“The studio is a place of alchemy and magic, where you can uncover secrets and new possibilities,” portrait artist Philippa Bianchi says, as she shows us into a room filled with canvases, sketches and an assortment of artist’s tools. The great-granddaughter of famed artist Giuseppe Cali, Philippa sees in painting the captivating power of personal and artistic discovery, and is thrilled by the pursuit ‘’to create exciting paintings”.
Portrait of H.E. Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca
And her paintings are more than exciting. They are more than life-like. Her intimate portraits of famed and notable individuals – politicians, cardinals, members of European aristocracy – gaze back at us and help us see her familiar subjects anew. There’s a truth in her artistic strokes, which only comes from years of dedication. A life spent in service.
“It’s a full-time way of being. It’s all-encompassing and demands your every attention mentally, emotionally and physically. The more you keep growing, the more engrossed you are likely to become,” she tells me as we discuss her work a bit later in her family living room, with paintings by her great-grandfather adorning the walls.
Like most portrait artists, she works on commission, her paintings as she describes are “a celebration of lives” and “a way of honouring people’s achievements and what they stand for”. But, there is no implied pressure to simply flatter her subjects. Rather, she sees her sitters as belonging to an arena of action where they do more than just sit for her.
“I’ve started to see my subjects more as people who are doers, rather than as sitters; therefore instead of perceiving someone by title, I try to think of them by verb. For example, for my current commissions, in particular the Cardinal, I am portraying him as ‘believer’; an ambassador would be as ‘negotiator’; the former university rector as ‘visionary’. This immediately places them in a realm of raison d’etre and I like this idea of placing people in this context of a personal role.”
Maybe this is because Philippa herself is a woman of action, having spent her formative years away from the island she called home. “I’ve mostly lived out of two suitcases and constantly travelled with tubes of canvas on my back. The experience of being gypsy-like for so many years has been challenging and I’ve often had to find a new way to work, be it off a dining table or a kitchen counter.” She describes some of the extraordinary places she has worked in, from a back room in St Thomas and Guy’s Hospital, with a ladder as her easel, as well as backstage at the Royal Opera House in London.
Indeed, while the places and faces have changed, art has been a constant, ever since Philippa was a child. But, was it her esteemed family heritage which inspired her to take up the form? “Well for me, it is not so much works of art or things that influenced me growing up, but rather people in my life, their enthusiasm for art, and their stories surrounding art that left me in wonderment, and to whom I am most grateful.”
She mentions her uncle, Nicholas de Piro, whom she calls “a great preserver of stories and of art history”, and her great-grandfather, Giuseppe Cali, as formative influences. She recalls her grandmother talking about Cali, his process of working and his temperament “and just feeling in awe of this man and thinking he was a hero,” she says.
But, it is also the women in her life who seem to have been a great source of inspiration. She has fond memories of being invited into her aunt’s studio “with a lot of enthusiasm” and being asked “my humble opinion on her painting”. “I was in admiration of my aunt, of her smile and her happiness as a painter. I wanted to be just like her,” she smiles.
However, the plan was for her not to become a painter, being advised that she “had to do something sensible and reliable”, for the art form was “not going to suffice as a source of income and security.” The initial idea was for her to become a designer, – a trade which is intricately linked to industry – and so she reluctantly went through “four grueling years of study” in London, all the while keen on furthering her education in a more haloed form: painting.
Detail of Cardinal Prospero Grech - Photo by Inigo Taylor
She recalls the pact she made with her father: “if I’m going to get through this and graduate, I am going to go to Italy to become a painter. He said you have a deal.” And, that is exactly what happened. An apprenticeship in traditional atelier painting in Florence followed her years in London.
Today, she looks back on her time in both countries as being equally essential. “My training in Italy was very much placed in the past, and I think London and this design school (Central St Martin’s College of Art) is placed firmly in the future and focused on creative thinking. It taught me how to push boundaries and this is important for growth. Two particularly helpful tools were learning to work towards a brief and learning to collaborate with other practitioners.”
Indeed, it is this collaboration and creativity that is the cornerstone of sustainable artistic endeavours according to Philippa. She advocates embarking on “a system of productivity”, emphasising the necessity to “find the demand and to supply”, stating that, today, most successful artists are highly organised individuals.
She believes this is the key to creativity since “the story of art is not separate from patronage and societal need, so once you embark on this system, new ways of painting will be enlightened to you over time.” The ability to cater to specific demands – in an imaginative manner, and without ever compromising on quality – is essential in her view.
“I think that you have to do your best to seek the demand, but not drop your standards of work. As a crude example, if someone came along and said, ‘I have a blue sofa and I want a blue painting to match it’, instead of thinking to yourself ‘how ghastly!’ you might be able to say ‘’well, I’ve always wanted to paint the sea!”
For Philippa, flexibility is a source of inspiration, in much the same way as other artists and stories. Having moved to Boston after Italy, she discovered the American artist John Singer Sargent and the Boston school of painters. The Renaissance painter Raphael is also a big influence “because of the beautiful radiant light and colours in his work”, as are female painters who have had to confront “certain life challenges and how they’ve put that into their work.” She mentions the American Georgia O'Keeffe and Mexican painter Frida Kahlo as being particularly formative.
Places and cultures have also stirred Philippa’s artistic sensibilities and affected her development as an artist. She calls Mexico, a country she settled in for four years, “a spiritual home”. Their “unapologetic use of colour”, which has made her work bolder, moreover, and their large-scale paintings encouraged her to go bigger in scale.
But, after 21 years living abroad, she has now returned home to plant some roots. As a result, she has noticed a change in her work, discerning a more introspective quality to the paintings she’s producing. “Because there is less adrenaline in my life here in Malta, I am able to take more risks in the studio. My style is freeing up into its own calligraphy. My subjects are less literal and progressing into outward expressions of internal beings,” she describes.
Yet, it is still the thrill of creating a new way of seeing which stirs her. “The excitement is in feeling that you are starting to create a new language with what you’re doing. It’s a competition with yourself, and not with other painters. You go in every day and you ask: ‘How can I be better today? How can I grow today?’’
She now has a busy year ahead, with several back-to-back commissions from clients in Malta, Rome and Paris, and is also in the process of designing a new studio in Balzan, another source of great motivation. “When you have worked for so long in borrowed, makeshift rooms, the chance of having your own studio space and the ability to spread out is such an incredible opportunity. ” The larger space, she hopes, will enable her to expand her practice “and work on three metre canvases”, as well as potentially employ other people.
But, what is most striking about Philippa is her feeling of being at ease. She seems content to be back on the island, comfortable settling into a role and an identity she had never forgotten. “I am happy for now to base myself in Malta, surrounded by southern light, olive trees and pushing the boundaries in my casa bottega. I am ready to plant a seed and watch it grow.”
This interview originally appeared in The Commercial Courier