Kurt Jackson’s sketchbooks: the soul of a place

Kurt Jackson’s sketchbooks: the soul of a place
Fog, mist
Fog, mist, mizzle, sunshine, mist fog, rain, sunshine, mizzle. 25 February 2011

In my previous post, writing about John Constable’s oil sketches, I noted how he would make meticulous notes of the weather conditions at the time he painted. I remarked that this reminded me of Kurt Jackson, who does exactly the same thing – often including the observation in the title of a painting, and sometimes inscribing the annotation on the painting itself. (In the example above, he does both.)  The day before seeing the Constable exhibition at the V&A I had been to the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street where, downstairs, there were the remnants of a display mounted by the gallery to coincide with the publication of Kurt Jackson Sketchbooks, in which – interestingly in the light of the V&A’s exhibition of oil sketches from Constable’s sketchbook – Jackson asserts that his sketchbooks should be regarded as seriously as his paintings, prints and sculpture – as a body of work in their own right.

The book draws on a selection of twenty sketchbooks, all of them from 2007, and offers a rare insight into the mind of one who I regard as the most important living British landscape artist.  Compelled to draw every day, Jackson would never contemplate travelling without pens, pencils, paints and some kind of sketch book.  Indeed, in the first chapter we accompany Jackson on several train journeys as he guides us through the drawings, paintings and collages that he makes as he travels – some of his wife Caroline sitting opposite.

We begin to see how Jackson’s sketchbooks are vital to the development and completion of his paintings. A hastily drawn image helps him to work out what he wants to achieve on canvas, or simply captures something when there isn’t enough time to paint or draw properly. Like many other artists, Jackson regards his sketchbooks as an invaluable visual diary of his life (the book opens with a quotation from van Gogh: ‘My sketchbook is a witness of what I am experiencing, scribbling things whenever they happen’).

Raindrops
Raindrops are falling on my head, sunshine is falling at my feet, November 2010

The book consists of a series of narratives written by Jackson in which he guides the reader through sketches made on journeys that have yielded several series of paintings – from the Scilly Isles and the Cornish coast to the Glastonbury Festival, the river Dart, Jura and the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Scotland, France and a grand voyage by train to Greece.

As a long time admirer of the many and varied seascapes that Jackson has painted at Priest Cove, near his home in West Penwith, I was particularly struck by his atmospheric account – in ‘Cornish coast’, the second chapter – of how those paintings have come to be:

I’m sitting outside the boathouse, my hut on Priest Cove. It’s a tatty, ethnic vernacular shed constructed out of driftwood, beach stones and corrugated iron, one of a series of similar buildings terraced up the cliff and around the foreshore of the cove, built by and for generations of fishermen. I use it as one of my studios, damp and full of rodents and wrens and ferns, but providing me with shelter from the harshest of elements and the most curious of visitors. I sit on a green plastic suburban garden chair, and stare out at the horizon and the glare of the Atlantic. My pencil follows the skyline, straight as a ruler, which joins Land’s End’s distant promontory, then drops down onto Carn Gloose’s jagged lion’s head of a granite cliff, before dropping into the cove. I continue along the foreshore with its round, dinosaur-egg boulders and pebbles and those angular rocks, bisected by the straight-edged, man-made slipway. A continuous line of pencil that leads the eye semicircularly from sky to water’s edge.

A thousand drawings and doodles have happened here, a thousand paintings over the last twenty years or so. Sketchpads full of my time invested in this one place; days and days pressed between the hand-worn covers. This place has become the focal point, the muse for a lot of my work, with the seasonal, tidal and diurnal changes and subtleties; the local fishing activities, the visitors, the fauna, the flora: Porth Juste Cove, Priest Cove, ‘the cove of St Just Cove’.

distant faint oystercatchers call
marks the low-watermark,
the sea’s Cornish murmur
the sea beat,
Cornish spleenwort,
rock pipit,
sea beet
thrift,
an optimistic gull

I turn over the page; my pencil follows the edge of an incoming wave, rolling into and across the cove then playing with the water’s surface – a tracery of lines – the sea’s surface, the light reflecting off it, the patterns formed by the foam’s backwash and swell, swash and wash, the agitation and effervescence, the stripes and streaks, squares and circles. There’s the constant motion of the water the persistent wind, the clouds drifting in from the Atlantic; then there’s a pair of crows rooting together amongst the rock pools. A crying gull sweeping past and a brief visit from a family of excited, excitable choughs, squeaking like a kiddie’s toy. All this is woven into my tangle of lines, strokes and marks some spontaneous, some careful and following detail, an observation, and my intimate awareness of this place.

Bees buzz in the vetch, grammersows crawl over my feet, sea beet and spleenwort move in the breeze.

Another page, another medium. A splash of watercolour, the pooling and puddling of clouds; a sweep of the Atlantic, some drips and dribbles off the palette to locate and define the water’s rocky edge; paper-white breaking surf. I pick up some scraps of paper, the remains of my previous visits from off the floor of the huts stained with the ochre earth of Cape Cornwall and the rainwater and seawater seeping and dripping into my semi-porous hut. Collaged onto the page, they replicate the geological textures and forms out there in front of me. Granite, greenstone, mudstone, basalt, veins and lodes of ores and quartz; recently sea-broken and exposed rocks, sea-worn and smoothened stones. Erosion and … so much information, so many other processes – an ecology of interlocking worlds and times how can this all be put on one page; captured and celebrated, noted and described? Ink, pastel, crayon, pencil, glue, gouache, acrylic, watercolour and collage; an eclectic diversity a desperate scramble and scrabble to attempt to reign in this diversity around me, into and onto my page. A plethora of seaweed greens and browns, communities of tinted shellfish, rock pools of intensity and sparkle, dots and dashes of pure-earth pigment. Glassy basalt, vivid orange granite, dull mudstone; gunmetal grey ocean, marine blue, sea green. Pipit tweet oystercatcher scream, raven honk. Sea whisper, murmur, mordros. This most ordinary of coves has slowly and gradually fixated my attention, fascinated and taken hold of me to become a place that’s extraordinary, rich and full, an inspiration a source. It has stamped its personality on my work, and I in turn have added my signature to its bottom right-hand corner.

chough flies by
grammersows crawling in the paint
wren singing to me

Snow, hail
Snow, hail, rain, sun, gales, sun, November 2010

The chapter is illustrated with examples of the sketches Jackson has made at Priest Cove – several, as shown here, inscribed with details of the weather conditions prevailing at the time.  One, made on 11 March 2011 is inscribed, ‘And on the day that the tsunami hits the Pacific you watch the incoming tide here on the Atlantic with a shiver of bated breath’.

Priest Cove 11 March 2011
Priest Cove, 11 March 2011

In an informative introductory chapter, ‘Between Artist and Place’ Alan Livingstone discusses key aspects of Jackson’s working practice and his approach to his art.  He notes that, like many artists, Jackson is very particular in his choice of sketchbooks (interestingly, some are square – the format of very many of his paintings).  Livingstone observes that, in addition to drawings and paintings, the sketchbooks also contain mixed-media collages that include materials such as menus, tickets and scraps of newspapers, glued in with Pritt stick: the ephemera enhancing Jackson’s record of the moment.

For Jackson, drawing is of central importance, and Livingstone notes the deep pleasure that the artist takes in constantly honing his drawing and observational skills.  The book contains many examples of the clarity and economy of Jackson’s line drawing, ranging from a minimalist drawing of White Island in the Scilly Isles – comprising no more than half a dozen lines in coloured crayon over a watercolour wash – to drawings of his wife made on a train journey, and the detailed observation of a water shrew discovered dead in his garden. Amongst the many fine rapid impressions is this one, of Orwell’s old hideout, Barnhill, on Jura made in May 2011.

Barnhill
Barnhill, Jura, May 2011

Livingstone discusses what is perhaps the most striking characteristic of Jackson’s work – his marked emotional response to ‘place’. Consistently and over a long period of time, he has shown an affinity with a number of favoured locations – the far west of Cornwall, but also English rivers (such as the Dart, the Stour and the Avon), and places in France and Greece to which he has returned repeatedly.  The sketchbooks reveal drawings of the same place, recorded at different times of the day, under variable weather conditions.  There may be scribbled notes on particular trees, hedges, or birds.  As Livingstone observes, nothing is too small to escape the close attention of an artist with a degree in Zoology.  Like John Constable who believed that ‘art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane’, Jackson works outdoors, going to nature at its source to record changing weather patterns and every small detail of the local environment.  Livingstone compares his attitude to that of Andy Goldsworthy, who believes that his work is ‘so rooted in the history and soul of a place that it cannot be separated from where it is made’.

Two paintings on show when I visited the Redfern Gallery demonstrate this aspect of Jackson’s work.   And a touch of Autumn zooms in on a section of Cornish hedgerow, portrayed as a patchwork of colours, while Sunshine seed time, with it masses of grasses, seed heads and umbelliferae reminded me of Durer’s study of a clump of turf.

Kurt Jackson - And a touch of Autumn
And a touch of Autumn, September 2012
Kurt Jackson - Sunshine seed time
Sunshine seed time, 2002

Priest Cove, says Livingstone, is the perfect environment for Jackson:

Wild, ever changing and remote.  ‘The relationship between artist and place is unflinching, with no quarter asked, no quarter given. Working from his boatshed studio. he finds endless challenges in recording the extreme variations in the dramatic conditions that affect this primitive Celtic landscape. Determined to record the highs and lows of each visit, Jackson believes it is fundamental that his response is honest and totally derived from the experience of ‘being there’.

A good example of the art that emerges from such a commitment might be Squall, a painting that, suitably, is now in the possession of the Met Office.

Squall
Squall

Given that so many of Jackson’s paintings are seascapes that, almost uncannily, capture the sea in its ever-changing aspect – its myriad surface textures, colours and effects of light falling on water – it is interesting to read Livingstone assessment of this central aspect of Jackson’s work:

Endlessly fascinated by the complex visual effects generated by light fleeting across water, Jackson has persistently ‘confronted’ the sea and attempted to record and glorify the timeless mystery of sky and sea coming together on the horizon. In formal terms, the seascape provides a limited range of timeless compositional options. In addition to the size and shape of the canvas, the key artistic decision relates to the proportionate horizontal split between sea and sky. Jackson’s constant experimentation with these proportions, and therefore the positioning of the horizon, heightens the drama of the scene and challenges the spectator to assess and reassess their viewpoint.

To illustrate what Livingstone says, take these two paintings, featured in the latest collection of Jackson’s work – Kurt Jackson: Recent Work – published by the Redfern Gallery:

First Day of Spring, March 2011
First Day of Spring, March 2011
The chough welcome me into the cove, February 2011
The chough welcome me into the cove, February 2011

Livingstone writes that Kurt Jackson is aware of the critical prejudice that is attached to landscape painting, but observes that for Jackson his artistic practice is rooted in his values and beliefs concerning the environment and the need to live a sustainable lifestyle: ‘the beliefs that drive him, including the intellectual centrality of place, the need to understand and respect that place and the importance of living in a sustainable way’.  This is how Jackson expressed his beliefs when introducing a recent exhibitionThis Place – consisting of paintings of the place where he lives, St Just in West Penwith:

Over the last 20 years or so my work has evolved into ‘projects’ – each a body of work that explores and is inspired by a particular route [a river, a prehistoric track way], a workplace [quarry, mine, fishermen, farmer], a group of fauna or flora [the crows, the trees] or as in this exhibition, a particular place. A dedication to and celebration of the environment is intrinsic to both my politics and my art and a holistic involvement with this subject provides the springboard for everything I make. My practice involves both plein air and studio work and embraces an extensive range of materials and techniques.

This project is about the place where I live – in the far West of Cornwall. This is the most Westerly town in Britain and the furthest town from London outside of Scotland. It is a wild place, a place on the margins; geographically isolated and battered by the elements. It is a post-industrial town in a post-industrial landscape, with a fading fishing industry, a struggling farming community and an expanding population. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place, a landscape of granite in the transitional space between the Atlantic cliffs and the Cornish moors.

This place stands as a microcosm for the world at large (Local = Global). As any place it is defined by the complex interactions between the human inhabitants, the flora and fauna, the geology, the elements, the culture and history and the resulting evolution of a community (the psychogeography). With ‘This Place’, I chose to engage with a number of pertinent local issues to illustrate these interactions, for instance, sustainability – I accompanied Cape Cornwall fishermen on their boats to produce a series of spontaneous mixed media works covering their small-scale fishing practices, the work was relevant to Greenpeace’s ‘Defend Oceans’ campaigns, and was used by them to launch their latest campaign, then biodiversity awareness – through a series of works, and with support from Cornwall Wildlife Trust, I celebrated local indigenous species, including the Cornish Moneywort – an extremely rare plant found only in this region. And finally post-industrialism – St Just is a town founded on tin. […]

Like all of my artistic practice I approached these issues from an environmental perspective – I feel that successful environmentalism stems from a need to source from, and be faithful to the local community and the surrounding biodiversity.

At the Redfern Gallery, there were several still lifes, made last autumn, which reflected Jackson’s commitment to detailing the local environment through the changing seasons- with an additional touch of humour.  Sprigs of brambles adorned with blackberries were a focus of Jackson’s attention last autumn, and he painted several inserted into empty Marmite jars.

Kurt Jackson - Evening, Autumn September
Evening Still Life, September
Kurt Jackson - A touch of Autumn, September
A touch of Autumn, September

Jackson works in several media, and there were several bramble works created in bronze, tin or copper. Kurt Jackson added this note for the exhibition:

When the blackberries appear you know that summer is coming to an end; when the blackberries have been spat on by the devil, you know winter is on the way. Along with the leaves changing their colour they are the archetypal sign of autumn. Being the last wild food still gathered by everyone they symbolise that contact, that connection with the seasonal rhythms of the countryside still hanging by a thread here in Britain. With their vivid unripe scarlet and crimsons contrasting with the indigo and black ripened berries; the viridian leaves in their repeating threesomes and those off white almost pink delicate petals framed and protected by the crisscrossing lattices of briar and bramble – this is where the whitethroats nest and the bees buzz; so much to be drawn into, so much to paint.

Kurt Jackson - The Bronze Bramble
The Bronze Bramble, 2012

See also

Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light

Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light

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. Continue reading “Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light”

Kurt Jackson’s Dart exhibition

Spent an absolutely brilliant morning at the Lemon Street Gallery in Truro, viewing The Dart, the new exhibition by Kurt Jackson.  The show charts Kurt’s progress, following the river from sea to source, and was accompanied by an illuminating documentary filmed throughout the journey by his wife, Caroline.

On show were three floors of Kurt’s work on show, including paintings, sculpture and pottery. The highlight, though, was the surprise of finding the artist himself was present in the gallery, and taking the opportunity to briefly discuss his working methods with him.

The exhibition begins with a poem by Kurt Jackson:

Indian Dart 2009

And I walked along the Dart
scribbling and striding dustily
(towards Wistman’s Wood)
around and past
that crouching clenched squat copse
and then across the ling, cotton grass and bog
to search for the river’s source
in an Indian summer.

And I painted up the Dart
among the many happy Two Bridges sheep
their shit mixed with my paint
and the meadow pipit’s song,
following those riparian meanders
to lead the eye from moor to tor to blue horizon
in an Indian Summer.

And I swam down the Dart
on my Hexworthy birthday
drifing over the trout,
gasping with the golden cold sunlight,
under lipstick-berried rowan and watchful oak,
in an Indian summer.

And I stared into the Dart
eager to glimpse the salmonid pilgrims
of Buck – fast – leigh’s slow – dark – depths
through the jewelled sinking –  sun – spangles
and swimming monks’ reflections
in an Indian summer.

In the gallery basement a film of Kurt painting by the river was being screened.  It revealed the methods that Jackson employs and lengths to which he goes in creating his images, working plein air.  When working on the larger canvases, he does not – as I had imagined – work at an easel.  The canvas is spread on the ground, and Jackson may splatter the paint across the canvas in a manner rather like Jackson Pollock; or he may walk across it, or scrape his muddy boots on its surface.

I had a chance to speak to Kurt, and asked him about his method: I was curious how a process of random-seeming paint splattering could result in an image that seemed far from abstract, controlled, almost recognisably ‘photographic’ (though I realised later, on reflection, that this is entirely the wrong word to use, since no photograph could ever the sense of place, time, weather, light that you experience looking at one of his paintings).  Is there much re-working back in the studio?  He responded that, though he does sometimes make final adjustments in the studio, often most of the refining and re-working of the image is completed at the location.

What is really striking about his approach is the way in which he immerses himself totally in the environment.  We see him swimming in the river. He often records details of weather and the sights and the sounds around him in handwritten notes on the paintings themselves.  He endures the midges, and in one extraordinary scene in the film he is seen sitting on a snowy bank in December, icicles hanging from bare branches overhead, visibly shivering with the cold. He told me that the paint was freezing as it touched the canvas and he achieved the effect he was seeking by scraping the paint surface with a metal box-lid because his brushes had frozen solid.

In other paintings there are strands of grass, clumps of earth, his own footprints, and there’s an ink sketch created with a freshly- picked reed.

The show also includes several simple yet beautiful  still lifes of flowers from the banks of the Dart – either paintings or etchings.  Two of my favourites were this painting of a dandelion, a primrose, and a few daisies: and the etching of ransoms – wild garlic.

There are also work by Jackson in other media – including pottery and metalwork.  A beautiful example is this piece – ‘ The river is surrounded by oak and sycamore with a granite bed’ – constructed in pewter, tin, copper,granite and oak.

The inspiration for the Dart project were the wartime memories of  Kurt’s father, Alan, who was evacuated, aged 12, from the East End of London to Dartmouth. He would tell Kurt stories about having a wonderful childhood by the river, fishing, crabbing and generally playing in the sun. Kurt continues:

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.

I knew that the Dart ended her forty-seven mile journey in ‘my father’s estuary’, flowing between Dartmouth and Kingswear before entering the sea, and that she originated somewhere on the Dartmoor wilds, but where did she go after pouring off those moorland flanks?

A brief day trip in 1999 on a freezing mid-winter’s day, suffering with the side effects of a doctor’s back medicine didn’t help.Wistman’sWood briefly revealed its unique beauty and magic, but the Dart was only the briefest of glimpses tumbling along the valley bottom. I had already immersed myself inTed Hughes’Dart-based poetry; then came Alice Oswald’s prize-winning ‘Dart’ poem to entice me further. Richard Long’s Dartmoor ramblings, Seth Lakeman’s ballads, Chris Chapman’s photographs and maybe even Widgery’s watercolours all seemed to gradually demand for my own engagement with the Dart.

And what did I learn after my brief few years exploring and scribbling up and down that watercourse? I could see why a small London boy would find comfort and adventure in this paradise, removed from the horrors of war and the city, but I also discovered that this Eden, the Dart, is not just extraordinarily beautiful, but that it is a meandering string of jewels – a chain of very special plant and animal communities, many that are now extremely limited in their habitats and distribution.A haven of biodiversity,with moorland and blanket bog, valley mire, acid grassland, ancient woodland, gorges, flower meadows, mudflats and salt marsh.

Ring ouzel, high brown fritillary, southern damselfly, bog hoverfly, marsh fritillary, Dartford warbler, southern marsh orchid, goshawk, salmon, spotted heath orchid, lamprey, marsh violet, hen harrier, sea trout, otter, osprey, eel grass, cornish moneywort, blue ground beetle, nightjar, small-leafed lime, wood warbler, greater horseshoe bat, red grouse, alder buckthorn, keeled skimmer, wood ant, goosander, cirl bunting.

– Kurt Jackson, 2010

Kurt Jackson summed up his journey along the Dart in these words:

I’ve walked the river, swum in it, snorkelled it and boated on it. I’ve tried to become as intimate with it as possible. It was a very fruitful experience and actually a true delight.

Jackson refers in the essay above to Alice Oswald’s poem, Dart, a book-length poem that seamlessly integrates the voices of the people who live and work on the Dart that Alice Oswald recorded in conversations  over several years.

Dart: Excerpt

Who’s this moving alive over the moor?

An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
where will he shelter looking round
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?

tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots. ..

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who’s this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking…

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out, so now I’ve taken to the moors.
I’ve done all the walks, the Two Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won’t let go of man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I’ve marked in red where the peat passes are and the
good sheep tracks

cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I,
in the pit of his throat, I
summon him just out of earshot

I don’t know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military track from Oakehampton and
head down into Cranmere pool. It’s dawn, it’s a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear plovers whistling, your feet sink right
in, it’s like walking on the bottom of a lake.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South south west and down the contours. I go slipping
between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can’t get out.

Listen,
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

in walking boots, with twenty pounds on my back: spare socks, compass, map, water purifier so I
can drink from streams, seeing the cold floating spread out above the morning,

tent, torch, chocolate not much else.

Which’ll make it longish, almost unbearable between my evening meal and sleeping, when I’ve
got as far as stopping, sitting in the tent door with no book, no saucepan, not so much as a stick
to support the loneliness

he sits clasping his knees, holding his face low down between them,
he watches black slugs,
he makes a little den of his smells and small thoughts
he thinks up a figure far away on the tors
waving, so if something does happen,
if night comes down and he has to leave the path
then we’ve seen each other, somebody knows where we are.

Links

Kurt Jackson: mordros visible

Kurt Jackson: mordros visible

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, The Dart

Kurt Jackson, The Dart

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.

Kurt Jackson, On Botallack Head, 6pm, 24.4.99 strong sun and strong westerly winds

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.

Kurt Jackson, The Cape

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.

Kurt Jackson, Carfury Standing Stone, May

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 seascapes 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.

Kurt Jackson, Cape Cornwall

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 – Brisons Vean and Brisons Veor – 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.

Brisons Vean by Kurt Jackson

Kurt Jackson, Brisons Vean

Kurt Jackson, Full Moon Rising over the Gump, 1.2.99

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. […]

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