Jane Ford’s gothic delights

  • Jane Ford
  • Jane Ford
  • Jane Ford

Murder, folklore and mischief collide with British wildlife in artist Jane Ford’s eccentric and darkly humorous paintings. We interview Jane ahead of her 2018 exhibition at Stow on the Wold’s Fosse Gallery...

Creativity often seems to run in the blood. Do you come from an especially artistic family?

My family come from the Potteries and I was born in Newcastle under Lyme. My father and his brother both went to the Royal Northern School of Music in the ‘30s - my father studied as a bass baritone with his brother, who played piano and often performed recitals in the region.

After the war he was offered a place with the Carl Rosa Opera Company but unfortunately developed cancer of the tongue so was unable to take up the position. However, he went on to become Choirmaster with a well-known choir and held that position for over 40 years, his voice remaining spectacular throughout.

My maternal uncle was the Head Designer for Spode Pottery and it was through his influence I started to draw, and as an 7-8 year old I was allowed to paint with his oils.

Where did you train? And what were your early experiences working in the world of art and design?

There were several Art Schools in Stoke in the ‘70s, all mainly catering to the needs of the pottery industry. I didn't want to enter that industry but originally hoped to work at the College of Heralds. With this in mind, I went to a smaller art school in the area, the Newcastle School of Art which was a mainly Fine Art School.

I was only there for a year when the opportunity arose to become an apprentice at what was then a huge printing and design company. It was a formal apprenticeship of 7 years and encompassed Graphic Design, Illustration, Pottery Design and the general production of Artwork. My first exhibition as a solo artist came when I was 18 thanks to the Curator of the Newcastle Museum and Art Gallery.

Who are your primary artistic and literary influences?

The primary artistic influence was my uncle who designed for Spode. He guided my abilities from a very early age and was also a huge influence on my interest in wildlife. His passion and knowledge of British wildlife was immense and spent hours telling me about the lives of creatures we came across.

The other very important influence in my career was my wonderful art teacher, Gerald Sabin. If it was not for his patience and practical way of teaching I would never be painting today. After my dismal failure in my O-Levels, he fought for my place at Art School, both with the school and my parents, arguing that my ability in painting outweighed my ability in exams! He remained a friend and mentor throughout my life right up until his death last year. I owe him everything.

My Dad was a brilliant storyteller. He read from books like Brer Rabbit and Toad of Toad Hall and he also made up stories using animals which spoke. His sense of humour was paramount in these stories. I guess the earliest memory of humanised animals was Rag, Tag and Bobtail on Watch with Mother. As I grew up my tastes leant more towards Edgar Allen Poe and, of course, The Lord of the Rings and Gormanghast. The Goon Show has also got a lot to answer for.

Your compositions are fantastical and uncanny, and yet the creatures feel so naturalistic and full of life. How did you arrive at this distinctive style?

My training throughout has been very traditional and I have always portrayed my subjects in a realistic style. When you look at a bird or animal you can see their individuality in the body movements and expressions. Each one has a distinct character and those people who work with animals know this to be true. So it is relatively easy to convey this in a painting as I treat the creature model as a formal portrait.

I decided to experiment, adding things into the painting that are of interest to me (such as vintage instruments) and pairing predator and prey in opposite or enticing situations. The paintings also reflect elements of emotions, from love to murder - and that involves the inevitable dark, Northern sense of humour.

Tell us about the Kentish wildlife that appears in your art

I am lucky to live in the marshes in Kent near Sandwich where there are a variety of birds both indigenous and migratory. There have been nesting little owls this year as well as tawny and short-eared owls. There are marsh harriers, kestrels and a sparrowhawk downed a pigeon in our garden this year.

I feed a crow daily on an egg from our hens and he is a real bad boy. I have called him Mr. Flay after a character in Gormanghast. If his egg is not on the grass by 8am he is jumping up and down on the studio roof until it’s delivered. He allowed me to photograph him just once taking his egg. Foxes abound as in most areas but we are seeing a decrease in hares which is very sad…they are such secretive and magical creatures.

Each image you create is rife with allusions to folklore and fairytales. How intensive is the research involved when considering a painting?

The research can be consuming and intense. The featured animal or bird has to be right, both in pose and anatomy. Coupled with whatever is going to be added into the painting, I can be on the computer for hours. I do try to use my own photography where possible and have lovely models in my bantams. I have a great deal of books, too, relating to the folklore and behaviour of the animals, which help in the composition of a painting.

The main research is the anatomy - it has to be spot on and my friendly farmer often brings me an offering (deceased) to have a look at. It was only when I started painting foxes I found their claws are similar to a cat…partially retractable.

The names of your pieces and series are as enjoyable as the work itself, and are always the keyto understanding the picturesAre they usually at the forefront of your mind when beginning a painting or do they emerge towards the end of the process?

The titles of the work are imperative to the understanding of the painting. It’s not always the case that the title comes first, though it is by far the easiest way. They derive from song titles or old movies or just pop into my head. The struggle comes when I have done the painting and the title is elusive. I do a lot of miles driving all over the country and it’s the perfect way to think of a title.

The Murder and Mayhem series of deadly robins comes from watching a friendly robin dispatching a rescued caterpillar in our garden. A very Sherlock Holmes title for the series - and I try to emulate that in the way each ‘murder’ is committed.

The main thing is that the observer looking into the painting is given a story to enjoy, a creature to appreciate and - even though the overall image can be a little dark - they walk away with a small smile on their face.

Jane Ford Observations of a Curious Nature runs from Sunday 4th November 2018 - Saturday 24th November 2018 at the Fosse Gallery in Stow on the Wold.

Visit the artists website at www.janefordart.com