In the studio with Jenny Saville RA

Published 23 May 2012

The Academician talks with us from her current studio in Oxford.

  • From the Summer 2012 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    Jenny Saville’s first studio was a broom cupboard. This is no exaggeration. The space occupied a few square feet in a corner and had a tiny desk, shelves and her portfolio of work. She was seven years old at the time. “Grown-ups would come to the house and ask me what I was going to do when I grew up. I would always think, what do they mean? I’m an artist.” The second of four children, she was lucky that her mother, a primary school teacher, recognised her daughter’s needs and made the cupboard hers exclusively, out of bounds for everyone else.

    “We lived in Suffolk at the time,” Saville recalls. “Each day in the holidays I would wake up and my first thought would be about what I was working on in my dark little retreat. But a couple of years later we moved to Yorkshire – in fact we moved quite a bit – and I had to find other strategies.” Evidently she succeeded. By 21, she had attracted the attention of Charles Saatchi, who was busily establishing, via his purchases, the group known as Young British Artists. It is not the case, as has been often reported, that he “bought up her graduate show” at Glasgow School of Art in 1992. The truth is more remarkable. She sold everything at that show and one of her paintings was featured on the cover of The Times Saturday supplement, while another was shown at the Cooling Gallery in Cork Street. Saatchi saw these and within three weeks of her graduation had commissioned new works and bought up what he could of those (already purchased by others) from her Glasgow show. These together constituted her first show – two years later in 1994 – at the Saatchi Gallery in Boundary Road, north London. Her career was launched.

    Her vast canvases, typically of the female body at its most exposed and corporeal, without narrative and occupying an empty space, made an unforgettable impact at the RA’s Sensation show in 1997, not least because of their painterly quality as well as their power to express both disgust and beauty. “Because I had such a lucky start, I really grew up in the art world. I didn’t have the usual period of making mistakes. But I was also, strangely, completely fearless.”

    Many solo exhibitions and group shows later, her work will be the subject of a 20-year “overview” – a word she prefers to the more usual retrospective “which,” she says, “makes you sound dead” – at Modern Art Oxford, close to where she now works. Since that broom cupboard, she has had “around ten” studios, from a student bedroom in a Glasgow tenement, to a factory outside New York, to a place in Tottenham, “a terrible space where the only other women I saw were prostitutes but where I did some of my best work.” Perhaps her most remarkable to date is a dilapidated palazzo in Palermo, Sicily, which she still owns but has only ever lived in part-time. “I was there a lot until 2007. But trying to find an electrician or get the roof mended when you’re coping with babies was too frustrating.”

    Now aged 41 and the mother of two children, aged four and five, she occupies a calm, light-filled, 3,500sq ft square space in central Oxford. At least that is the atmosphere on first impression. As Saville talks, it becomes clear that this studio is a place of compromise: she moved to the 1960s building when forced to vacate a beautiful white space in a building next door, owned by Pembroke College, which has now been demolished. “I always knew my time there was temporary, and they were very nice about it, but it was still a blow. That was a dream studio – skylights, two floors, easy access, outside space. So I moved in here and for a while this place was okay. I knocked down the partition walls and, even though the ceilings are low, the light was fine when there was just an empty space next door where my old studio was. But now a new building is going up.”

    The scaffolding and the men in yellow hard-hats are so close to the windows on one side that in effect Saville is working in the middle of a construction site. “The new building is higher than the one I’m in. So I’ve lost the light on that side completely. I’m looking for a new place – not easy to find in the middle of Oxford.”

    Unperturbed, Saville still works her usual long hours including a night shift, arriving at 7.30 pm after her children are in bed, then working till midnight or beyond. Fortunately, her partner, Paul McPhail, also an artist, is a hands-on father. Home is a couple of miles away in north Oxford. “Knowing they are fast asleep removes anxieties. I love the chance to drop them off at school each day, and do the dinner and bath-time routine. But I really enjoy working in the evening. I thought Oxford would be quiet at night and mainly it is. I love hearing the bells of Christ Church chime around 9 pm.”

    Saville scarcely ever breaks her regime. Evidence of her productivity is all around: huge drawings and paintings are propped against the walls in a studio that is otherwise bare but for some orderly pots of paint, large brushes, photographic images of sculpture from the Renaissance or antiquity, a work table or two. If she uses books for reference, none can be seen here. A turbulent drawing of a figure, all limbs and genitalia with patches of red, smoulders disturbingly in one corner.

    “Sometimes, when I get caught in a metaphorical ‘dark passage’ workwise, I do something else for a while, in a sense of coming out into the light, until that feeling clears.” She points to her work in progress, a large, multi-layered drawing (above) provisionally titled History of the Reclining Nude, which makes direct reference to masterpieces of the past. It is one of the few new works in her Modern Art Oxford show. “I’m fascinated about the way perspective is a game of space and surface, and how artists have played that game, trying to find harmony and balance, through the figure of the reclining nude.”

    Oxford has been part of her life since childhood. “My uncle, Paul Saville, who really encouraged me to become an artist, lives nearby. He was head of Liberal Arts at St Clare’s College. I was allowed to use the studios there when the students were away. We often meet for lunch and discuss difficult things about paint and so on. It’s a lovely, and very important, relationship.” She also names John Richardson and the late critic and curator David Sylvester as mentors.

    Her parents, both working in education, encouraged her to think independently which, she realised, set her apart from some of her friends. She attributes some of her youthful confidence to that bookish, intellectually bracing upbringing. “Now I rejoice in uncertainty – up to a point. It’s not really the done thing to mention the impact of motherhood but the experience has hugely changed the way I work. In fact it has reawakened my interest in making art at the most basic level and injected a totally new creative energy. I learn enormously from seeing how my children make bold marks on paper with complete freedom. It’s so instinctive, with no need to create form. And eventually some sort of form begins to emerge. And that has found a way back into my own drawing. I love my work, and I’m totally engaged in it.”

    Her tone changes from inspirational to practical: “Motherhood has also taught me to cut the crap. I used to come in and make coffee, read the paper, have lunch. Time was fluid and I probably wasted it. Now I come in, take off my coat and start.”

  • Jenny Saville, Modern Art Oxford, Oxford, 23 June – 16 September 2012.

    Fiona Maddocks is a journalist and broadcaster. She is Chief Music Critic of the Observer.

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