the life of fashion historian and artist Lally MacBeth

LALLY MACBETH chats about life as an artist, her passion for colour, and taking on different characters in her series of photographs. With her background in fashion and her interest in dance, posture and movement she sees her art as a performance.  But behind the pictures is Lally herself, warm, funny and intelligent with a love for näive and outsider art…


om pom lally mrsmacbeths2

Hi Lally, and welcome to Om Pom Happy! It’s so lovely to meet someone who’s passionate about colour. I find too many people are afraid of it…

Hi Cand!

I love colour and it’s always a delight to meet others who do.  Like you say, it’s such a rarity!  My mum is a painter and textile artist so I have grown up around it.

om pom lally 6

Your work just make me so happy! What apart from colour inspires you?

I’m inspired by all sorts of things: religious iconography, 60s/70s children’s tv, 70s cook books!  History and folklore also play a big part.  I research all my work very carefully and really immerse myself in the theme.

Below: Floral Arrangements 111

om pom lally Floral Arrangements (III)

Below: The Virgin of Guadalupe

om pom lally The Virgin of Guadalupe

And have you always loved to paint and draw?

Growing up in my family it would have been impossible to escape it!  My brother, George, and I spent most of our time drawing, painting and making dens when we were little.  We spent hours constructing elaborate stories and painting pictures to go alongside.  We didn’t watch much telly, but we read a lot and spent lots of time outdoors.  I’m so grateful for that now as it has given me a deep appreciation for nature and making things from scratch.

Below: a drawing from Lally’s Happy Book, a diary which she and George each kept throughout their childhood. It was inspired by the Patrick Heron stained glass at the Tate St Ives…

om pom lally Patrick Heron Inspired Drawing - Summer 1997

Below a drawing by Lally aged 6

om pom lally Drawing 1996

As a teenager, although studying art at school, I became very uninterested in making anything. I spent a lot of time trying to ‘fit’ in. It wasn’t until I went to college that I started to draw again. However, I was the victim of some terrible teaching which made me very under confident in my abilities.

I love children’s art… It’s so uninhibited which I find inspirational.  For the same reasons I also love outsider art.

I love children’s drawings! The freeness of colour and line is always wonderful. Picasso said it best really: ‘Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist as we grow up’. My mum kept all my drawings and I find it interesting that my use of colour and line hasn’t changed that much at all!

om pom lally Everything I Have Ever Drawn 2

Above: A collection of Lally’s work Everything I Have Ever Drawn

My style now is very much inspired by näive art.  I love the uninhibited nature of it and the very pure use of colour.  I haven’t technically trained in fine art, which can often feel a little scary when surrounded by those who have.  However, I think it allows a certain freedom in expression and use of materials that those who have trained aren’t able to obtain.  Some of my favourite artists are completely untrained; I love the work of Maria Prymachenko for her use of pattern and Maud Lewis who painted her entire cottage with flowers and animals. There is something so charming and honest about the work of untrained artists.  I really can’t stand pretension so I think this is why I gravitate towards their work!

Below: Our Army, Our Protectors by Maria Prymachenko

om pom lally Maria-Primachenko-Our-Army-Our-Protectors

Below: Maud Lewis

om pom lally Maud Lewis

As you are not trained in fine art what did you do upon leaving school?

I spent a year working in Cornwall and then moved to London to work a terrible retail job. Although I hated it, it taught me so much about what I didn’t want to do and it was wonderful to be in London! I applied to Central Saint Martins to study Fashion History and Theory. Studying there was an amazing experience. My first year was the last year at the Charing Cross Road building, so it was an exciting time to be there. I’m so glad that I got to experience the old building and the new one at such an interesting time in the history of Art Schools.

Ooh, so many amazing people came out of Charing Cross Road! CSM is one of the best art schools in the world. Did your course involve much art and drawing?

No, it was purely an academic course. We spent all our time in the library writing or at museums researching. We really were the outsiders! In our final year we did have a few projects that allowed us a little more creative expression. We worked with the British Library  and got to explore their archives in order to curate an event to encourage people in the arts to use the library. I found a whole host of beautiful East European folk costume postcards that my mum used as inspiration to make a variety of accessories which we then photographed. It was great to be able to make art alongside writing as it gave me a new appreciation for how the two can intertwine.

Below: Folk Costume inspired by the British Library

om pom lally British Library Folk Costume

One of my sons studied Fashion Design Womenswear at Central Saint Martins and was at both the old and new buildings. I know a lot of people don’t like the new building, but I personally love it.

Oh it’s such a wonderful place! Our lecture room was just by the womenswear studio so I used to love watching all the students putting their final collections together.

I went in to help Tommy and some of his friends on their final collections, sewing and crocheting plastic flowers among many things! What was your final thesis based on…?

My thesis was titled Gaps & Voids; The Space Between in the Work of Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. It explored Zen aesthetics in relation to Japanese fashion. Miyake, Yamamoto and Kawakubo are all masters of the interdisciplinary approach to fashion using dance, art and film so it was fascinating to research taking to me such a range of places! My favourite place to study was the National Art Library at the V&A, it’s such a peaceful environment and is full of other people beavering away at interesting projects!

It was an amazing day when I found out I would graduate with a first.  Sometimes research can feel like a bit of a vacuum so it’s a great feeling to know that the hard work paid off.

om pom lally Flying Saucer, Issey Miyake

Above: Flying Saucer Issey Miyake

om pom lally Scenario, Choreography Merce Cunningham, Costumes Rei Kawakubo

 Above: Scenario Choreography Merce Cunningham Costumes Rei Kawakubo

The tutors I met at Saint Martins were all so inspiring. Did you miss them when you graduated?

My tutors were an amazing group of people. We only had 2 tutors and a very small class so we got to know them very well over the three years. We had a whole host of visiting lecturers too. Caroline Evans taught me in my second year. She was hugely inspiring, she taught me so much about writing and to not be fearful of it!

Straight after I graduated I went to work at the Museum and Study Collection at Central Saint Martins, so I didn’t really leave for another year. It was great working there as I still got to see all my old tutors and friends.  My boss was very inspiring too and I worked on some brilliant projects including an exhibition on Bill Gibb the knitwear designer. Central Saint Martins is a hugely inspiring place to study / work, there is always something interesting happening. Studying an academic course around so many visually creative people really helped me find my voice again! I started painting and drawing frantically. I felt like I was making up for lost time. I was very dyslexic as a child so studying an academic degree felt partly like I had to prove I could do it and once I did I became much less fearful in all areas of my life; I think that freed me up to make art again.

And did you immediately gravitate towards the style you have now?

Yes. I feel my aesthetic hasn’t changed all that much since I was a child! I still love colours, history, nature and pattern. I have always been a magpie, searching out photographs, paintings and magazine clippings. What has changed since studying is that I am now much more aware of the theoretical underpinnings of my work and the wider implications of making art, and using art to incite discussion! Lots of my work now centres on female experience and gender roles. However, I am still at heart interested in creating a beautiful object. The first set of photographs I took when I started taking photographs again were inspired by the infamous Frida Kahlo painting Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress.

om pom lally Self-Portrait in a Velvet Dress

Above: Self Portrait in a Velvet Dress

Having worked at Central Saint Martins for a year I decided to move back to Cornwall so I could concentrate on making art full-time. London can be a difficult place to make work due to the cost of living; Cornwall is a little more forgiving. I bought a house here last year.

I love Cornwall and have very good friends there. Tell us a little about how you spend your day…

I always start with an espresso pot of strong coffee; I’m really not worth knowing before I’ve had one! Breakfast doesn’t come until around 11. I’ll then answer emails and reply to blog comments. Some days I head over to my mum’s studio which is much bigger. I tend to work there if I have an exhibition coming up and need to get my head down- it’s very easy to get distracted by household tasks at home.

If I’m having a painting day I put on my overalls and set up my worktable with everything I’ll need for the day. I tend to get straight to it; I’m not one for preliminary sketches, as I like my work to feel spontaneous. I usually don’t break for lunch until quite late, as I get so involved that I often forget what time it is. In the evening I tend to spend time researching new ideas on the Internet or reading. I usually collect my research together on my tumblr. I always stop to make a supper though, cooking is one of great loves and it can be a great way to switch off.

If I’m spending the day shooting photographs I’ll usually have researched them beforehand and have a vague idea of what I want them to look like. I’ll think about the location first and then put together the outfit. I use a whole variety of costume elements. I mostly find things at car boot sales and charity shops; I am constantly scouring for new ideas! I also sometimes wear things my mum has made. It’s fairly organic really. I see it a bit like painting a picture or making a collage; I assemble all the elements and then link them together.

This is a dress I painted. I took the motifs from the Mexican Loteria game…

om pom lally painted dressmrsmacbeths8

Below: Paintings in progress

om pom lally Painting in Progress 2

om pom lally Paintings in Progress

And you have an exhibition coming up!

Yes! My next exhibition will be Horror Vacui. It’s originally a Latin phrase meaning ‘fear of the void’ and is the art of filling every possible space with pattern. It’s a family exhibition; my brother, George and mum, Penny MacBeth will be showing work too. We are each exploring how we fill our own void. My work is an installation titled Everything I Have Ever Lost. It’s a mixture of paintings, ceramics and photography.

Below: Everything I have Ever Lost in progress

om pom lally Everything I've Ever Lost in progress

Lally, thank you so much! That was such an inspiring chat and the very best of luck with Horror Vacui! If any of us live in the South West how do we visit?

It opens on Sunday 19th April and runs for two weeks at The Glorious Art House, Exeter. The gallery is on the top floor and downstairs there is an art café serving delicious coffee and cake.

Thanks, Lally, and we’ll sign out with one of your favourite tunes, Hot Sugar – The Girl Who Stole My Tamagotchi…