Good art should tell a story, but to do so it needs to be seen; luckily it's hard to miss Henrietta Graham's life-size paintings, says Janet Menzies

Henrietta Graham has gone painting. This requires a week aboard the Karen of Ladram in the North Atlantic, fishing mainly for cod and hake. It gave Graham a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘painting en plein air’. She says: “I realised immediately that I wouldn’t be able to set up my easel in the middle of the boat. So I would sketch and then take loads of photos and talk a lot to the crew. I mucked in completely with them and they didn’t treat me specially in any way. You can’t sleep at night, with the fishing cycle every four hours of the nets coming in and out. I had my oilskins on, and I ended up fishing myself. As we got near the end of our time quota, it was everybody working. The nets come in through a chute – the ship is a netter, not a trawler. It throws these gigantic nets out and then they come back in with the catch. 

“I was on station number one and my job was to take out all the smaller fish. You are working at high octane, with rock music playing through the speakers, quickly getting the little fish out. Then this huge cod came hurtling in and landed on my head and I completely lost the plot, screaming ‘There’s a fish on my head!’ I loved it.” 

Yes, but is it art? Graham explains: “It is a kind of diary process at first. I need to understand what is going on. Talking is the only way to really understand – and you pick up someone’s facial expressions and the manner in which they carry a net or a knife. Hake and cod are the most important fish. And your finished work has to be right and it has to be convincing. After the trip, I went into my studio and started to transfer it onto 10ft canvases. My studio is in Newlyn. I am right bang in the middle of the harbour facing the quay, so I am there with the Cornish fishermen. And not just the men who do the fishing; there are seven land-based jobs for one fisherman – engineers, welders, net-makers, fish processors and so on.” 

Graham produced her series of life-size works capturing the Cornish fishing industry as a public art collaboration with Newlyn Pier & Harbour Commissioners, and this is what she finds important in the work: “If I am proud of anything, it is that my art is there in the fish market for all to see at any time, not in some exclusive and rarefied place to be revered. People are intimidated to go into art galleries; they feel they are not allowed to understand art. My paintings are in public, in places like the fish market.” 

Graham is right. Art has to be seen, or it is hardly art at all. And when seen, it must communicate and evoke a response. Graham’s art has a story to tell. She says: “It is both the accessibility to the subject and showing the entire process of the industry from sea, or farm, to plate. As a painter, you can weave in and around the huge number of professions within a single industry, from the skipper on a trawler to the market auctioneer, or from the tractor driver to the butcher to the restaurant. And in that process, you can bring art back from the cold hallows of fashion and commerce and into everyday life.” 

At a time when everyday eating and supermarket shopping is almost completely divorced from the reality of food production, Graham’s quest is not easy. Her highly acclaimed series of portraits depicting Britain’s best chefs saw her shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award and led her to London’s historic Smithfield Market, where she painted the traders with huge slabs of meat. But with the rise of veganism, Graham accepts this work is not commercial: “I have been working with butchers and I am keeping a lot of that back because the galleries haven’t been keen to exhibit.” She jokes: “Those chefs have nearly bankrupted me and the galleries.” 

More seriously, Graham admits: “I have been working for the past six years on a colossal painting based at the abattoir in Belfast and it is probably the most important painting I have done. I respect farming and the food industry enormously. You must respect the meat and the environment producing it. Don’t be squeamish, respect the process and try to get a more holistic balance. These great big supermarket chains selling mass-produced foods are destroying small farming and fishing communities all over the world.” 

It’s a bleak thought, but Graham is positive: “With art you can do something. It is about authenticity.” Next time I have fish and chips, I will think about that gigantic, clammy cod authentically landing on Graham’s head. 

For more details or to contact Henrietta Graham, visit: See her work at the fish market at Newlyn Pier, Cornwall TR18 5HW. Twilight Sardines, from Graham’s Newlyn fish market series, has just won the Royal Society of Marine Artists’ top prize.