The subject of this painting is the conception of children, or as Jonathan Leaman has described it 'the cooking up of children' (recorded interview, Tate archive). The painting presents this as a feminine activity that is simultaneously mysterious and physical.
The scene, set in a kitchen, depicts the marriage of the naked pubescent girl at the back of the room to the young boy peering around the door on the left. Although both parties appear equally apprehensive about the events before them, it is the bride, positioned at the apex of the compositional triangle at the centre of the picture, who is given pictorial priority. The groom, on the other hand, is depicted simply as an alarmed spectator. The forthcoming consummation is alluded to by the marital bed, which is being carried by the four sprites. The girl's imminent loss of virginity is symbolised by the yoni, a Hindu symbol for the female genitals, which is pictorially ruptured by her head.
On the table a book of witches' spells is open at a spell 'for the conjuration of children'; the elderly woman seated at the table is receiving payment from a man, while the woman holding the knife is preparing the witches' brew. The various ingredients of the concoction are laid out on the table. The text, which in part reads 'so it is from the flesh of a child that…beget a child', suggests that the baby is part of the recipe. It continues, 'the true semen is the menses. Take the boy and let him cry […]. Take his perplexity and mix it with the fat of the child. […] Yew for the enchantment of the mind so he is not to know the body is solely matter. For the body is the domain of woman.'
Some of the objects carry distinct iconographic significance. The lily placed on the table next to the elderly woman and directly below the bride is associated in the Christian tradition with the Virgin Mary's annunciation. On the side of the canned fish box is written 'A virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son'. This quotation from the annunciation as recounted in chapter 1, verse 23 of St Matthew's Gospel continues 'and he shall be called Emmanuel, a name which means the Lord is with us'. The brand name of the tinned fish is Immanuel; along the top edge of the box the words 'The Lord is with us' are just visible. Elsewhere, the artist has suggested that the black pudding and matzos on the left may refer to the blood and flesh of Christ, although matzos are more traditionally associated with the Passover. In this biblical context, the bottle of milk and honeycomb at the centre of painting perhaps allude to an earthly paradise. The soiled nappy to their right is a reminder of a more mundane fact of child rearing. According to the artist, other objects, the cabbage, for example, were included for compositional balance and as a demonstration of painterly skill.
Pinned to the wall at the back of the room is a variation on Sandro Botticelli's (c.1444-1510) Birth of Venus (Uffizi, Florence, c.1485). In classical mythology, when Zeus scythed off his father Cronus's genitals they fell into the sea and created the foaming waves out of which Venus, the goddess of heavenly and earthly love, sprang. In Botticelli's painting she stands naked in a shell borne on waves. In Leaman's version of the painting, the bride and groom are depicted on the shell fighting over the marital bed. In the background, Zeus and Cronus, represented by Leaman and his father, are seen falling out of the sky. There are further references to Botticelli's painting elsewhere in picture. For example, the young bride and Botticelli's Venus are linked by the compositional conceit of making the girl appear to stand in the cupped palm of the old woman's hand, which itself is echoed in the upturned rack of meat below. Both devices refer formally to the scallop shape in which Botticelli's Venus stands.
The title of the painting refers to the Dutch seventeenth century painter Jan Steen (1626-1679). Steen's exuberant paintings of unruly households were intended to steer their audience towards a virtuous life by illustrating the disorder wrought by worldly vices. Even today the phrase 'a Jan Steen Kitchen' is used in Holland to connote a chaotic household. Leaman's painting refers in particular to Steen's Celebrating the Birth (Wallace Collection, London, 1664). Superficially the subject of that picture is a celebration to mark the birth of a child. In it the husband, an old man, holds the newborn baby in his arm, while the young mother remains confined to her bed. A young man, probably the real father, makes the two-fingered cuckold salute above the baby's head. The painting, which is full of references to the impotence of the old man and the real paternity of the child, mocks the husband for taking such a young wife. Although A Jan Steen Kitchen is not addressing the same issue, it does share some of the painting's themes. Both pictures present chaotic households presided over by women, and both question the power of men.
Although the figures are generally based on friends or relatives, Leaman prefers to paint from memory rather than from life. The woman on the far left cooking eggs is Leaman's projection of his mother as an old woman. The figure leading in the bride is loosely based on the artist Paula Rego, Leaman's friend. The man paying the old woman, Leaman's grandmother, is a self-portrait. The woman holding the knife is related to another friend, with whom he was not on speaking terms at the time. The baby is Leaman's goddaughter, and the girl peering over the table his niece. The rest of the children including the bride and groom are composite figures made from memory and imagination. The room is based on Leaman's memory of the kitchen in the family home at 62 Westbourne Grove, London where he was brought up. The painting took more than a year to make.
Jo Hedley, Jan Steen at the Wallace Collection, exhibition catalogue, Wallace Collection, London, 1996
Jonathan Leaman, exhibition catalogue, Beaux Arts, London, 1999
Jonathan Leaman, exhibition catalogue, Beaux Arts, London, 1994