Kurt Jackson paints: seascapes in which every glitter of reflected light on the water’s surface is detailed; rivers in their varied moods and waterside shades of greenery; and trees in their many forms and patterning of light and shade. His paintings are meticulous in their observation of the details in a landscape, yet they are, simultaneously, abstractions as expressive as the most crystalline poetry.
I’ve loved the paintings of Kurt Jackson since discovering him on a holiday in Cornwall in 1999, when we were there 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. Cornwall – and most especially the far western lands of West Penwith is a favourite place of ours, and the place that Jackson has made his home and his primary subject since 1984, when he settled near St. Just.
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. I would like to have more, but the catalogues of his exhibitions sell out almost instantaneously and only rarely reappear on Abebooks or Amazon, always at staggeringly inflated prices.
But recently an excellent book, comprising almost a dozen essays on Jackson and lavishly illustrated with examples of his work, was published. Entitled Kurt Jackson: A New Genre of Landscape Painting, I received it as a birthday gift, and have just finished reading it. There are essays here by poets, nature writers, painters and art critics – they include Howard Jacobson, Helen Dunmore, Mark Cocker, Bel Mooney and Richard Mabey – who together weave a rich portrait of an artist and environmentalist with a deep understanding of natural history and ecology, politics and environmental issues.
It’s in the foreword to the collection, written by John Russell Taylor, that the idea of Kurt Jackson representing a ‘new genre of landscape painting’ is developed. He suggests that Jackson is a traditional painter in the sense that ‘you cannot see any of his paintings…without being aware of a great underlying body of tradition’ that includes, for example, ‘Turner’s later, more abstracted works’ and ‘Constable’s more private watercolour sketches’. But, Taylor argues, ‘these are only the foundations on which Jackson’s personal style is built’. The artist has clearly also absorbed the wild, spontaneous mark-making of American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, as well as the practices and objectives of German Neo-Expressionists like Anselm Kiefer, with their commitment to an art that stimulates the imagination and expresses human emotion:
Hence the frequent incursion in Jackson’s work of apparently random dashes and blobs of colour, which cannot be explained in terms of detailed observation but are very important in conveying the spirit and feeling of the scene as they strike the observing artist. Then there is his developing interest in the quasi-sculptural application of non-painting elements to the surface of his canvases. Sometimes it may be incorporating the material observed – such as sand or pebbles – to ‘represent’ itself. Sometimes it is a metaphor, or even a sort of pun, as in his Cornish painting Catch the Light (2002-3, top of this post), where the catching of the very present but wholly impalpable light is conceived almost literally as something that could be done, with a real fishing net attached to the front of the canvas.
For myself, I think it’s that gift of being able to ‘catch the light’ – whether shimmering on the sea in the noonday sun, or fading as dusk deepens in some woodland glade – that defines Kurt Jackson’s magic. In his analysis, John Russell Taylor continues:
And there is yet another important element of Jackson’s art which is wholly untraditional. I mean, of course, his use of scribbled inscriptions, along with more formal printed words and phrases. One can readily find parallels in contemporary art, from Cy Twombly … to the early works of Ben Nicholson. […]
One feels, looking at these extraordinary works, that the documentary element – making some kind of record of what is before the artist’s eyes – is important, but it is only one strand. Equally present are how the artist feels about what he sees, and how, at some deep, instinctive level, he apprehends the spirit of time and place.
Kurt Jackson was born in 1961 in Blandford, Dorset and spent much of his childhood pursuing a passionate interest in nature in the wooded lanes and fields of semi-rural Herfordshire. He was already painting his finds from field and stream, annotating his drawings and watercolours with scientific details. His parents were both artists, and the family travelled extensively across Europe and the Middle East, a formative experience that finds expression, perhaps, in his predilection to work outdoors in all weathers, and his active support for environmental campaign groups such as Greenpeace, whose expeditions he has sometimes joined as official artist in residence.
There’s one aspect of Jackson’s biography that sets him apart from most other artists: he is a scientist with a degree in Zoology from Oxford University. While travelling in Greece in his early twenties he met two men who had just graduated from that course, and he developed a burning desire to do the same. At Oxford he spent most of his time painting and attending courses at Ruskin College of Art, but he gained his degree and continued to travel extensively and independently, painting wherever he went. He travelled to the Arctic alone and hitched across Africa with his wife. So he has acquired a broad experience of environments and cultures which has enriched his work with a unique insight and an attention to detail. He moved to Cornwall in 1984 where he still lives and works.
Since settling in Cornwall, a central concern of Jackson’s work has been to document with meticulous observation the landscapes and seascapes of West Penwith. But his work has not been confined to that southwestern peninsula. He has painted many rivers (often tracking their course from source to sea) and in numerous places, from the isle of Arran to Greece, Andalucia and Mali. Wherever he is, whatever the landscape he is seeing, Jackson’s work is, as Bel Mooney rightly observes in this book, ‘infused with joy’. She goes on:
The artist’s own physicality reaches out to meet the teeming, testing, tantalising aspects of life: leaf, grass, bark, flower, water and stone. Each painting transcends what is merely observed: it is a totality of experience.
At a time of concern about the fate of our woodland, Kurt Jackson’s depiction of trees and the ecology of the wild places that surround them is timely. In his essay, ‘Green Chaos: Painting the Forest’, Richard Mabey observes that in Jackson’s paintings:
The patterns of light and shade, the thick impression of the paint, the sudden detonations of colour and embryonic forms, echo the vitality and inventiveness of the natural processes they signify.
He regards Jackson’s woodland paintings as being landscapes ‘seen literally from the grass roots’, and in this respect compares Jackson’s paintings to the poetry of John Clare (one of Jackson’s favourite poets in fact).
Jackson’s series Two Woods (2oo4) explores the interior life of two contrasting habitats: Ashcombe Wood near Bath and Skewjack Wood in Cornwall and Mabey notes how Jackson’s paintings of Ashcombe, a wood with origins dating back to the end of the last Ice Age (such as Ashcombe, sun sinking, sycamore, hazel, oak, above) are studies of the depths of the wood, that ‘in their dappled latticework suggest the intricate transactions between light, time and living tissue that create the fabric of these ancient places.
Loud wind through the tree tops, low winter sunlight through the twigs, sun sinking, sycamore, hazel, oak. It feels like the beginning of Autumn, September 2003 (above) is, for Mabey, a more spacious painting:
Light filters in through the treetops. The tree trunks are straighter, more gracious.The text hints at uncertainty, at a palpable mystery in the surfaces of the wood. It might, in fact, be the beginning of spring.Woods lock their history inside them, but they reveal cyclical traces, and the spring bud is already formed at the moment of the leaf’s fall.
Bel Mooney’s essay, Two Trees/Five Senses/A World, is also provoked by paintings of trees: in her case of figs and olives, part of a series painted by Jackson in Kardamili, a small village on the coast of the Mani peninsula in Greece. Mooney owns one of these – a ‘precious painting’ whose origins she seeks out in a meeting with the artist. She learns that Jackson first visited Kardamili as a 12-year old after his father, inspired by reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book on the Mani peninsula, drove the family there in an old Land Rover. In 2005 he returned with his wife Caroline and their three children to live in a small stone hut at the top of the olive groves so that he could ‘paint it properly’. Terre d’Oliviers, big buzzy flies and hot happy grasshoppers within the shade of this olive tree (above), painted on his duvet cover, was one result.
Speaking of the layers of meaning in these paintings, Mooney writes:
However,there are always deeper issues at stake as each painting is made. Past and present lead all of us inexorably towards a future we have to contemplate, even as the present minutes pass. With the wider dimension in mind, the olive tree in my own painting is transformed into a significant emblem. Jackson loves places that are passed on through generations, where people work the land as their forefathers did. That is how it would have been in England once: the sweetness of apple orchards nurtured organically, sustaining generations. But that is no longer the way of life, except in areas as remote as Jackson’s adopted Cornish home. So the olive groves of Kardamili represent an ancient transaction between humans,culture and the land.There has been a settlement in this region since the ancient time of Homer, and the olive – symbol of peace, wisdom, plenty and a victor’s crown – has supported people with wood, useful foliage and, of course, in Homer’s phrase ‘liquid gold’ for food and light. Some olive trees are thought to be more than one thousand years old and fossilised leaves are about fifty thousand years old. For eons, Olea europaea has sustained the daily life and customs of peoples of the Mediterranean.
Having written just a few days ago about a film in which Jewish settlers set fire to ancient olive trees belonging to Palestinian villagers, I was struck by Bel Mooney’s next words:
What’s more,the olive tree is a basic element in maintaining the stability of a whole ecosystem. Because it can take eight years before one produces its first crop, dependable cultivation needs an unchanging environment, which in turn requires political and economic security. This can be seen in the correspondence of the historical decline of the empires of Greece and Rome to the destruction of olive orchards. Since 2000, more than half a million olive trees have been destroyed by Israeli bulldozers – an act of destruction blasphemous to those who revere the ancient symbolism of the olive branch, as well as an ongoing annihilation of Palestinians’ essential livelihood, which depends on the olive tree for fruit, oil and wood. In Homer’s time, courts sentenced people to death if they destroyed one olive tree. Those reduced to helpless despair and rage at the destruction of the rainforests and the corresponding oppression of indigenous tribes might think that an entirely appropriate retribution.
This is an absorbing and revealing collection of essays, lavishly illustrated on good quality paper. It would satisfy anyone already familiar with the work of Kurt Jackson, but also serves as a useful introduction to his paintings. If I have two small quibbles it these: there is some repetition in the various essays (that have, I suspect, been gathered together from various original sources), and very often the illustrations don’t match the accompanying text. Never mind, it’s still a lovely book to have.
- Kurt Jackson: mordros visible
- Kurt Jackson’s Dart exhibition
- Kurt Jackson: official website
Paintings by Kurt Jackson: BBC Your Paintings
- Robert Macfarlane on Kurt Jackson: introduction to recent exhibition catalogue (Caught by the River blog)