‘Kurt Jackson’s Botanical Landscape’, published by Lund Humphries, is a new collection of poems, paintings, drawings, sculptures and printmaking by the artist and staunch environmentalist: responses to his engagement with and rich experience within the natural world of flora. Matt Collins reviews.
‘It took me a while to come to terms with the idea of being the owner, the guardian of this piece of land’, outlines Kurt Jackson in Botanical Landscape’s chapter on weeds, ‘but I still paint the thistles on it’. This statement just about sums up what is presented in the Cornwall-based artist and environmentalist’s new book: that a deeper familiarity with the wildlife on one’s doorstep questions the relationship with it. ‘What did [ownership] mean? Did it extend to the earth below, the sky above’, he asks, ‘– the animals that moved through it?’
It is this line of enquiry that binds Jackson’s collection of paintings, poems, sculptures and writing together in this wonderful new title; an exploration of ‘place’ through the minutiae that shape a landscape: the leaf litter, thistle fluff; ‘the hairy back of a bee’.
Jackson describes Botanical Landscape as a compliment to 2015’s, Bestiary, a publication that focussed on the animal world in his day-to-day life. This time plants are the focus; those he finds occupying field margins, vegetable patches, woodland scrub, river valleys and – in one delightful instance – the central reservation of a stretch of the M5. Drawing together artworks spanning two decades – predominantly paintings, though encompassing a variety of different media – Botanical Landscape depicts the many floral constituents of these frequented locations, from dramatic windswept hawthorns down to the muddied dandelion.
Coltsfoot from the banks of the Forth near Dunmore. Good Friday 2010 acrylic 16 x 18cm
This twenty year scope affords the book a wonderfully free narrative, as Jackson reflects on memorable encounters with the natural world both past and present. Its ten chapters flit unpretentiously between single plants and wider categories; Foxglove, Weeds, Bramble, Vegetables; an entire chapter devoted to gorse quickly becomes my favourite. A plant often overlooked is praised in astonishing detail through a range of acrylic, oil, steel and bronze. One such example, H is for gorse, 2016, makes a fitting choice for the book’s front cover, depicting the intense colours of gorse flower blazing above an ordinarily inconspicuous fire hydrant sign. ‘I am continually drawn to the gorse’, Jackson writes, ‘the stuff is just so characterful – not just pretty but brimming with potential’. Indeed, ‘pretty’ would insufficiently describe Trees of gorse (from 2010), a painting given an almost mycological quality, connecting gorse blooms with their surrounding flora as though they were merely the fruiting bodies of some enormous subterranean fungus. It is a beguiling and beautiful image, mirroring the sentiment of ‘all things connected’ so often referenced in Jackson’s accompanying text. ‘In the early mornings spiderwebs coat the bushes, and these in turn trap the dew to give a silver diaphanous layer upon the gorse’.
Trees of gorse. 2010 oil and mixed media on canvas 122 x122cm
While Jackson’s images make visual connections between organisms, their titles – charming and unfussy – offer context through elements unseen; birdsong, temperature; time and movement: The end of December, snipe zip, magpie chatter, 2010; Harvey’s tree, snow fall overnight, all silent then the wind blows, January 2010. The simply titled, Scilly foxglove rattle observes a dynamic hidden component; one might not think of foxgloves ‘rattling’, but of course they do, when ripe with seed.
Scilly foxglove rattle. May 2012 acrylic on board 61 x 62cm
The pages of Botanical Landscape take us to many of Jackson’s haunts, introduced in each case through lively yet succinct text. There are the olive groves outside Claivers, Provence, dotted with feral fig trees and the scat of nocturnal boar; the various allotments and apple orchards he has worked and painted in over the years; the river course of Devon’s meandering Dart, which flows beneath the wild oaks of Wistman’s Wood, ‘a small place, rich with a distillation of intense feeling and atmosphere’. An intimacy is expressed with each of these ‘known’ landscapes, but it is the ‘home’ territory – his day-to-day wild Cornwall – that, for me, provides the book’s most relatable context. Jackson moved to Cornwall in his mid 20’s, but the artist’s ongoing examination of the county’s hedgerows, fields, isolated trees and seascapes suggests a limitless depth of intrigue. Cornwall is where he lives, gardens, works and even exhibits, having set up the Jackson Foundation art space with his wife Caroline, in the town of St Just-in-Penwith. He is rooted to say the least. And there is something endlessly engrossing in how artists relate – and respond to – the environments in which they thrive. Reading Botanical Landscape I am reminded of so many wonderful books that similarly document the home landscape: Henry Beston tramping over Cape Cod in The Outermost House; Roger Deakin’s Notes From Walnut Tree Farm, Neil Ansell’s Deep Country and, perhaps best of all, the early chapters of The Ring of Bright Water, in which Gavin Maxwell so perfectly details his western Scottish seascape, prior to any mention of an otter. Botanical Landscape shares the vitality of these works; their endearing quest for knowledge and absence of nostalgia. ‘I prefer to know a place before I paint it’, Jackson states, ‘but I also paint a place to get to know it’. Long may he continue getting to know Cornwall.
‘Kurt Jackson’s Botanical Landscape’ is out now and available here, priced £35.00.
Matt Collins is a freelance garden writer, author, and Head Gardener at London’s Garden Museum. You can visit his website here. His latest book, ‘Forest: Walking among trees’ has just been published by Pavilion.