Stuart Macbeth meets someone who spends up to nine months on a boat each year

It was a childhood fascination with maps that spurred Oxfordshire watercolourist Frances Brann on to travel in later life.

“I loved maps and I associated them with travel, because my family always travelled. The maps on the walls of my childhood home were large prints from the Oxford Atlas. Beautiful, coloured relief maps,” she remembers.

Frances grew up in Burcot House, so I ask briefly what her memories are of the house, which was demolished in 1956.

“I was very young when my grandfather had the house demolished so I do not remember, although have seen photos.

Now retired, having run a yacht woodworking business in California, Frances spends up to nine months a year travelling on her 49ft sailboat The Snow Dragon, alongside photographer Krystina Scheller, the rest at home, still in Burcot.

On their voyages, Frances paints in watercolour. It sounds like the sort of life most people could only dream of.

But you may have reservations when you learn that most of their voyages are into the vast, freezing expanses of the Arctic.

“The Arctic is in my blood” Frances says, handing me a stunning photograph of herself at work. The photograph, taken by Krystina north of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic, shows Frances perched underneath a bright red and blue umbrella. She looks completely at home, dwarfed by a landscape of icy water and melting snow.

What is it about the Arctic in particular that keeps them going back?

“We sail in the Arctic because we love it. We eat well, and we have fun,” Frances says, adding that both women “shudder when we meet the macho sailors who are doing the great Arctic expedition”.

Frances’ Arctic dream started after she moved on to a small boat in 1991 and sailed extensively through Alaska and the South Pacific. Before too long she found herself hooked on the boating lifestyle.

After spending three-and-a-half years putting the finishing touches to The Snow Dragon, designed by Dutch yacht designer Dick Koopmans, she and Krystina set sail. To date they have sailed together for nine years.

The Snow Dragon now doubles as Frances’ “primary home”. It’s also an artist’s studio – with a difference.

Previously a woodworker, but with no space for a workshop on the boat, Frances decided to devote herself entirely to painting in the watercolours which she finds “wonderfully portable”.

“In wood I would fill orders. I would do it well and creatively. But I very rarely took time to follow my heart.

“In painting I never paint to order, the pieces are painted because I must paint.”

Frances’ landscapes show scenes from her travels around Alaska, Greenland, Norway, Canada, the Faroe Islands and Iceland. In some paintings huge blocks of blue, glacier ice stand out against mountainous backgrounds. Others are composites, such as her most recent painting Northwest Passage Dreaming. In this she playfully combines icebergs with Alaskan ravens and Atlantic fulmars. And occasionally figures appear: “I enjoy playing with unrelated shapes, making the figures into the landscape. Painting them is like making a collage of drawings and combining them into one image – I laugh a lot as I plan.”

Frances also laughs at my assumption that she exclusively paints outdoors. “Only in warmer weather” she asserts, “and only in waterproof clothing, with gloves, hat and thermal underwear.”

Most of her paintings are completed inside the heated pilothouse of The Snow Dragon. How does the boat work as a studio?

“The pilothouse has seven big windows for unobstructed views in all directions. I work mostly on the dining table or in the helm chair depending on the direction of the subject I’m painting.

“As for storage I have a couple of drawers in a guest cabin that I use to keep drawings, paper finished paintings and other supplies in.”

And looking out through those big windows what does Frances see in the Arctic that continues to inspire her to paint?

“It’s the light, the ice, the glaciers, the mountains, the colours, the stark raw beauty of a landscape who’s bones you can see. I love the changing clouds and low light.

The Oxford Times:

“The 24-hour daylight in the summer can be disorienting. Days run together and you long for a sunset. The low angle of the light really shows the shape of the hills. In the winter it’s even more pronounced.”

And the Northern Lights? “That was part of my life when I lived in Alaska. It‘s something I miss further south.”

On her return to the UK, Frances mats and mounts her watercolours for display. They can be seen as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks in an exhibition at Burcot Old Chapel from May 16 to 25. Krystina Scheller’s photographs also form part of the exhibition. Impressive in their own right they provide a visual backdrop to Frances’ paintings and demonstrate the extraordinary circumstances in which both women work.

“Burcot Old Chapel is rarely seen by the public. I cleaned and completely painted the walls and roof for the exhibition. The chapel is flooded with natural light from clear glass windows on the north and south walls”.

The George Gilbert-Scott chapel stands in the grounds of her childhood home. There are a number of photographs of Burcot House by the Oxford photographer Henry Taunt taken in the 1870s.

Taunt pioneered the art of taking photographs from onboard a boat, so it fits well with Krystina’s modern boat photography.

“My feeling about Burcot House has always been slightly sad,” Frances continues. “I think the spirit of the place lives on in the grounds, the vestiges of the 300-year-old yew avenue and the ancient trees that have seen so much”.

So how about coming back to Burcot after a long voyage on The Snow Dragon. Does it ever feel like she’s coming home?

“When I visit England it always feels small. I enjoy catching up with friends and family and I love Burcot, I enjoy doing errands in Abingdon. But even though I grew up here I feel like a visitor. It’s a bit like visiting a holiday home."