The Glasgow-based artist enters a child-like world of myths and nightmares

Armed with nothing more than a fervid imagination and a paintbrush, Heather Nevay heads most days to her garret-like studio in a tenement above the Glasgow roof tops that looks out to the promise of green fields beyond. A petite blonde in a black beret (which hints at a previous life as a French Resistance heroine), her paintings are phantasmagorical compositions of exquisite beauty, featuring the inner life of children at play in a controlled, menacing setting. As the titles of her paintings reveal, the world she creates for her pre-pubescent characters is symbolism-laden; but as every child (either grown or still in-the-moment) will testify, even in the most innocent scenes, there is menace just round the corner.

In her latest series of work, The Savage Garden, which previewed at the artist’s home last weekend before heading to the Portal Gallery in London, Nevay has taken familiar characters such as Mistress Woolfe, Madame Lyon and Mister Lambe and set them in an Edenesque world. These children, inhabiting the characters of their animal namesakes, indulge in role-play to explore the fears and dangers of the adult world. It’s a cliche to say kids can be cruel, but one look at the blood-soaked white handkerchief in the painting In Mourning for Mister Lambe, and the shivers run up your spine.

Nevay graduated with a degree in printed textiles from Glasgow School of Art in 1988, and her background shows itself in the highly textured and hugely decorative world she creates, be it in the furry haunches of Mister Lambe or the straight-as-a-die electric blue background in The Secret Garden. She is an artist with a huge following. Her highly collectable work carries a hefty price tag, with paintings in this new series starting at £4500 and nudging £9500. There are sold stickers on several already.

Although not religious, she plays a God-like role in her work, but insists she wants people to come to her work with no pre-conceived notions. “It’s important to me that it all makes sense,” she explains. “The whole thing is to do with role play, and I have a construct in my own head of what it all means.”

The Savage Garden series came about after studying nineteenth-century American artist Edward Hicks’s Peace­able Kingdom paintings. His Quaker education drew on concepts of animal symbolism with its references to aspects of human personality. His paintings alluded to a quotation from Isaiah, which states: “The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them.”

Nevay’s influences are too broad to pin down to one artist, and she cites painters such as Giovanni Bellini (Italian High Renaissance) and Lucas Cranach (German Renaissance) as having a major effect. Indeed, one painting, Mother and Child, echoes several Bellini paintings of the Madonna and Child.

Fans of this highly individual and original artist will be interested to hear that, according to their maker, the Peaceable Kingdom painting signals the end is nigh for Madame Lyon, Miss Shepherd, Mistress Woolfe and Mister Lambe. Or is it? Nothing is certain in Nevay’s world.