Making Waves: Nancy's body story

October 30, 2023

Making Waves: Nancy's body story

Go to any open water event pretty much anywhere in the world and we bet you'll spot more than one Nancy Farmer swim hat. Renowned in the world of outdoor swimming for her hats, ethereal underwater paintings and satirical drawings, Nancy's artwork touches the hearts - and heads - of swimmers everywhere.

In her Body Story, Nancy tells us what outdoor swimmers and fairies have in common and how her love of swimming and fascination for the human form became her career.

Deakin & Blue X-Back Swimsuit in Zoo

You’re well-known among outdoor swimmers for your art. Can you tell us what you do?

I've managed to make what I do for fun into my actual job. I go swimming, or rather, I go talking and faffing with a small amount of swimming and then I draw pictures about it. I do an awful lot of drawings about not swimming yet, or about all the stuff that happens around swimming as in: We went for a swim but now it's quite hard to pull my pants up because my hands are so cold. I went from swimming because I wanted to swim to drawing swimmers because I’m an artist

Have you always been artistic? 

Yes, although I don't really know how to paint properly. My painting is kind of self-taught, and the drawing is as well to an extent because I don't remember learning to draw. I just always loved to draw. And it's taken me quite a lot of years to realise that I should probably concentrate on drawing more because it’s my strength. I'm not a natural painter; I love the shape and expression of the outline; it's all about the movement and the human figure. 

I have tried to draw landscapes; there was a path near my home and I thought, that's beautiful, so I went along with my sketchbook. But after half an hour of getting cross with myself I wrote in my sketchbook: You don't do landscapes; you have no interest in them; stop it. I just love the way the human figure moves and the way it's so expressive. I’d like to be better at drawing faces but you can put so much expression and dialogue into the way two people stand together.

Deakin & Blue X-Back Swimsuit in Zoo

Your figures aren’t just incredibly expressive, they’re also instantly recognisable by their mannerisms. How do you capture that body language? 

I watch people and I have an obsession with how they're standing and how they're moving; it's probably just what I zero in on. If I was a portrait painter, I would notice that somebody's got a wide face or a long nose or a short chin, or whatever. But I don't much notice those. Instead, I notice the way anatomy hangs together and the way people stand. I think gravity comes into it too because I notice how people balance to stop themselves from falling over. For example, in one of my drawings of my friend Mary walking on the shingle, you can really see how people usually walk and balance on small feet, but when you put them on a prickly surface, you realise that people will topple very easily. So, it's the interplay of anatomy and gravity. And then are other details of expression: I love drawing hands. I probably overlay my own mannerisms on my drawings of people as well. But I do try to make them look like the people that they are.

Have you always been interested in the shape of human bodies and how people move?

Yes, and I think that’s why I first started doing fantasy art and fairy pictures because it seemed appropriate that fairies have few or no clothes on. But that equally works for swimmers. The humour works too; it ticks all the same boxes and it has the added appeal of being what I'm actually doing. I don't really like to use the word authentic because it's overused but it is true in this case. I don't actually know any fairies, although I have been asked whether I see them. Deakin & Blue X-Back Swimsuit in Zoo

Does your interest in movement rather than appearance change how you look at bodies?

Yes, and that's probably why I find it more appealing when I just play and make it up rather than when I use a photograph. A photograph does tend to fix things and you're sure where the outlines are. For my underwater paintings, I generally need a good photograph so there's quite an element of copying that I find much less interesting. People like them; some came out really well, but I find constructing a scene much more fun. I enjoy it more when I don't have any photographs at all, although you do end up with a different sort of picture with people who are more cartoon-like, I don't know whether that's good or bad.

At the moment, I’m trying out drawing away from the digital tablet to see whether I can get more movement because you lose that visceral thingness of a surface. On the other hand, you don’t get a multi-layered approach on paper, so that's more difficult. I also like to leave in most of the initial sketch marks. Obviously, if something's glaringly distracting then it’s better to take it out, but I like that you can see a dialogue around where the figure emerged. Also, it makes even quite ungainly people look great in a picture because of the movement.

You celebrate bodies in a very different way to most women. Would you say that you’re confident and your own appearance?

I don't know about confident. I've got used to what I look like. If I had a choice, perhaps I'd like less of a bum and slimmer thighs, but you can't have everything and frankly, I'm not unhappy with the shape of myself. I'm certainly a lot more confident now. When I was a teenager, like most teenage girls, I thought I was fat. Well, I'm probably a stone and a half heavier than when I was a teenager and I’m still not fat.

I’ve certainly spent a lot of time noticing people, that they have a great many interesting features and look great in ways that are different to the next person. People are all such different shapes. I was really struck by this the first time I did an open water swimming event. Everyone was in wetsuits; overall matt black so you weren't even distracted by swimming costumes. I watched them come out of Lake Windermere one by one and I was just astonished. Even though I drew people, I had probably based my drawings on myself up to that point because I was still doing fantasy stuff. So, I was amazed. I thought, if you made everyone who was, say, five foot seven and weighed 10 stone stand in a group, they would all look completely different to one another - the different distribution of body weight is extraordinary and that was astonishing even to somebody who had done life-drawing now and then. 

So, I do try to represent that difference. But anyone who uses their own imagination to draw has a tendency to make people look like themselves because that's what you're used to seeing. You measure other features against the normal of what you see in the mirror.

Deakin & Blue X-Back Swimsuit in Zoo

How did you end up drawing fairies?

I always had this idea that I wanted to go to art school, and I ended up doing jewellery design. I’d done A-level sculpture, which was actually disastrous but I always liked working with metals - I actually kicked up a fuss so that I could do metal work at O-level because girls did needlework and boys did metalwork. My brother always held it against me that he had to do needlework by the time he got there two years later. So, I like metals, I always liked making things and I couldn't get on as well with wood – it's material with opinions. 

So, I did Jewellery design as a degree, then metalwork conservation at the combined V&A Museum and Royal College of Art, but I realised that it wasn't really for me. They spent a lot of time talking about the ethics of conserving or restoring things. It was a lot of talk and a large institution, which didn't really appeal to me. So, I went back to making jewellery and then I started painting when I was about 30 or so.

I started thinking about how I could turn painting into an actual career. At the time, I was living in a small village in Suffolk working in another small village as a goldsmith and it was quite hard to see where to go from there. I was the sole employee of a husband and wife team for four years, which was probably enough. At that point, I started with satirical ideas. There was probably quite a lot of Terry Pratchett influence with devils sitting around in hell, just bored because, you know, it was eternal. There was one which I called ‘The Wrong Cocktail Bar’ where there was a chap, by mistake in a bar full of demons and then I did the reverse with a demon who’d accidentally walked into the wrong bar full of normal people. It was easy satire rather than political; just like Medusa drying her snakes with a hairdryer. 

How did you come to sell your paintings and drawings? 

When I started painting in Suffolk, I had friend down the road who lived with an artist, and she said that before I left, we should organise an exhibition. I said, but I don't have enough paintings for an exhibition, and she said, no, but we’ll book it and by the time it happens you will have. I ended up hauling about 70 paintings back from Somerset to Suffolk. At that time, people impulsively bought things a little bit more, so you could book a place and people would come along and buy.

Then, later on, when I got into swimming, I found that people liked pictures of themselves and other swimmers. People who like fairy paintings don't necessarily have loads of mates who also want fairy paintings. Whereas, swimmers know a lot of swimmers; it's a very social thing. Plus, an awful lot of swimmers are women of a certain age and women are better at networking as well. Also, by this time, we had social media so the whole thing fitted together. I hadn't intended to do it full-time, but that’s how it ended up.


It seems that the majority of outdoor swimmers own a ‘Nancy hat’. How did you end up producing swim caps?

That came from a discussion on Facebook about the ‘cave people’ on Clevedon Beach. There’s a group with a proper name, The Middle Yeo Lifesavers, which is a bit of a joke because Middle Yeo is underground. Anyway, they have use of a cave in the sea wall to get changed and take shelter. On Facebook, there was this discussion about how somebody had felt unwelcome by them and then it moved on to discussing their name and that turned into this idea that the general sea swimmers who used a second, smaller cave ought to have a name as well. Somebody suggested that the new name could be put on hats and, at some point, I said, if you think of a name, I can do a picture and then we can have our hats. So, I did the picture and started counting how many people wanted hats and got to around 70, which I produced at cost. I spent three hours doing the picture and about three days distributing the hats. We never did come up with a name.

Then I had an idea about wrapping paper where I would do snowflakes that were actually swimmers. As an afterthought, I decided to get about 50 hats printed. The wrapping paper was 2000 sheets, which I never really sold and I mostly used to wrap calendars. But the hats just took off. 

How does it feel to see your hats being worn all over the world?

Every so often people send me pictures from the States or other places in the world and it's a good talking point. In fact, my brother was down on the South Coast once and got talking to some ladies by telling them that his sister drew their hats. It's a bit strange as well. A friend went swimming in South Africa where they knew my hats and calendars. I actually love it.

I mean, there's always a little nervousness, especially at the moment, where I don't know when people are going to stop buying them, whether the market’s saturated. I do spend my entire time thinking, I haven't got many sales this week; is this going to work? Can it continue? Do I need a plan B? But, I’m still busy because there's always too much to do… and I spend the whole time complaining that I haven't got enough time to do any artwork and I should really just use this time to draw more.

Deakin & Blue Keep It Dry Bag

In the D&B photoshoot, how did it feel to be the subject rather than the creator?

That was quite strange because you instantly get self-conscious and think, I see people moving around but then, when it was me, I suddenly forgot how. The photographer was just great; she had to keep saying, ‘haha,’ because I was completely forgetting to smile because I was so wrapped up in thinking about how to move. 

Although I chose my swimwear because I loved the print, it was mostly about the shape. Deakin & Blue swimwear does sit nicely on figures in a kind of classic way. Vintage is maybe the right word; old-fashioned in a good way. I love that they’re quite simple and don't have fussy, tie-up bits so they just suit the shape of our bodies.

Nancy wears the X-Back Swimsuit in Zoo print and the Swimcrop Bikini in Beach Meadow in a 14 Hepburn.

Namcy Farmer drawing

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Did you enjoy reading this Body Story? Discover the other stories in our Making Waves series, and read about amazing women whose life-changing work inspires and moves others.

“I had a giant mermaid sculpture made of recycled plastic to highlight the plastic pandemic, and I swam the length of the River Thames as a mermaid. Then, one day, I rescued a drowning cow and my story made it into The Sun newspaper.” Read Lindsey’s story.

"It’s relentless how I continually got labelled growing up. I didn’t know if I was coming or going: I'm a child, I'm a woman, I'm fat, I’m too tall, I'm beautiful. It was totally bloody bonkers." Read Farrah's story.

“The ocean feels like such an inclusive space. I think that if you feel that connection to the sea, wherever you come from, whatever your interests are, you find that sense of belonging and of being held and supported by the sea.” Read Pippa’s story.

“For me, it was this acceptance that this is how my body looks and I need to stop looking at it as a transitional body and just get on with it… Life happens and you can't put everything on hold just because of the size you are; you just need to carry on.” Read Becca’s Story.