I’ve loved the paintings of Kurt Jackson since discovering him on a holiday in Cornwall some years back. Cornwall – and most especially the far western lands of West Penwith is a favourite place, and the place that Jackson has made his home and his primary subject since 1984, when he settled near St. Just.
Jackson paints in mixed media, drawing inspiration from the Cornish landscape around Penwith and elsewhere in the British Isles and abroad. His paintings frequently carry small commentaries on the scene depicted and show a fascination particularly with the detail of plants and animals within the overall ecology and evoke a calm, spiritual sense of the landscape, the result, no doubt, of his practice of immersing himself in the location, spending hours painting plein air. Kurt Jackson has said of his work:
In Cornwall my subjects are mostly places I know well, that I visit over and over again – certain areas of coast, moorland and valleys. I tend to work on projects, usually over a year, which are based on a particular aspect of Cornish culture or a distinct tract of countryside. Capturing a fleeting impression doesn’t interest me. In all my paintings the aim is to convey my feelings and sense of awareness in that particular environment.
Over the last decade Kurt Jackson has followed many rivers from the source to the sea, including the Avon, Tamat and Thames. He records the experience of these journeys at the riverbank in a variety of ways including on canvas, on paper, in collage, and in words. Today, in Truro, Jackson has a new exhibition opening, of paintings made on the River Dart in Devon – from source to sea. In the exhibition catalogue he says, ‘All rivers have their own inherent narratives’. But the Dart tells a special tale for him.
Kurt Jackson explains:
I grew up with stories about my father’s evacuation, age 12, from the East End of London to Dartmouth and the rural chapter of his life that he spent there. When I asked him about it he wrote me a kind of diary about having a wonderful childhood by a river, fishing, crabbing and generally playing in the sun. He also wrote about the war in Dartmouth with the town being full of commandos doing daring raids across the water and the excitement of being a young lad and witnessing all that and being able to meet and talk to them. For me the stories and the material in them were very powerful and so I decided to go first to that place to see if for myself and then to trace the river back and find out where it came from.
Kurt Jackson was born in 1961 in Blanford, Dorset. The son of two artists, and was encouraged from an early age to paint and draw. He grew up exploring the hedgerows and streams of his surroundings, often sketching the animals he observed. His parents were active in the peace movement and he was taken on many political demonstrations. By his late teens he had developed strong affiliations to libertarian politics and environmental issues. He has been Artist in Residence on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza and at the Eden Project.
In a piece for Granta magazine in 2008, Mark Cocker wrote:
There is an ecological relationship between Jackson and his paintings that makes them fascinating not merely to a lover of art, but also to a naturalist…[There is] a deep connection between Jackson’s art and the landscape he occupies…
‘Hear that?’ he asks me as we search for a seat among the rocks. In the Cornish language it’s called mordros. It’s the only language, along with Greek and Polynesian, I think, that has a word for the sound of the sea.’ [...]
There are two mental scenes before me. There is the Atlantic and the rock. And over Jackson’s shoulder, I glimpse its twin: the painting of the grey-turquoise sea-slump, calm and expansive, just behind the a frenzy of white spume careening into the basalt’s blackness. It is the mordros made visible – a thing of colour and elemental contest and of beauty.
I first encountered Kurt Jackson’s paintings in August 1999, when we were in Cornwall for the total eclipse of the sun on the morning of August 11th. He had an exhibition at The Great Atlantic Map Works Gallery in St. Just, called crossing the peninsula…painting the path of totality. The paintings on show were the result of three days spent walking across the Cornish peninsula following the path of the centre line of totality.
I have two beautiful books of Kurt Jackson’s paintings, Kurt Jackson – Paintings of Cornwall and the Scillies (1999) and The Cape (2002), which features paintings of land- and sea-scapes around Cape Cornwall and nearby Priest Cove, with additional text by the poet Ronald Gaskell.
The works in this collection are all based on Jackson’s experience of Priest Cove, near where he lives in West Penwith, in the far west of Cornwall. These huge collaged paintings embody Jackson’s powerful and personal response to his environment, his thoughts, feelings and memories which are the culmination of nearly fifteen year’s experience of working in this particular cove. Jackson’s work has a strong documentary element, depicting what he sees, but he also translates into paint that mysterious, intuitive inner response that captures the essential spirit of time and place. This is how the book begins:
From the farm the fields slope down gradually, then climb again to a rocky headland that juts into the Atlantic. The sea trembles, vivid in the early sunlight.
At the summit of the cliff a chimney of warm brick, weathered by wind and rain, has stood for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Otherwise the mine has left few relics. It was never a large one, most of the workings were under the sea, the engine house has long since gone.
Where the land falls away, granite and killas drop steeply to the waves. Hardly possible, it seems, that anything should grow there. Yet the upper slope is rough with heather and bright with wild flowers.
Always the flight and cry of birds: gulls, fulmar, gannets, oystercatchers, shags. Roar and swash of the waves. A seal pokes its snout up in the bay.
Last year, Jackson produced a series called Enesow, an exploration of the islands of Cornwall – Samphire Island, Gull Rock, Crane Island, St Helen’s, St Michael’s Mount, Nornour, Short Island, Long Island, St George’s, the Moules, Ganilly, the Brisons. There’s a great account of the project in this Western Morning News report. Jackson explained his fascination with these places:
When I look out of my studio window humped along the skyline is Scilly – a series of small bumps: St Agnes, St Mary’s, Samson, Bryher,Tresco, St Martin’s,Round Island – read from left to right like a line of punctuated marks. If I walk down to the cliff edge, I look down on the Brisons – BrisonsVean and BrisonsVeor – two black peaks of a reef ‘floating’ a mile off shore. Almost anywhere off the coast of Cornwall these places exist – sometimes small rocky outcrops, sometimes larger inhabited places. I am fascinated by these island communities – whether peopled or not – the fauna and flora living semi-isolated in its own little world.
In July 2007, Kurt Jackson was presented with an honorary degree from the University of Exeter. Professor Christopher McCullough, in his oration said:
[...] When asked in an interview if he viewed nature as benign, as hostile to human beings, or as indifferent to them, his reply gives a clue as to the depth of thought and feeling in his paintings: ‘I think there’s a lot of claptrap spoken about what is “natural”.The actual landscape has evolved as a result of human use of it over the centuries from the neolithic period through to the industrial revolution … how you view nature depends on how you see yourself fitting into it. For good or ill, we cannot be divorced from the physical landscape.
Kurt Jackson is one of the very few painters who maintain, as a central principle of their work, the ecological dilemma of our lives and the possibilities for a more sympathetic relationship with the earth. Kurt’s fight is with all that is conspiring to ruin the world.This fight is exemplified by the self-supporting lifestyle he and his family have achieved at their home in north Cornwall, right through to the concept that, as he states, ‘an ecologically principled lifestyle is in no way élitist or escapist.’ Kurt’s commitments are international: he is actively engaged as a campaigner with Aids Relief in Africa, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Survivors International and Water Aid. Nationally, he has raised money for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, homelessness, as well as Surfers Against Sewage, which is now an international movement.
Kurt was brought up in a family of artists (his father is a Quaker) whose non-consumerist ideology was matched by their strong work ethic. His childhood, while creative in its exposure to the practice of the visual arts, was also spent running wild in the countryside playing with his friends in water meadows, bird watching, looking for beetles or catching wild animals.There does seem to have been a splendid synergy between his love of taking home his findings – flowers or a bird’s feather – and making sketches of them with notes describing the object. [...]
His superb draughtsmanship combined with the overwhelming sensuality of his brushwork is born out of his intense desire to pursue his own journey. This journey has led him and his family ever westward into Cornwall to where they now live and work outside St Just. Kurt is as much part of the communities in Cornwall, as he is at one with the landscape, no matter what form that may take. He does not compartmentalise his life: his family; his art; his belonging to the community; his strong commitments to international movements are all one, they form the man. [...]
He works predominantly out of doors starting with exhaustive and intimate explorations of his chosen field: sensing the environment viscerally. His work may be epic – he has remarked that one of the true wildernesses around Cornwall is the sea with no land visible – producing the extraordinarily evocative seascapes for which he is well known; but even here he does not lose sense of the political dimension that informs his reading of a land (sea) scape. His telling observation is, ‘You can look out to the Atlantic and there is no visible sign that we have done anything to it, although we know we have.’ Alternatively, his work is also intimate when he retreats to patches of briars painting them from the inside, so to speak, or peering into the bottom of a blackthorn hedge.
Whatever the site chosen for a day’s work, it will be out of doors, and his working methods demand the physicality, commitment and passion of a dancer. Often as not, the large canvas will be stretched out on the ground pinned down by rocks. His whole being, physical and emotional, is engaged in the action of painting as he shifts the horizontal band of the skyline and the foreshore up and down the canvas seeking the right point that will serve as the foundation to capture the mood and tone of the landscape at that moment. At the end of a day’s work he will have reached a state of physical exhaustion.
Kurt often inscribes his paintings with comments about the weather, or as a means of enhancing the sense of place. Because he finds titling paintings awkward and artificial, he began to write on them while on site as a form of final mark or full stop.This has led him to the technique of making rubbings of signs that are part of the landscape and transferring them to the paintings, either a means by which to enhance the sense of place (sometimes he achieves this with found objects attached to the painting), or to alert the viewer to the inappropriateness of signposts that intrude into the landscape. Where a word or phrase is required to intrude upon an image to create a necessary tension, it will be employed. [...]
- Kurt Jackson landscapes: slideshow at Granta magazine
- Granta 102: The New Nature Writing: includes Mark Cocker’s essay on Jackson (purchase online)
- Enesow: an exploration of the islands of Cornwall: flipbook presentation at Lemon Street Gallery
- Kurt Jackson: the Cornish Hedge. Paintings and essay
- Kurt Jackson: The Avon Project: flipbook
- Kurt Jackson: The Thames project
- Kurt Jackson: The Tamar