Ashley Jackson has been painting his beloved moorlands for the past 60 years. As we launch our ‘Yorkshire’s favourite artists’ series, Chris Bond visited him in Holmfirth.
It is, given the area’s industrial heritage, a scenic journey that takes you to Holme Valley where the ebb and flow of the landscape is at once mesmerising and forbidding.
It’s a journey I’ve made countless times over the years, usually to visit Ashley Jackson in his Holmfirth gallery. And it’s here where he’s waiting to greet me in his artist’s smocks.
He’s a man who needs little introduction. He’s been painting the Yorkshire moors for the past 60 years, during which time his evocative watercolours have made him a household name in these parts – he’s become so familiar some folk even talk about an “Ashley Jackson sky”.
For someone who’s 78 he looks in pretty good nick. He’s sprightly on his feet and he’s still painting – he points to some of his recent work hanging on the wall behind him, his trademark colours still in evidence - and later this year he has a new book out with Pen & Sword – Ashley Jackson’s Watercolour Sketches.
“I go out sketching and if it moves me I’ll take it home and do a painting. I went out yesterday to the Cock Crowing Stone up on Meltham Moor. I love the Yorkshire Dales, but what I really love is the open moorland,” he says.
“I’m doing a painting at home that I’ve left on the easel of Fat Betty, a druids stone up on the North York Moors. It’s going in the sketchbook, but what I didn’t realise was I’d already done one. When I was about 18 I went up there and isn’t it funny that all these years later I’ve gone back to the druid stones and those particular moors.”
He goes out painting in autumn and winter when only the hardiest (or foolhardy) day trippers and tourists are around. This, he says, is usually when the light is more interesting. This idea of “chasing light and chasing shadows” is at the heart of his works. “Turner did it and what made him so brilliant was he could do it in watercolour and oil.”
This fascination with the light can be traced back to his childhood. “When I was younger and we lived in Linthwaite I used to play with my uncle and we’d sit and watch the shadows going across the moors. We’d each pick a shadow and see which one would descend first, so even then I was learning about how light worked.”
Jackson may have become synonymous with the Yorkshire landscape, but he was actually born in Penang in 1940, and it wasn’t until he was nine that he set foot in God’s Own County. Once here, though, he was quickly smitten by its wild moorlands.
He started out as a signwriter in Barnsley before becoming a professional artist, opening his first gallery in nearby Dodworth in 1963. “When I was at art school the teachers told me to do oils, but I didn’t want to do that, I always wanted to master watercolours.”
He stuck to his guns despite the fact that at the time watercolour painting was seen as out of kilter with the heady, colour-saturated work of people like Andy Warhol, Peter Blake and a young Bradfordian called David Hockney.
Jackson, though, has always ploughed his own furrow and refused to conform to trends. Which brings him on to his old friend LS Lowry. “Old man Lowry was my mentor and he had the same view, he stuck to what he wanted to do. Today, there’s lots of exhibitions of his work but when he was alive they [some in the art world] didn’t want him. They thought his works were like kids’ paintings, but when he died all of a sudden they wanted his work.”
Jackson no longer does commissions and hasn’t done for some time. It allows him to concentrate on his own paintings. “I only do about five paintings a year. For me, once you start churning them out you’ve had it, you lose your integrity and what I call your soul.” Nor is he afraid of tearing up a painting if he feels it isn’t right. “You can’t be afraid of making mistakes.”
His work has changed over the years with some of his more stark, almost abstract paintings, among his best. “I used to be very bold,” he says. “In the early days I used felt pen and then my watercolour on top. I haven’t done that for years now but I did it for a purpose, because you learn one technique and move on to another. I learnt that you don’t just use the brush with the point down, you use the side of the brush and the edge and so on.
“A lot of people paint the moors but they stack the colours like sausages, one on top of the other. What you want to do is to be able to go into it, to be like a bird and hover and look at the landscape.”
If you look closely at his paintings the sky is like a mirror reflecting the landscape which helps create this ethereal feeling. “My work’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Some people come in and look at my paintings and say ‘they’re a bit dark’, so you can’t please everyone – and you shouldn’t try to. You have to paint to please yourself and you’ve got to follow your passion – and my passion is the moors.”
He often talks about painting on the moors as a spiritual experience, not in a quasi-religious way but something more universal. “People talk about heaven, but for me heaven’s on earth and it’s here on the moors. When I go up there I feel a controlling force. I drop a little bit of whisky on the ground before I begin sketching for those that have passed that way. I know it’s daft but it’s just my way of paying a little homage.”
Next year he will turn 80, though this approaching milestone hasn’t changed his outlook on life, God or death. “I’m a doubting Thomas – always have been. I don’t think there’s something there for us all. I think once you’ve gone, you’ve gone.”
Which is why he wants to make the most of the time he has left. Artists such as Titian, Matisse and Monet produced some of their best work in their twilight years and Jackson has no plans to pack away his brushes and easels just yet. “There’s an old northern saying, ‘the longer you live, the more you see,’” he says. “I’m a lucky man. I’m still painting and sketching and I’ll keep on painting until the end.”
His depictions of moorland mist, rain and ominous skies have become his calling card, attracting a broad following down the years – from politicians and princes, to actors and sport stars.
“Fred Trueman was commentating one day from Trent Bridge, I think it was, and at one point he said, ‘look at that sky coming towards us, it’s over me mother-in-law’s. I tell you who could paint that, Ashley Jackson.’ Later on he came to see me and he said, ‘did you hear me on the radio?’ I said ‘I did.’ He said, ‘good, you owe me three pints.’”
A short time later as I’m driving back to Leeds, I notice a darkening shadow looming over the moorland tops next to what looks like a curtain of rain illuminated by a thick plank of light.
Now if only there was a name for this...