Big interview: Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson pictured on the moors at Wassenden Head. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
Ashley Jackson pictured on the moors at Wassenden Head. PIC: Bruce Rollinson
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Ashley Jackson has been painting Yorkshire’s dramatic landscape for the best part of 60 years. Chris Bond visits the artist at his gallery.

Ashley Jackson turned 77 last month and while most people his age are perhaps slowing down as they sail towards their twilight years, he has no such plans. “I went out last week to Malham with my wife, Anne. I make sure I go out sketching once a week, or else I’d be stuck inside and I don’t want that,” he says.

On Saturdays he can often be found in his gallery in Holmfirth chatting to customers about his work and sharing anecdotes collected over a career that stretches back the best part of 60 years.

Jackson’s evocative watercolours have made him synonymous with the Yorkshire landscape and in his new book, Ashley Jackson – The Yorkshire Artist: A Lifetime of Inspiration Captured in Watercolour, he’s brought together a combination of old favourites alongside new paintings, some of which haven’t been seen by the public before. “Some of the paintings I did 50 years ago and others were done in the last couple of years and you can see the changes in them,” he says.

We’re sitting upstairs in his smart, bijou gallery, surrounded by his prints and photos of some of the great and good that have enjoyed his work down the years.

“In the really early days I did everything outside, now I’ll go out with my sketchbooks and come back and paint. My studio is so small it’s more of a lock-up room to be honest – my real studio is out on the moors,” he says.

“When you think of watercolour artists, a lot of them work from photographs, but I use a small sketchbook and work from that. People often think I do loads of watercolours a week or a month but I don’t and I never have done. I’ve never churned them out.”

Jackson was born in Penang in 1940 and he was nine years old before he even set foot on Yorkshire soil. He quickly became smitten by its rugged moorlands and after setting his heart on becoming an artist as a teenager he set his stall out to make it happen.

He started out as a signwriter in Barnsley before becoming a professional artist, opening his first gallery in nearby Dodworth way back in 1963. He honed his craft through hard work and is now one of the country’s best known and most successful watercolour artists.

He’s proud of what he’s achieved and proud, too, that’s he done it off his own back. “There aren’t many artists in the North that have their own gallery and that’s not me bragging I just think it’s sad because there should be more.”

He has stuck to his guns, ploughing his own furrow despite watercolourists often getting overlooked by art world fashionistas. “That’s one of the reasons why for years I’ve been doing big canvases because I had to try and compete against oil paintings.”

In the past he’s been critical about some strands of modern art and is certainly unimpressed by the recent trend for so-called art ‘installations’. “I’m not being rude but anyone can do that. It’s not a pictorial skill as far as I can see. I know some people are really into them but it’s just not for me.”

Jackson has been dubbed ‘the Yorkshire Artist’ and it’s a badge he’s happy to wear. “People say I haven’t changed and I’ll take that as a compliment. What do I want to change for?”

Like any artist worth their salt, though, his work has evolved over the decades. The subject may be the same but his paintings aren’t. They are as much about the skies as they are the ground beneath, and if you are after chocolate box villages or picture postcard scenes then you had better look elsewhere.

There’s something unsettling and ephemeral, yet at the same time uplifting and beatific about his paintings which often depict either gathering storm clouds, or layers of light after the heavens have opened.

Some of his recent work, which is among his best, is almost abstract which elevates it to another level and at the same time is a nod to one of his biggest heroes and influences – JMW Turner.

“In signwriting, which I started out doing, it was said you did your best work up to 40 because then your hand starts to shake, but I don’t think it’s the same with painting you just adapt as your body changes. My mind’s still the same and I have the knowledge and experience from knowing what works and what doesn’t.”

Time certainly has hasn’t diluted his love affair with his muse – the Yorkshire landscape. “I never tire of it. You might think you’ve seen a view but if you get out of your car and move around you’ll discover a completely different scene,” he says.

“They can be forbidding, wild and constantly changing but going out on the moors is still the greatest experience. It’s better than sex... and it lasts longer,” he says, with a chuckle.

“The finest dale in my view, and the one I love the most, is Swaledale. It’s not commercial and to me it’s really earthy. There’s more greenery in somewhere like Wharfedale but there’s something about Swaledale that I particularly love. I would say there and the moorland tops above Holmfirth where I live, those are my favourites.”

He’s seen the countryside change over the past 50 years. “It’s not as colourful as it used to be. I can see the difference that global warming has made. You still have your bracken and the winter moorlands with their heather and I love it because I’ve grown with it, whether it’s faded or not.”

He puts his own longevity down to three things which, he says, every artist needs in order to succeed. “David Hockney bears me out on this – you need the eye, the heart and you’ve also got to have the passion. If you haven’t got the passion and you can’t get the atmosphere you want then tear it up. I’ve torn loads of paintings up and I’m not frightened of doing it today if they go wrong.”

His new book includes glossy reproductions of watercolours depicting everything from the stark, lunar landscape of Marsden Moor to the frothing seascapes of Staithes.

It is works like these that have made Jackson recognisable not only in his adopted home county but in some unlikely, and far away, places.

“I was in China a few years ago with Anne. We were on a boat and I had my little sketchbook out and I was a doing a drawing and this American guy came over and said, ‘my wife says you’re Ashley Jackson.’ And I said ‘yes, I am’. He then told everyone else and I ended up signing about 50 autographs for people.

“Later I was in Barbados and the same thing happened there. It’s incredible when you think about it because I’m just an artist from Yorkshire.”

Art has given Jackson a life which must have seemed unimaginable when he was starting out all those years ago. “I can’t do maths all that well and I’m a lousy speller so I could never be a writer, but I can paint and I’m very glad I took it up when I was 15,” he says.

“Yorkshire has given me a good living. I’ve been all over the world and painted all over the world, but I can only really get my inspiration out on those moors.”

The likes of Matisse, Picasso and Monet were all working well into their 80s and Jackson, too, has no intention of retiring. “I’m 77 not out in cricket terms,” he says.

“I love going to work because I love what I do. This is a job I’ll do till I die... the last thing you’ll 
see is me there with a paintbrush in my hand.”

Ashley Jackson – The Yorkshire Artist: A Lifetime of Inspiration Captured in Watercolour, published by Pen & Sword, is out now priced £25.