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In Conversation

ASHLEY JACKSON

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Ashley Jackson has spent his life capturing the Yorkshire Moors in watercolours. His passion for painting began at a young age; he arrived in Linthwaite aged 9, went to art school in Barnsley and opened his own gallery aged 23. Now in his 80s, Ashley is still painting, still trying to capture the spirit of the moors. What motivates him to to keep going out on the Moor with his easel and brushes?

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WORDS:  RUTH STEINBERG

JAN/FEB 24 ISSUE

Ashley Jackson is a watercolour landscape painter and is regularly acknowledged as a Yorkshire icon. He has had a gallery of his own in Yorkshire for over sixty years, but his story starts in Penang, Malaya just before the Second World War came to the Pacific. Ashley spent time in Singapore and India - and at the age of 9 he came to the West Riding and met the Yorkshire Moors for the first time. This was the beginning of an obsession for Ashley Jackson. As he says, he has been all over the world, but it is the Yorkshire Moors he always comes back to. His gallery in Holmfirth is full of his paintings of the Moors, in all weathers, in all moods. Unlike the Lake District, whose mountains afford an artist the use of perspective, the Moors present a particular challenge, especially in watercolours. It’s this challenge, to paint the elusive Moors, that has been Ashley Jackson’s life’s work.
 
Ashley came to Yorkshire in 1950. After a difficult childhood, he went to art school in Barnsley. He met his wife Anne when they were teenagers and the couple have recently celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. Ashley opened his first gallery in Dodsworth in 1963. Ashley was only 23! A remarkably young age to have the strength of ambition to go it alone. Sixty years later and he is still making work and still exhibiting. Ashley has also exhibited his paintings all over the world. He’s particularly proud that former US President Bill Clinton is the proud owner of one of his artworks.
 
Ashley has a real lust for life and as a result he has grabbed the opportunities that have presented themselves to him with both hands. He starred in the popular television series A Brush with Ashley Jackson, which taught
viewers artistic techniques. The show ran for nearly ten years. You can find episodes onYouTube. The idea was to help others to learn to paint watercolours. Ashley has also appeared in television in the USA: Ashley
Jackson’s World of Art ran for four years in the 1980s. He even guested in an episode of Last of the Summer Wine! Despite this worldwide acclaim, Ashley remains down-to-earth. He worked in prisons for many years, bringing creativity into a very harsh environment. He has a huge compassion for those who have had
difficult lives. But as well as prisoners, he’s met people in more elevated position. Ashley talks of meeting L S Lowry, Prince Charles, John Major, Terry Waite – and more. He seems to have met everybody!

Ashley is particularly proud of his friendship with Pat Duffy, ex-MP for Atticliffe. Pat is still alive at 105 and remains his “best pal”. Ashley was keen to regale us with tales of Pat Duffy’s political life in the Labour party. Ashley tells us one tale about how he tried to get a “gong” for Pat’s parliamentary colleague Roy Mason MP, only to find out that Mason had been labelled an “enemy of the people”!
 
Such stories flow out of Ashley Jackson. He’s been around a while and is full of tales. However, I was interested in finding out a bit more about the man himself. What drives him, even into his 80s? One of the things that resounded for me is his pride in being a working-class man: “what you see is what you get”. He also doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “There are two types of people I don’t like in life,” he says. “Big-heads and snobs. And in my game, it’s the snobbiest game there is. Whether it’s in music, theatre or art.” He told many stories of being in the art world and how he took certain snobs down a peg or two. His has a rich life and many friends from all walks of life. His love of life and his straightforwardness is magnetic. He has made a name for himself but readily acknowledges the role his wife and his daughters in his success. His family have supported him with unconditional love and that enabled him to paint. His gallery is packed to the rafters with his evocative watercolour paintings. As we talked, I found myself being pulled into his pictures. Like fellow artist JW Turner, Ashley Jackson is searching for something. He’s not just trying to show what the Moors look like,
he’s trying to show how it feels to meet them. And every meeting is different.
 
So, here is an edited version our conversation. I can readily say that this was a joy and a wonder to meet Ashley Jackson and have a little look into the life of a remarkable painter and human. I went away seeing the world differently, a world full of raw beauty and spirit.

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Tell us about your early life. What made you want to paint?
I have had a mixed life. I was born in Malaya in 1940. During the war, my father volunteered for British Intelligence. And he was able to put me and my all family on a boat to India. I was 2-years-old. It was the last boat to leave Singapore. We were all sleeping on the open decks. We were in India for four years. We had servants, the lot. We went all over, because my grandmother’s husband was in the army.

 
I was 9-years-old in my grandmother’s place in Singapore. She lived in a flat and the man above her was a commercial artist. I looked at his oil paintings and though, “Aren’t these fantastic!” And that was it. I’m lucky enough to have tunnel vision. I’ll say, “That’s what I’m going to go for.” That is me. And whatever happens, I do it. When I was 15-and-a-half, a fellow said to me, “Ashley, aim for the stars. And if you miss, you’ll hit the moon. And that’s good enough!” It’s a way of life. I’ve got my life, my family, my wife. That’s all I need.
 
My grandmother on my mother’s side was married to an English guy, who was a lieutenant in the army. He was a musician and a band leader. My grandmother on my father’s side was a very, very famous artist in her own right. All over the world, she went, as a dancer. She danced for Rockefeller. She was a Spanish dancer. In retirement she lived in Limerick, in Ireland. When I was 12, she gave me a red book, which was a book of all her cuttings. She’d danced for Queen Victoria, lived in Osborne House. At 17, she went over to New York – on her own. Cape Town, Shanghai. She had my Auntie Ethel in Shanghai – and Uncle Roll in Boston. She married an Englishman and he went with her. Her name was Dolores Jackson, but her stage name was Maria Therese Rodriguez Rey. She was born in Cordoba. Her family sold her at the age of 6 to another family by the name of Hills! A hard life, but she made good.
 
What happened when you came to England?
I came to England as an evacuee. I went up to Edinburgh and Glasgow. I stayed just outside Glasgow in a hostel. Then back to Malaya. We had nothing – everything was taken by the Japanese. My auntie looked after me in Penang. My mum had to work in Singapore. I used to go from Malaya to Singapore on the train to see her. Because I had the gift of the gab, the soldiers on the train would look after me. My mum remarried a man called Hedley Hague when I was 9, in Malaya.
 
We were brought by my new “Dad” to England, to Yorkshire. It was 1950. I was nine-and-a-half when I landed in Yorkshire. Linthwaite, just up the road. His brother was a lot younger than him. He was 10. We became pals – and we’re still pals to this day - even though he’s seen what I’ve written about his brother! Because he knew. My stepfather was a brussen devil. A brussen bugger. A know-all. And I used to get hammered. His own father, Harry Hague, knew. Harry said to my step-father, “You’re treating Ashley too roughly. Give up. Stop it.” From 10-years-old to me getting married was the worst life I’ve ever had. The worst.

But you got out?
I went to art school at 15. Barnsley School of Art. I loved it. I took art lessons. Miss Netherwood taught me a lot! I used to get on well with all the teachers and the priests. I became an altar boy at 10. When I was at art school, in those days, there were two things you could do. You were either going to become an art teacher or an illustrator. If you went to art school and said you wanted to be an artist, they’d fall back on their chair! “Who the hell do you think you are?” When I left art school, and set up on my own, I had students spitting on my gallery window, spitting  on my paintings. Jealousy. So I went up to the art school, Mr Glover was the principal – he knew me well. He said, “They’re doing nothing wrong are they? Just stating an opinion.” So you do wonder.

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How did you meet your wife?
At the age of 17, we had our annual school ball. I met my wife – she came with a friend. She was 15-and-a-half. We got on well and I said, “Would you like to come sketching with me.” She said yes – but her sister came as well! We went to Ewden Valley, Sheffield. I did this sketch of an old house in the wilderness. When I came to marry my wife in 1962, I gave her the sketch. But what I wanted to do was a proper watercolour painting, so I did that, based on the sketch and gave it to her. Well, I didn’t give it to her – she bought it! She said, “You’ll sell it!” And we’re still together now. We celebrated our 60th. This is what I wrote for my wife when we’d just got married: “Give me the arts, for art is beauty. Beauty is also in a woman, but when I stand upon these Moors, I see beauty that never dies. And equal to beauty is companionship.”
 
I’m interested in your strength of mind. What is your philosophy of life?
I believe, to this day, that we all have two people in us. One you see is me, talking to you. The other is your conscience, or your spirit. That is what has helped me in my life, my spirit. When I get out there on those Moors, I see spirit that never dies. I don’t do commissions; I do what I want to do. Like St Paul said, “Unto thy self be true.” And there’s another saying, “Some days there’s diamonds, some days there’s stones.” Life’s not pretty all the time. And money isn’t everything in life. It helps – it bloody well does help. But it’s not everything. Arnold Ziff said, “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity.” I’ve always been working-class. I’ve never ever wanted to be anything else. I paint for the people in this street, who have the same feelings as I do. I don’t paint pretty pictures because life isn’t pretty. You can buy a box of chocolates and you can have a pretty picture on the box.

I don’t paint every day. I paint from September to March. For the rest of the time, I’m having exhibitions in London.
 
I “woke up” at the age of 5. You know, when you “wake up” to life? Some big-headed people might say, “I was drawing at 2-years-old!” Well, we all were! For me, it was my fifth birthday. The thing is, that here in England, people don’t wake up until they’re 40. There’s a saying: “The years go by as fast as cat’s eyes on a motorway. The art of living is to make use of what you’ve got and use it to the full. Most people don’t know what they are living for but once you’ve found out, that’s the jewel of life.” That’s poignant to me. I’m a big believer in helping people wake up. Many people look, but a few see. As I say, people don’t live life until they’re 40. They realise what’s going on: “Bloody hell, what’s it all about?”
 
And you’ve exhibited work all over the place, not just in Holmfirth.
I’ve had to go down to London many times, to exhibit my paintings. Royal Academy (RA), the Royal Institute (RI), the Royal Watercolour Society (RWS). But I’ve never wanted to be a member! I used to show paintings in the RI gallery in the Mall, in London. Just near Buckingham Palace. This particular year, I was taking my works down with my daughter Heather. We were delivering three of my paintings for the open exhibition. Heather took them downstairs to where they were storing them. I stayed upstairs – I knew the girls and boys who worked at the gallery well. As I was going through the mahogany doors, the President was coming and he saw me. He turned to me and said, “Ashley Jackson?”
 
I said, “Yes?”
 
“Oh, you were so close to being a member here, so close."
 
And do you know what I said? I said, “You can **** off!”
 
I thought, I’m not standing for that, no matter who he thinks he is. The whole place collapsed. Can you imagine someone saying that, in those days! Time went on and I said, “Let’s have an exhibition in the Mall Gallery. A one-man show.” So I rang Carl Winter, who was the Secretary General. I said, “Look here Carl, can I have an exhibition?”
 
He said, “Did you tell our President to **** off?”

“I did.”

 
“Well, he’s telling you to **** off!”
 
So I said, “Touche!”
 
So I left it for two years. I rang up again and said all I’m wanting is an exhibition.
They said, “Look, Ashley, we need the money – when would you like it?” I was able to pay for it all through sponsorship from the law firm Walker Morris. And that was that!

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What is it like painting on the Moors in all weathers?
When I go on the Moor, it’s everything. People say to me, “Don’t you have days when you don’t want to paint.” I don’t have those days – never had those days in my life. I’m lucky enough to go out on the Moor, as a working-class lad, and then sell bloody paintings! Come on! When you’re up on the Moor, you think to yourself, “Hang on a minute – you’re doing what you want to do.” How many people in this life do that? When I go up on those Moors, I see spirits that never die. And I only want to paint them in the weather that we have. Not sunshine. Like isn’t all sunshine and roses. You want to show it warts and all. I carry a little flask of whiskey. I throw some whiskey on the ground for those people who’ve been and gone – and aren’t coming back. My ashes are going to be scattered on the moor.
 
Why is Yorkshire special to you?
I’ve gone all over the world – India, China, America, Europe. But this is the part of the world for me. I went to China, did sketches in a little book. India too. But Yorkshire! I once had a guy say to me, “You’re not Yorkshire at all – you weren’t born here!” I’ve only been here seventy-odd years!
 
Why watercolours? Your gallery is full of paintings – and it’s amazing what you can do with watercolour.
The exhibition is here for anybody that wants to come and have a look. We’ve been so lucky. Everybody that’s been in has said, “We love your moods, your skies.” Nobody paints watercolours as big as my paintings. At art school, nobody taught watercolours. They did a lot of talking! They’d say, “You should do oils – because watercolours don’t fetch as much as oils. I stayed away from all that stuff. I just love the Moors. If you dig a grass sod up – nine inches square – then take it home and study that sod when it’s wet. You’ll see that the burnt umber will turn to burnt sienna when it’s dry. You’ve got all the colours in there. The Japanese always said, “Watercolours? The first fifty years are the hardest.” People think watercolours are dead easy. But nothing’s easy in this life. You’ve got to really study. I’ve learned more from being out on the Moor than anything else. The only way to paint a landscape is to go out into it. I say the same about the seas. The landscape is a frozen sea.

 
What would you say to older people who might be reading this piece?
Don’t give up. Keep going. Like that old song – keep right on to the end of the road. Creativity keeps your mind going. You need your mind  stimulating. I’m fortunate. I’m 82 and living how I am. I had a stroke 5 years ago but the good Lord saved me. I wouldn’t brag about health though – never boast about your health. You can’t help it. It’s a gift.

 
 
Thank you to Ashley and his daughter Claudia for taking the time to talk to us.
 
See more of Ashley’s work at the Ashley Jackson Gallery, 13/15 Huddersfield Road, Holmfirth, Huddersfield, HD9 2JR. Visit every Monday to Saturday, 11am –4pm.
 
Alternativley, view Ashley’s work online at https://www.ashley-jackson.co.uk

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