With painter Ashley Jackson’s work the focus of the first ever art train, Stephen McClarence accompanies him on a Grand Central Tour.
Somewhere between Mirfield and Wakefield, Ashley Jackson is giving me a guided tour of a toilet. We’re on the train named after him – the UK’s first “art train”, as it’s been called. It has a trim plaque on its cab – “The Yorkshire Artist Ashley Jackson” – and its coaches have panels showing blown-up details of his brooding landscapes. Unexpectedly, some of these panels are in the loos.
“If you want a quote that I’ve used for many, many years,” he says, as we squeeze into the toilet and study the moorland scene on the back of the door, ‘I’ve seen better paintings on the back of public convenience doors than I’ve seen in many municipal art galleries’.”
Like a seasoned chat-show guest, Ashley, who celebrates the 50th anniversary of his first exhibition next year and is about to start filming a new TV series, is never shy of drawing on his repertoire of favourite anecdotes and well-honed sentences. His conversation frequently returns to them, like homing pigeons to their lofts.
He will tell you that Yorkshire is his “mistress”, that his pictures are inspired by “Mother Nature’s love letters”, and that, as a quotation (one of his “sayings”, as he calls them) under the loo picture says about Yorkshire: “Many people look, but only a few will see and feel its very soul.”
It’s a slightly dampened soul this morning. Leaden grey skies press down as the train, run by the York-based Grand Central Railway company, weaves its way through West and South Yorkshire on its way from Bradford to London. Cutting a dash with its black and orange livery, it links a loop of towns – Halifax, Brighouse, Mirfield, Pontefract – which don’t otherwise have direct London connections, with stops at Wakefield and Doncaster, which do.
It’s a sort of Grand Tour of the old industrial heart of the West Riding to which Ashley Jackson moved as a child and which gave him his first taste of criticism. “When I first started in Barnsley, people would say: ‘Bloody miserable pictures, these. Can’t you put some colour in?’ But you wouldn’t ask the Brontës to rewrite like Barbara Cartland, would you?”
Miserable? Well, the watercolours glower more than they glitter. They offer a dark but marketably romantic vision of Yorkshire – rugged within reason, storm clouds looming, it’s-grim-up-North-but-not-unbearably. And crucially, you know what you’re getting. When I met him a few years ago, he said: “I’m a melancholy artist. The Duchess of St Albans said that at my first exhibition in Mayfair. She said: ‘Ashley, you’re melancholy’.”
The pictures, whose heather moors tone in tastefully with the train’s purple seats, may explore Ashley’s inner Heathcliff, but the man himself is invariably affable, chipper to the point of chirpy. As he sits opposite me on the train, with his signet rings and his chunky watch and his natty lapelled waistcoat, he’s wearing a shirt with stripes of a piercing lime green you don’t find too often in his landscapes.
He’s not a sunny-day artist. He tends to paint mainly between September and March, whereas “on a bright, sunny day, I’d take a deckchair out and a gin and tonic. Other artists go for colour; it’s atmosphere that I’m after.”
I ask about the risks of painting watercolours out of doors. What if it rains? Do the colours run? Do the pictures take on a more Impressionistic hue? Do they start to resemble the luminous late canvases of Turner, the subject of his new series for Yorkshire Television (filmed this summer, it will be his first series for 10 years and will explore Turner’s Yorkshire landscapes).
“The most difficult thing about painting watercolours out of doors is the wind,” he says. “You can cope with the rain. The rain on the moors rains horizontally; it only rains vertically in towns and cities.” Bad weather has become such a hallmark of his work that he recalls a friend glancing up at a grey sky and saying: “It’s an Ashley Jackson day today.”
His affability fades a bit as he gets round to a favourite subject: the Art Establishment and sniffy critics, “the pseudo-intellectuals who poo-poo what I do.” His mantra is that he’s never had a grant, has always paid his own way, and has no time for the “Emperor’s new clothes” school of contemporary art, which he characterises as “broken egg shells in a cardboard box.”
And he’s immensely proud of his roots. At our last meeting, he mentioned a dinner where the toff sitting next to him asked: “What’s your CV?” Quick as a flash, he said: “Working class done well.”
Done well indeed. His daughter Claudia, whose business card gives her job description as “Managing the Yorkshire Artist,” is travelling with us. She hands me an information pack about his career. It lists commissions – from Prince Charles, the Ministry of Defence, British Gas, LS Lowry (“Lowry refused a knighthood,” says Ashley. “Harold Wilson told me that.”). Wilson bought an Ashley Jackson, as did (another list) Tony Benn, Nato, Arthur Scargill, Wallace Arnold Ltd, “the late Danny la Rue,” Vince Hill, Bill Clinton, “the late Ronnie Hazlehurst,” Yehudi Menuhin, and Rudolph Giuliani, former Mayor of New York.
There’s a third list of Ashley’s half-century of exhibitions, taking in Brighouse, Washington, Ruislip, Milan, the Bass headquarters in Huddersfield, “the prestigious Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle” (“64,000 came to see it”) and the Mall Galleries in London, where he recalls meeting the wildlife artist David Shepherd.
“He said: ‘Ashley, no-one can do watercolours as large as you can and get away with it’.” Traditional watercolours, he points out, are 12ins by 7ins. Ashley’s (priced at up to £35,000) can reach 48 ins by 36ins and a less assured artist would have worried about having details – standing stones, remote moorland cottages, thunderous clouds – blown up as big as they are on the trains.
“When they get enlarged, you’ve no room for mistakes,” he says. “If your work isn’t done skilfully, people can see every little detail.”
As we pull into Wakefield, rain streaks across the windows and I point out the grey angularities of the new Hepworth gallery, to some a potent symbol of the Art Establishment. “It doesn’t sit well, does it?” he says.
“If you want to take art to the people, you have to have an attractive building. When I used to be a sign-writer on the side of wagons, I was working in a place like that.”
His art-school training was in commercial art. Did that help his career? “Yes. If you didn’t get the quote right, you didn’t get the job.”
We pass an animal by-products factory just north of Doncaster and he warms to a familiar theme: “We’ve been hijacked by the pseudo-intellectuals in art. A pile of dung is a pile of dung. No-one wants to stick their head over the parapet because they’d be called a philistine. If critics could paint, they wouldn’t be critics.”
I suggest he’s a bit chippy about all this. “No I’m not,” he says, darting a very direct look. “The Establishment in art can look down on you, but I’m not chippy because I’ve done all right.” Claudia puts it slightly differently: “He’s proud of being where he is without needing the Establishment.”
And here’s Doncaster station, where we get off. I tell him an episode of The Likely Lads was filmed here 40 years ago and as he and Claudia head back on a Grand Central train called James Herriot, it suddenly strikes me. That’s who Ashley Jackson could be: a genial, canny amalgam of the two Likely Lads. With added storm clouds.