How a blue linen cupboard inspired an artist's memoir

The artist Tess Jaray’s provocative, moving and fascinating reflections

by Andrew Lambirth  |  1 April 2015
How a blue linen cupboard inspired an artist's memoir
Detail of Tess Jaray’s My Fox in a Tree, around 2010
The distinguished abstract painter and printmaker Tess Jaray was born in Vienna in 1937, shortly before her parents left Austria for England. They brought with them a blue 18th-century linen cupboard, inset with four panels painted with flowers. This piece of furniture acts for Jaray like Proust’s madeleine, triggering memories and supplying the title of her book, The Blue Cupboard: Inspirations and Recollections. Begun as a memoir of her mother, the text developed into a kind of diary—a series of observations, thoughts and recollections. Jaray writes perceptively of artists past and present: of Harry Adams, an unfashionable landscape painter who lived in the Worcestershire village where she grew up; of Watteau and his drawings; of Patrick George, an inspired painter of the Suffolk landscape who uses exactly the same green as Gainsborough; of the Systems artist Richard Plank; of the conflict and dialogue of opposites in the sculpture of Alison Wilding; and of an untitled collage by John Stezaker.

Absent friends

I had expected there to be more about her close friend W.G. Sebald, the remarkable German writer who was obsessed with memory and decay and who died prematurely in 2001. Jaray collaborated with him, producing, for instance, For Years Now, 2001, a hauntingly elegant book of his poems with her images. However, there is only one, rather oblique tribute to Sebald and the number 23 (referring to Goethe, Schiller and Rousseau).

Tess Jaray’s Still-life with Flowers and a Striped Tablecloth, 1942, made when the artist was five years old

This is a very cultured book, but it is neither pretentious nor exclusive. In fact, it is refreshingly honest, for Jaray is prepared to interrogate her reactions and knows that there are no self-evident truths. She writes: “Someone, possibly Flaubert, once said that anything can become interesting if you look at it long enough. This is probably true, and a real danger for an artist. For an artist spends so long staring at the work in progress that it’s bound to become interesting.” Elsewhere, she quotes Andrew Forge, her tutor at the Slade School of Fine Art: “The problem with painting is knowing what to paint.”

This handsome small book is beautifully produced, an illustration or two fronting each of the 42 short sections. It is the second book of occasional writings that Jaray has published. The first, Painting: Mysteries & Confessions, 2010, contained essays on such friends and contemporaries as Zoran Music, Michael Sandle, Tom Lomax and Basil Beattie, and older masters including Klimt, Ingres, Piero and Malevich.

That collection gave an indication of Jaray’s exploratory stance and the beautiful lucidity of her writing. As she put it in the preface to that book: “Paintings cannot be explained. But they can be spoken about and circled around, and sometimes those circles can get closer and closer.” Jaray’s richly evocative and precisely descriptive writing is a joy to read: if only there were more books like The Blue Cupboard.

The Blue Cupboard: Inspirations and Recollections

Tess Jaray
Royal Academy of Arts, 216pp, £16.95 (hb)

Andrew Lambirth
is a freelance writer, critic and curator. He was the art critic of the Spectator from 2002 to 2014, and his reviews have been collected in book form as A is a Critic (Unicorn). His latest monograph, on the landscape painter Patrick George (Sansom & Co), was published last year, and he is currently completing an in-depth study of William Gear (Sansom & Co), the pioneering Scottish abstract painter and member of CoBrA, whose centenary falls in 2015.

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