T03306 SWEET PEA PAINTING 1978–9
Inscribed on stretcher bar ‘J. DURRANT SWEET-PEA PAINTING OCT’78–Jan'79'
Acrylic, graphite and metallic paint on cotton canvas, 121 × 103 (307.3 × 261.7)
Purchased from the Nicola Jacobs Gallery (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Exh: Jennifer Durrant, Recent Paintings, Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, March–April 1979 (no catalogue, listed on duplicated sheet); Hayward Annual 1979, Hayward Gallery, July–August 1979 (9, repr.)
Lit: Judy Marle, ‘Jennifer Durrant, Recent Paintings’, Arnolfini Review, March–April 1979, p.2; Alister Warman, catalogue introduction for 13 Britische Künstler, eine Ausstellung über Malerei, Neue Galerie-Sammlung Ludwig, Aachen, December 1981–February 1982, and tour [p.10]
Repr: Artscribe, no.16, 1979, p.23; Artforum, xviii, October 1979, p.51
These [T03305 and T03306] are two from a group of paintings, started after a holiday the artist spent in Canada and the USA in the summer of 1978 and completed between February and March 1979. Six of the paintings were first shown in her exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol, in March 1979.
In 1978, Durrant was included in Certain Traditions, an exhibition of contemporary British and Canadian art, which opened at the Edmonton Art Gallery, Alberta on June 3, afterwards touring to six other centres in Canada. She attended the opening of the exhibition and then stayed on in North America for over a month, seeing friends, visiting museums and art galleries in various cities and making a journey by car into the Rocky Mountains with a group of fellow artists.
Before leaving London, Durrant had become increasingly dissatisfied with the direction her work was taking; she had produced no large scale paintings for some time and her output was mostly confined to small drawings. In retrospect, she sees the Canadian trip (which she has compared in its liberating effect on her subsequent work to her first visit to the United States in 1972) as a major turning point, and has attributed the bolder and more confident looking paintings she started on her return to the general sense of exhilaration and optimism the trip had given her.
While travelling, she had followed her usual practice of regularly recording her impressions in the form of sketches and written notes, and particularly remembers the impact of the American Indian art and artifacts she saw in Canadian museums and also the monumentality and colours of the landscape, especially in the Rocky Mountains.
On her return to England, Durrant began work on a series of large canvases in the studio she then occupied at the Stockwell Depot in South London. The first of these, which was the only one not included in her one-woman exhibition at Bristol (loc.cit.) but was exhibited the following year at the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (Jennifer Durrant, Recent Paintings, September–October 1980), was ‘After Midnight Autumn 1978’. Next followed ‘Sweet Pea Painting’ and ‘Red Decorative Painting’, both started in October 1978 and completed in January 1979. In these she first employed the spiral motif which recurs in ‘Other Cloud Painting’, completed with ‘Rope Painting and Silver’ (now in Rochdale Art Gallery) in November 1978. The last works in the series were ‘Christmas Day Painting’ 1978 started on Christmas Day and ‘Surprise Lake Painting’, February–March 1979.
In the catalogue of the 1979 Hayward Annual exhibition (op.cit.,p.66) Durrant discussed her approach and working methods: ‘I paint my pictures with the canvas stretched flat on the floor, viewing them from the top of my steps, and I see the painting frontally/head on, only when it feels whole or I cannot choose what to do. I suppose (as I have not changed this procedure for several years) I enjoy the surprise I get when the picture goes up and then I feel either relieved or disappointed. I often experience difficulty in making choices within the painting-what the painting needs as opposed to what I put in the painting ... I work on several canvases at a time ... and I view them as a group although I feel each painting is separate and complete itself. The sensation of place in painting is very important to me... How much you are enveloped, or brought in, or feel up against the painted surface ... I am aware of ways in which I use my experience of the visible world as starting-points for my painting. A starting-point can be my wish to create a visual equivalent for a particular experience in purely painterly terms within a tradition of painting-and in so doing, discover (for) myself.’
The artist has pointed out that, as her paintings are not concerned with the straightforward depiction of external events, her choice of an image, colour or texture may initially be prompted by her experience as recorded in her note-books, but when she begins to paint, the needs of the painting itself dictate the way these elements are eventually combined, amended or organised.
The artist made no finished preliminary sketches before starting on T03305 and T03306 but experimented with small coloured arrangements on paper. For the paintings, she employed a variety of techniques; some areas were freely painted (for example the blue central shape in ‘Other Cloud...’), whereas for the “tear” or drop shapes and for the spiral in ‘Sweet Pea...’, paper stencils were used. Each painting was built up in layers on unprimed cotton canvas and in some areas the artist applied a mixture of metallic powder and acrylic solution.
In the Arnolfini Review (1979) Judy Marle notes that the original of the spiral shape of ‘Sweet Pea...’ is to be found in one of the artist's sketch books, and that Durrant had written around the image ‘Sweet Peas, white, purple, cerise, pink. Yellow roses and green leaves.’ Marle also quotes Durrant's comments on the origins of the painting: ‘I’d been looking out of a window and it was a clear night sky with all these stars. It was thrilling ... a blue light filling the window and a sense of looking outside and being inside. Wrapped up with this was the sensation of being in a garden picking flowers, and setting out a table. There was a Schubert trio or some fantastic piece of music. These things were part of a magical twenty-four hours, a day and an evening, when everything seemed very heightened ... These notes are not often that literal and I don't know how much of it gets into a painting. A lot happens between the small sketch and the large scale picture.’ The artist's comments about the picture refer to an experience in England but Durrant told the compiler that the painting also contains references to her Canadian trip.
She has suggested that one source for the spiral motif (and that in T03305) might be Red Indian designs (e.g. beadwork) seen in America or Canada. She also draws a connection between the shape and a visit to Canadian friends who grew a type of edible fern which was specially cooked for her during her visit. (Dr Bernard Verdcourt of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, suggests that this was probably bracken, possibly pteridium aquilinium). (A particularly strong memory of Canada was of looking down over the junction of two rivers in the Rockies, when the colour of the water appeared to be a vivid pale viridian green.)
In relation to ‘Other Cloud’, she has no special recollection of having seen anything resembling the drop or ‘tear’ shapes, and the central blue form relates to a formal problem she had tried to resolve in earlier works, the setting of a circular shape into a rectangular format. As with all her titles, this one hints at a mood in the work rather than defining the painting's sources. She told the compiler that ‘Other Cloud’ suggested the names of American Indians but could equally well relate to the cloud formations she remembers having seen from the aeroplane on her way to Canada. She had also been reminded of Georgia O'Keefe's paintings of sky and clouds seen from aeroplanes, (the ‘Sky Above Clouds’ series 1962–5).
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984