Between the lines

Published 3 March 2014

In the first of a new series on artists’ epiphanies, Tess Jaray RA reveals three turning points in her understanding of art.

  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Epiphany is born out of recognition. If it didn’t reflect something we unconsciously know already it would pass unrecognised, like something in a dream that we can’t identify. And in some way it must also answer a need, be a revelation, something that perhaps we were unconsciously seeking.

    My first, probably my very first, epiphany in the life of art and of seeing was when I started as a student at St Martins – the old St Martins in Charing Cross Road. It was so long ago that it wasn’t even a Foundation course. It was called Beginners. We were much younger than students are now, some of us only 16, and it was a period in our lives of major discoveries: we learned how to cook spaghetti bolognese, and we lost our virginity.

    So when we were taken out into the streets with our drawing tutor (how nostalgic that sounds, not many of them left…) and I drew a row of trees into my sketch-book, the tutor was scathing: you are only looking at the trees. What about the spaces in between? You wouldn’t even see the trees if they weren’t framed with space. And look, he said, the spaces in between also have shapes – imagine the trees as the edges of the picture, and framing only the space. You still have a shape. Perhaps even more interesting than the trees themselves.

    Well, I’ve forgotten his name, and he was very old at that time, already probably in his early 30s, and is no doubt no longer alive, but I owe him much, because a door was opened for me that led to other doors, which in turn continue to open: space is the key, the great mystery, the ever unsolvable problem, an open invitation to enter. So thank you, whoever you were, for unveiling the secret of painting to me at such a tender age.

    Of course there have been other subsequent epiphanies, perhaps no less important than this one, such as looking up into Brunelleschi’s cupola on my first visit to Italy on a scholarship. In fact one might call my first venture into the Italy of that period, before the mass of tourists and the having-to-book-in-advance-for-everything, an epiphany in itself. I have certainly never recovered from all that overwhelming beauty, and it still remains an inspiration for me.

    When I look at the series of paintings I made after that experience, starting with Cupola Blue (1963), I can see that the influence has never really left me; that some last traces of Renaissance space, the distancing power that perspective allows, remain in the work. What is still important to me is the lesson I learned from those great artists and architects: the possibilities for painting of the expressive power of space itself.

  • Tess Jaray stands on the paving she designed for a residential project in London's Newman Street in 2012

    Tess Jaray stands on the paving she designed for a residential project in London's Newman Street in 2012

    Photo: Alan Williams

  • And of course I couldn’t possibly deny the influence of those Italian architectural spaces on the architectural projects I’ve been lucky enough to work on. What I learned there – and I can never understand why our own town planners haven’t also learned it – is how public space is actually used, how it impacts on the lives of the people who use it. So the commission to design the floor at St Mary’s Nottingham last year – a beautiful medieval church – was an opportunity for me to create something that has painterly aspirations but serves a practical purpose as well, and is part of a tradition, now under threat, that has been going on for thousands of years.

    One might say, in fact, that unless there is an aspect of something approaching revelation, catharsis, or even merely surprise, a work isn’t worth the making. And when this happens when viewing other artists’ work, or the great masters of the past, it is always a confirmation that this strange thing one is chasing, this chimera, does in fact exist. But it’s rather hard to hold on to.

    One occasion was when I was in the British Museum, and saw El Anatsui’s hanging, Man’s Cloth (2001), for the first time. I didn’t know who he was, I didn’t know what the piece itself was, but I knew that it was something rare and wonderful. And the more I stared at it, the more astonished I was to realise that he had made something that covered so much: not just form and colour and surprising shapes and texture, but that all these things had references, political and social meanings, embedded history, and were made in such a way as to embrace the life and the people around him. No other art of recent times, I felt, was so inclusive. It was a great, a very great privilege, a few years later, to be part of the team that enabled his work to adorn the façade of the RA at the 2013 Summer Exhibition.

    Landscapes of Space: Paintings and Prints by Tess Jaray is at Djanogly Art Gallery, Nottingham until 27 April.

    The Art of Tess Jaray by Richard Davey et al, £28, Ridinghouse Thresholds by Richard Davey and Tess Jaray, £35 (special edition £450), RA Publications.

    St Mary’s Church Nottingham is open Tue - Sat, 10.30am-2.30pm.