FEATURED ARTIST OF THE MONTH - JANE ALLISON
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
*The South Wing wards at St Pancras Hospital have a rich cultural history including in 1961 when poet novelist Sylvia Plath spent a month in South Wing recovering from surgery. During one of our worst winters, Sylvia wrote Tulips inspired by flowers that bloomed in the snow in the Old St Pancras Church gardens which she viewed through her bedside window. Later on during my 3 decade tenure as Medical Records Manager at St Pancras Hospital I remember that the great conductor Sir Charles Groves chose to spend his final years in South Wing surrounded by the buzz of people and NHS nurses. After he died on 20/6/92 the conductor bequeathed The Groves Lounge to South Wing for patients to rest in the comfort of a homely lounge environment.
This was also the period of trail blazing and progressive nurse practises and South Wing set the scene for nurses wearing ordinary clothes rather than nurse uniforms, encouraging family and community links and wards were transformed into homely places with names such as Evergreen and Oakwood for the final years of frail elderly people.
The arts were also welcomed with artists in residence appointments. One of these was Jane Allison and we welcome this unique opportunity to enjoy the return of 17 oil portraits of life on the wards from the original collection to our gallery in The Conference Centre. It is also with great pride and pleasure that The Arts Project continues to foster the Art of Arts in Health Care on the site.
We are delighted to welcome Jane Allison as our Artist of the Month with a set of Q&A's and we enclose a teaser trailer about Jane Allison made by documentary filmmaker Anna Bowman from her forthcoming short film 3 PLACES IN TIME.
Portraits by Jane Allis exhibited during 3 Places in Time exhibition
How did the portraits of patients on South Wing wards at St Pancras Hospital in the late 80s come about?
'In the mid 1980’s I joined a group of women artists in Camden , “Five Women Artists Plus” who exhibited regularly in St Pancras Old Church and it was at one of those Private Views that I met the Senior Nurse Manager of St Pancras Hospital who strongly believed that it was important for her patients to continue having new experiences regardless of their age or infirmity and asked me if I would like to come into the hospital to paint them. I was interested as I felt it would also be a new experience for me to paint a different sort of person - people who were not necessarily successful, wealthy or even conventionally beautiful.'
The portraits are almost entirely focused on elderly women. What is the reason for this?
'Most of the residential patients just happened to be women - partly I think because women generally live longer than men. In fact I only remember one male residential patient in the hospital, John Owens, whom I painted.'
Were you able to build relationships with the women you painted and have you any stories to share with us?
'Whilst I was painting the St Pancras Portraits I encouraged the sitters to talk and at the time I was working on the paintings I grew to know and perhaps understand them quite well. However when you are painting most of your mind is taken up with trying to capture the essence of a person in paint so, although I can talk quite sensibly whilst I’m painting I tend not to remember much at the end of a painting. Generally though, most of the women had had very hard lives, working long hours whilst trying to bring up families in considerable poverty. They had all lived in the immediate area all their lives and had gone through the war there. I do remember that Jane Claridge, whom I painted when she was 101, had spent her entire life curling ostrich feathers for hats!'
The painting of the summer party in the adjacent old St Pancras Church gardens was selected for display by the National Portrait Gallery. Can you tell us more about this?
'The painting of the St Pancras Garden Party was displayed in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the BP Portrait Award.
The garden party was an annual event held in the churchyard and the whole neighbourhood took part. As I mentioned earlier the senior nurse manager was determined that the ladies should continue to participate in life and not just be shut away in a hospital ward and this was one of many events that she insisted that they could take part in - regular Bingo parties and Carol Services with local children were all included and she would commander teams of volunteers to man the wheelchairs and they would sally forth! Needless to say when the painting was on show in the NPG she arranged for all the sitters to go to the Private View which was a major undertaking and one I’ll never forget!'
What plans do you have for this collection of portraits which are a valuable reflection of a period of time involving a particular aspect of our English social history?
'The collection of portraits has spent the past few years on display in the Royal College of Nursing, but eventually it was decided that the college needed updating and that the portraits no longer fitted in with the design scheme. Since their eviction they have lived in my garden shed, but I would really like to find them a permanent home in an institution where they can be kept together and looked after in perpetuity as a historical record of what is rapidly becoming a very different time.'
The genres of still life, landscapes and portraits all attract and interest you. Are there particular links between these subjects of interest for you to tell us about and why have you chosen oil paint as your tool of expression? 'I tend to paint still lives and landscape as if they were portraits. They are all very particular observations and to me are in some ways a record or a crystallisation of life as I see it. I use oil paint because it is the medium which allows for the most expression - it has texture, opacity, transparency and is, perhaps the most forgiving of mediums in that it allows for constant changes and explorations.'
Finally how has the Covid pandemic affected your life and work and how do you see this developing?
'There have been obvious financial implications and I certainly haven’t had as many portrait commissions as usual, but otherwise Covid makes very little difference to my working life which tends to be quite solitary - in some ways, I’ve had even more time to paint landscape and flowers. However I am concerned that as the pandemic drags on it will be come increasingly difficult to show work in public and I am aware that I like an audience!
I also share the general feeling of unease engendered by this situation and the concern that life will never quite be the same again and this is unsettling and sometimes makes me question the validity of what I paint or even painting. On the other hand I have spent my entire life painting and know no other way of living.
I am not hopeful about the future and am deeply concerned at the way Covid has enabled our freedoms to be eroded and hugely increase the power and wealth of the big tech companies.'
Thank you Jane for being our ARTIST OF THE MONTH