Her own woman

Art 1 - John Henshall meets one of Britain's best young painters

Rosie Snell is an artist in a genuinely enviable position. Her huge, stunning works of robustly realist art are in such demand that she has serious difficulty in amassing enough of them at her London studio actually to mount any exhibitions. They sell as she produces them, which creates another difficulty; they enter private collections and she often has only transparencies to remind her of how her singular oeuvre is developing. She is not complaining, though; since I first met her and wrote her up for one of the art glossies, her prices have rocketed five times over.

I predicted then that she would certainly become one of Britain's next true art stars. Her new solo selling show at Berwick-upon-Tweed, which then tours to London, certainly confirms this. She is just 28 yet paints with the confidence and maturity of one twice her age. Once seen, her stark, even startling coast-, land- and railscapes are never forgotten. She was the Berwick Gymnasium Gallery fellowship holder for 1999. By early summer she had done her reconnaissance in the beauteous little settlement by the bay and points north and had retired to the capital to paint from the numerous photographs she took in the Borders, Scotland, Orkney and the Carlisle area. The results are riveting, romantic and rigorously different from most other art being made in Britain now.

When Snell paints from a photograph of an old (or occasionally active) MoD installation, a lighthouse, a pillbox, a railyard or an industrial site, she scrapes away absolutely all superfluous detail. People are the first to go. Ocean or site-side detritus gets equally short shrift. Buildings cast shadows but we are never quite sure where the sun is coming from. Since I first saw her work it has continued to improve, becoming more minimalist than ever. "I suppose what's happening is that it's getting more and more austere," she says. She is quite right: indeed some of her creations are so real, so raw, as to blend austerity with outright asperity.

Snell was always fascinated by machines, man-made structures and mysteriously unidentifiable mechanisms. Early on she considered engineering, but, happily, art won the day. She grew up in Littlehampton, West Sussex, and studied art at Loughborough and Norwich. She did her fine art MA in the Fine City, whose art school is one of our best, the London greats included. She won the Royal Bath & West art award. I say won it; by all accounts she walked it. She went on to gain a first residency in London, a city she now really likes, though originally she was concerned it might be too "fast lane". She became the youngest artist to be shortlisted for the NatWest prize, our richest. She came to the attention of Charles Saatchi. The man whom some call "il collectorono" snapped up a dozen of her works. She may star in one of the "Neurotic Realist" shows at his London gallery next year.

Snell is entirely her own woman but will admit her admiration for realist trailblazers such as Edward Hopper. I also see traces of the German photographers Bernd and Hiller Becher and their star pupil Thomas Struth. A striking feature of her work is that, for all the ruthless paring down of detail, she obviously loves to paint plants, trees and crops in painstaking detail. She has painted at East Anglian airbases such as RAF Mildenhall and the old USAF Bentwaters. As we gaze at her superbly formalised planes parked on their lonesome runways, lush fields in the foreground sprout poppies and other wild flowers. The Italians have a verb, frusciare, for the noise that plants and foliage make when blowing on the wind. We hear that "frush, frush" regularly in Snell's works.

At Berwick, must-buys include an outstanding picture of wind turbines at Cromarty, north-east Scotland, marching stealthily across rock-hard, snow-covered terrain. There is a "sea of planes" picture from Mildenhall in Suffolk. Industrial towers of some kind ("I'm not sure what they are: I knew I had to paint them . . . ") at the old ICI plant in Ellesmere Port on the Mersey evince a mesmeric, purposeful unity. Snell visited the burgeoning Millennium Dome site at Greenwich in south-east London. She painted the cranes. "Yes, I took the Dome out. People can see that anyway. I liked the cranes myself . . . [laughs] . . . they're good cranes!"

Her favourite picture is a perfectly bizarre one: a decoy tank at a live MoD training ground near Carlisle: "I think they practise firing missiles at them. I thought it was great. I'm not sure what other people might think. They must get through a lot of decoys like that, mustn't they?"

When I met Snell in Norwich, where she thoroughly enjoyed the bohemian art scene, I found an immediately likeable, somewhat retiring woman; she is the very antithesis of the stereotypical self-publicising loudmouth (often with a fraction of her talent) who gives modern art in Britain a bad name. Nonetheless, when talking to her about her Berwick show, I suggested that a little more assertiveness might not go amiss. The artmarts are the fame game, after all. She chuckled and said she could only be herself. It is just as well, then, that she is so supremely talented. Fleet Street is a hard old street. From what I've seen, Cork Street's far harder.

"Landscapes from the Border" is at the Berwick Gymnasium Gallery (01289 304535) until 26 September, then at the Paton Gallery, London E8 (0181-986 3409) from 26 November till 1 February 2000 (closed Mondays). An illustrated catalogue is available. Rosie Snell is represented by the Paton Gallery, London

This article first appeared in the 06 September 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Whatever happened to liberty?