Thornham Artist: Shirley Carnt

PUBLISHED: 12:55 27 September 2016 | UPDATED: 12:55 27 September 2016

Shirley Carnt in Thornham

Shirley Carnt in Thornham


For six decades, adventurous Norfolk artist Shirley Carnt has exhibited all over the world - but painting isn’t her only passion

Examples of Shirley Carnt's work in her studio at ThornhamExamples of Shirley Carnt's work in her studio at Thornham

Artist Shirley Carnt is a whirlwind, with an energy and zest for life to envy.

Her atmospheric oil paintings are exhibited and held in collections all around the world and she has led the most extraordinary life, mixing with the rich and famous and the American political elite.

Shirley has travelled the globe – recently joining a crew to sail a four mast schooner all the way up the coast of the West Indies, was a pioneering female racing driver in the 1960s and has broken records with her fly fishing expertise.

But it is here in Norfolk, in her glass-fronted studio on the edge of the marshes in Thornham with the beach stretching out before her, that she is most at home. It is also where she is currently holding her latest exhibition.

“I always know when I have done a good painting, I call them my soul paintings. Similarly I always know when it is forced and no matter how much I try, it will never quite be right.

“I remember one day I had been fiddling about in my studio all day and couldn’t get going. So I decided to take the dog for a walk. Suddenly there was this beautiful low winter’s light and it lit up the snow on the ground, it was magical. I ran back and started painting. That was definitely a soul painting,” she says.

She and her late husband James Deterding, lived at Kelling Hall for 42 years, before selling it and moving to Holme-next-the-Sea.

“Holme is really home but I have had Coastguard Cottage at Thornham for 58 years and it is a special place, with uninterrupted views of this incredible ever-changing landscape and the sea which can come virtually up to the door.”

As a child, she excelled at art. “I was always top of the class for art, bottom for maths,” she laughs.

Her parents were not keen, however, for her to pursue it as a career.

“As a small child, I was always painting animals and flowers but my parents didn’t want me to go to art school. I went to Cambridge to read law and I absolutely hated it,” she chuckles. “So I left and went to St Martins in London to do art instead. Let’s just say my parents were not best pleased.”

She started painting and gradually developed a reputation for her atmospheric, bold oils depicting the natural world.

“I was busy working at Kelling Hall and bringing up my children, but people started to want to buy my work. Then I started having exhibitions locally and it grew from there.”

She has been exhibiting all over the world since the 1960s, with her latest featuring about 50 paintings including Stallions Landing, depicting horses towing Wells lifeboat out to sea ready to launch a rescue.

“Years ago, the horses from the surrounding farms would be called upon to drag the lifeboat in to the sea, before the lifeboat men could begin to row out. Lloyds Bank re-enacted it using the black horses from the Household Cavalry for a big advertising campaign.

“While they were down on the beach filming, I decided to paint it as it was such an extraordinary sight. I am a keen supporter of the RNLI so I decided to donate it to the Wells lifeboat team, who are currently fundraising for a new building.”

In between painting, she still fits in her many adventures around the world, she runs a farm in Suffolk, loves gardening and supports many charities.

“I get up every morning about 5.30am and swim – in the sea in the summer, it makes me feel wonderful.

“I also love fly fishing – a hobby I got from my husband. I have fished all over the world, one time I broke the ladies’ world record when I caught a 155lb marlin on a fly in Costa Rica.”

Is there a synergy between the two – fishing and painting – that need for patience and a sense of peace and quiet?

“I am quite happy with my own company, I hate crowded places. I like solitude, so yes perhaps there is a link. When I can, I still get my waders and rods and head off fishing in various countries.”

Shirley Carnt’s exhibition runs until September 10, see

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