Sometimes modern life lulls you into the belief that the exceptional and the extraordinary no longer exist. Then every now and again you meet someone who destroys that comfortable preconception, and restores your faith that, even in this age of social media, introspection and comfort, the spirit of adventure still lives on.
This week, I met one such character. Susie Whitcombe is an artist who lives in a beautiful cottage in the Hampshire countryside. She has an oak-framed studio where she paints, and a stable with two horses. Dogs run free through the meadow next to the house and onto the drive, where an old white Land Rover sits parked. So far, so expected.
But as you look closer, you start to notice that something’s not quite right with this idyllic rural picture. The meadow has a mowed strip down the middle that is bowling green- flat. Then there’s the huge agricultural barn set back into the woods that seems just a little too big to store a sit-on mower. Slide back the door to that barn, and suddenly the genie is out of the bottle: you are faced with the very last thing you expect in this bucolic paradise- a Soviet Yak 50 fighter plane, its vivid red-and -yellow chequerboard nosecone dominating the other three light aircraft in the hangar, including a Navy blue Tiger Moth. Through a doorway, I caught another unexpected sight- this time of covered cars, one adorned with a prancing horse and the other covering the unmistakeable shape of a Porsche 911 Turbo with its huge whale tail. But more of those later.
For Whitcombe isn’t your usual rural fifty-something painter. She’s an active member of the Royal Air Squadron, a select group of 100 passionate private aviators many of whom, like Whitcombe, run their own private airstrips. And if you think this is a comfortable Home Counties flying club, think again. “Three years ago we flew to the Crimea, and I dropped 250,000 poppies over the Valley of Death.” Did it take a long time to get there, I tentatively enquired? “About two weeks… the weather over Germany was atrocious, but at least I had a covered cockpit. Ralph (her partner) wasn’t so lucky- he was in the Tiger Moth.”
I looked around the stunning aircraft, but Whitcombe could tell that it was the cars that I really wanted to see. “Come and see our little collection.”
I followed her through the doorway. Inside wasn’t just the Ferrari I had seen before (a very low mileage 550 Maranello) and the Porsche (a 930 Turbo) but also an Austin Healey 3000, a delivery mileage Porsche Cayman GT4 and a covered shape that looked for all the world to be another Porsche Turbo, but was something a little special. “It is one of only three cars built by Porsche as a factory 3.5-litre Turbo,” explained Ralph. I asked whether they used them much. “Occasionally,” replied Whitcombe, “but my daily driver takes up most of the strain. That’s in another garage.”
We walked back up the hill and I helped Susie pull open the door to another small barn. Inside was her daily transport: a 4-litre pre-cat TVR Griffith. “I bought this car new, and always regretted selling it. Later I saw it for sale again and bought it back. I’ve had no problems with it at all- it’s just a superb sports car.”
It is clear from meeting her that Susie is a woman whose passions- aviation, sports cars and horses- are the three elements that dominate her life. It is these subjects she paints, and they somehow knit together without contradiction- a picture of a Bugatti sits perfectly beside that of a hunting scene. With today’s obsession with health & safety, rules and regulations, it is refreshing to meet someone whose outlook is so similar to those pioneers of aviation and motoring that we all thought were long extinct.
Susie’s work is being exhibited at Gallery 8, Duke Street, St James, London between 29th November and 3rd December 2016. www.susiewhitcombe.com