From the Winter 2008 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.
For 20 years, Jennifer Durrant RA’s home and studio was a Regency cottage in Holly Grove, one of south London’s oldest and most distinctive streets, with its houses running along one side only, wedged between rattling trains and woodland shrubbery. Peckham Rye was yards away. Several Academicians lived or work nearby - Trevor Dannatt, Christopher Le Brun, Tom Phillips and Bill Woodrow. Durrant, though solitary within her walls, was part of an urban artists’ community, with allies close at hand.
Then eight years ago, she sold up and moved to Italy. Now she looks out on olive groves, vines and the Umbrian hills. The dominant noise is birdsong. The nearest railway station has the feel of Adlestrop station in Edward Thomas’s famous poem about it. Her studio is on the hallowed grassy site which, in 217 BC, Hannibal crushed the Romans in the Second Punic War. How did this dramatic change of lifestyle come about?
“I met someone who asked me to marry him,” she says, by way of explanation. Durrant is still accustoming herself to the path she’s chosen. “I was 57 and wanted an adventure. I’ve never thought of myself as adventurous before, except in my paintings…”
Her husband, Richard Oxby, a writer and translator two decades her senior, was living in the stone farmhouse they now share. In a romantic gesture, he bought her a plot a couple of miles away, on which, after prolonged wrangles with Italian bureaucracy, she now has her studio.
Every inch was a struggle. “I knew what I wanted but I had to be resolute. Luckily, my father was a builder and I learnt a lot from him over the years.”
Durrant grew up in Brighton. Her talent was spotted “at school, not home where no one really knew anything about art. I used to draw all the time. When I was six I was asked to do a test piece for art classes – a picture of a chef with a big cake. People said I was going to be an artist. But I didn’t know what an artist was.”
After studying at Brighton College of Art and the Slade, alongside her own work she went on to develop a busy teaching career spanning Wolverhampton, the Royal College of Art and the Royal Academy Schools. “I loved teaching, especially at the RA Schools – and I miss it. Perhaps because I’d had so much uncertainty myself getting started, I found that I had empathy for others and could encourage them.”
To begin with, nothing went right. She spoke no Italian and knew no one except her husband. “Then, just months after I arrived, Richard had to undergo emergency surgery. While he was in hospital, my mother died unexpectedly, which was not long after my father’s death. On top of that, I had nowhere to work. Eventually, Richard suggested I use his workshop. It was so narrow I could only tackle small canvases, instead of working on hands and knees on the enormous ones I’d used before.”
Out of this adversity – including about a year when she didn’t pick up a brush at all – in 2003-04 Durrant created a double series of jewel-like miniatures: Uccelli (Birds), which she says was “inspired by the birds I saw all around” and Last Conversations, suggestive of unfinished or ghostly dialogues in the mind. She showed these at Art First in London in 2006.
Durrant’s work is instantly recognisable: bands of colour, painted in acrylic and gouache, are overlaid with vivid dots of contrasting colour. Abstract and spontaneous in their intentional asymmetry, they borrow from nature but are in no sense literal.
“I’ve been mesmerised by hearing and watching birds. This painting,” she says pointing to columns of black and white circles on a pearlised, green-blue sheen, “comes from watching magpies. Another, from glimpsing a woodpecker tap-tapping in the grass, visible only by a flash of red.”
Whatever the difficulties of her early years in Italy, Durrant is now enjoying astonishing productivity, spending long hours at work, driven by her own determination and her lack of transport. “My attempts on a scooter ended up with a smashed arm, and it’s a bit too far to walk, so Richard drops me off, then picks me up at supper time, sometimes having to wait ages until I finish something particular.”
From the outside, the studio looks like the ordinary modern Italian houses to either side: pitched, terracotta-tiled roof; green shuttered windows on two floors. Inside, apart from a mezzanine gallery, the building is an empty space with a tiled floor. In summer it’s sweltering, in winter arctic. “It doesn’t bother me. I put on layer after layer, two pairs of trousers, hat, scarf… or take them off. Once I get going, I don’t stop.”
Accordingly, Durrant keeps most of the shutters closed, either to avoid direct sunlight or to stop being distracted. When she allows herself to open an upstairs curtain – “maybe when I sit down for 20 minutes and eat my lunch” – she can see Lake Trasimeno across the plain.
All around is evidence of her fertile artistry: some dozen or more works in progress, several trestle tables, hundreds of paint jars, old yoghurt pots, brushes of every size, three toy sailing boats, half a dozen African masks, cheap beads, coloured ropes, rag rugs stretched onto oval boards, a fruit bowl from Peckham market, embroidered cushions, books, CDs – “At the moment I listen to Bach all the time, usually András Schiff playing.”
Many of the smaller panels and canvases, 37 in all, are about to be sent to London for her exhibition With Garlands Drest – a title taken from Keats’s Ode to a Grecian Urn. “Apart from a show of small pieces a couple of years ago, this is the first major work to come out of this studio. So it’s a big moment. I’ve got the bubble wrap ready. I will be bereft when they’ve gone.”
She opens the door and surveys the landscape in the early autumn sunlight. “Look at the sky, the orange on the hills, the silvered, shimmering light. It makes me think of Van Gogh…” Jennifer Durrant’s restless spirit has embarked on a new, blazingly confident journey.
With Garlands Drest, is at Art First, London, from 18 November - 20 December 2008.
Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.