gosford Hill School’s sixth-form in Kidlington, Sarah did not come from a particularly artistic family but, like so many other Artweeks exhibitors, has been painting, drawing and making things as long as she can remember.

She also learned to knit as a very young child and now produces her own range of knitwear designs, inspired by the colours and patterns of the natural world. It was a while, however, before she began to give serious attention to art as an alternative career.

“In my early 30s I was working part-time as a solicitor in Oxford and decided to enroll for a degree in fine art, the first two years part-time and the final year full-time.

Witney Gazette:

A painting of the Cowley production line

"I studied at Banbury, because they had some very keen painting tutors there – I wasn’t so interested in the conceptual stuff.” Since then she has been able to combine teaching adult art classes in Woodstock and Oxford with her own creative work.

Past subjects have included the Ardley landfill site, near Bicester, the old cement works near Shipton-on-Cherwell, a tyre dump, and Didcot power station.

“I was also very interested in Broadmoor Hospital, which I used to visit quite a lot when I was practising as a solicitor.

“Unless you were specifically going to it, you wouldn’t know it was there, because it’s hidden away on top of a hill and the hill has been forested. It’s a sad place — people are there for a long time.”

Sarah’s painting of the gates of the old Victorian institution at the centre of the modern cluster of buildings, which conveys this sadness rather movingly, was bought by the Broadmoor Hospital Trust last year.

On the walls of her cottage kitchen and conservatory hang two large paintings, part of a series, inspired by port and cement works sites at Dakar, in Senegal.

“I was in an art gallery in Amsterdam and saw a photo project by a street boy at a centre run by a Senegalese charity, l’Empire des Enfants.

“There’s a very specific problem to do with the tradition of families sending boys to religious schools, because they think they will get a good education, but they’re then sent out to beg by the people who run them.

“The centre tries to take them back to their families and educate the parents about the dangers. I was going to Senegal because my brother was living there, so I got in touch with them.

“I have been teaching art workshops at the centre for over five years now,” said Sarah.

“The boys are amazing: they take to it immediately and really want the opportunity to try as many things as they can – they like using everything I bring them, and when they get into a project, a big collage for example, they love mixing up colour and making the whole thing their own.

“When they are really, really into it they will start singing – that’s when I know they’re happy.”

Back at home, much of her time recently has been devoted to the painting that has resulted from visits to Cowley to observe and draw the car factory, which builds BMW’s Mini range.

She said: “I found the Mini building and the production line really interesting.

“When you look at the ceiling, you see all sorts of horizontal and vertical lines criss-crossing, and then you have the circular thing of all these parts of the car being made at various stages and moving round very slowly.

“All the different shapes and different lines seem quite chaotic, so you think ‘What can I select that will give the essence of the interior of the plant as I would like to portray it?’.”

  • Sarah Moncrieff’s Artweeks exhibition runs from May 17-24 at Ewert House, in Ewert Place, off Banbury Road, in Summertown, Oxford. For more details, see
  • Almost 100 venues across West Oxfordshire will be hosting exhibitions and demonstrations as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks from Saturday. Galleries, artists’ studios and workshops, pubs, schools and churches will play host to events until Sunday, May 18. For more information on these events and others around the county, see or call 01865 865596.