Chantal Joffe and her daughter Esme are sitting on a beach near to her mother's house in St Leonard's. The pair huddle together on the exposed and bracing beachfront. Joffe's pose feels both tender and fiercely protective as her hand creeps around her daughter's shoulder and clings tightly to it. She gazes out at us unapologetically. Esme, by contrast, seems shy or uncomfortable and looks away.
Joffe painted this work shortly after returning from a trip that she made with her daughter to America. It was a poignant moment for the London-based artist, who anticipated that it may be their last trip of this type together as her daughter was approaching her teenage years.
The work is part of a group of paintings exploring the power shifts and co-existent states of joy and heartache of mother/daughter relationships. Joffe often creates portraits of women, particularly those close to her, in which she explores the body, ageing, motherhood and other complex personal relationships.
The work is over two metres tall but was executed with the artist's characteristic speed and fluid brushwork. There is a degree of flatness and abstraction – the two figures fill the canvas, and they are defined by blocks of colour, pattern and flashes of a bright green primer layer that peaks through. 'I think the heavier the emotion the more abstract way I use the paint', says Joffe.
She donated Looking towards Bexhill to the Royal Academy in 2017, following her election as a Royal Academician. The emotive power and informality of her portrait set up a challenge to the prevalence of historic portraiture within the RA's collection, in which women sitters have often been objectified by male artists.
Ford Madox Brown's painting The Last of England, in which a couple emigrate by boat from England to Australia, became an important reference point for Joffe, but the focus of her painting, however, is that of an emotional journey at a crossroad between childhood and adolescence.
Dr Jennifer Powell, Curator of Paintings and Sculpture, Royal Academy of Arts
A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour