People, parks and plants: a Jean Rose exhibition

A walk in the park, a moment of repose in a tea shop, a lady feeding the pigeons – does art that records everyday cameos such as these qualify for critical evaluation? Certainly, says Emma Clegg, when in the hands of artist Jean Rose, whose work in oils, egg tempura and fresco is coming to Victoria Art Gallery this month.

“When [Jean Rose] shifts from oils to egg tempera, or to print-making or the ancient technique of fresco, which requires painting on a wet plaster ground, she knows full well that the timbre of the image must change too. For instance, quick drying egg tempera requires clarity and precision, whereas oils permit a greater range of methods in the search for expressiveness. This ability to adjust her style in accordance with subject matter and choice of medium gives to her art an invigorating flexibility and freshness.”

These words by art historian and critic Frances Spalding, from the catalogue of the exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery, Jean Rose: People, Parks and Plants, set the scene for the work of an accomplished artist whose painting media is varied, rigorous and technical. The fact that Jean Rose is now 92 and still actively painting does not make this show a sentimental retrospective; rather it is a testament to a noteworthy artist who continues to document the world around her in her own idiosyncratic style. The paintings were largely produced over the last two years, many of them in lockdown, when Jean was confined to her home on Sydney Place where she took inspiration from the day-to-day activities in Sydney Gardens opposite.

I’m rather fond of the heron on the canal. I like the forest ones with people running through. Oh and the girl feeding the pigeons. I’m fond of quite of a lot of them. And the trees with the bark. I love the bark on the trees, you see – that was the one reason I did the picture, the bark on the trees was so beautiful

The scenes that Jean captures are intense, lively observations of the everyday – a woman in a blue dress feeding pigeons; children running under trees, their bright outfits pulsing through the leaves; a lady watering the flowerpots in her courtyard; a group picnicking on a rug in the shade of arching trees; a group of frenzied dogs chasing squirrels; ducks mooching on the river; mundane street scenes and shops reinvented as lustrous, radiant backdrops; and vibrant, stylised jugs of flowers, slightly – magnificently – askew. The textures and colours, sometimes soft, sometimes uber-bright, sing out boldly and expressively – you can feel the warmth of the sunshine on the grass, the cracked and flaking mossy bark of the tree and the breezy nodding of the luminous daffodil flower heads.

Jean studied at the Bath Academy of Arts at Corsham Court in the 1940s, working under the supervision of principal Clifford Ellis, painting master William Scott and sculpture master Kenneth Armitage. Jean remembers her time there fondly: “Clifford Ellis was marvellous. We had weekly criticism – he always talked about my work and always found interesting things to say – that encouraged me so much.” One of Jean’s tutors in Corsham Court was colourist Peter Potporowski who took her with a group of students to Paris. Jean says, “A new professor came from Poland called Peter Potporowski and he had wonderful colour sense and his style of painting really influenced me. He took us round the galleries in Paris and I came across Édouard Vuillard who has been a terrific influence on me.” 

Above: Marigolds with Foliage | Jean Rose
Above: Woman Feeding Pigeons | Jean Rose
Above: Children Running Amongst Trees | Jean Rose

Vuillard had worked with the fast-drying aqueous thinning medium casein that Jean also adopted, and his subjects captured the hazy, shadowy magic of the quotidien, sometimes with abrupt flashes of colour. “This was the time when I started to use casein paint,” explains Jean. “I tried different things – Vuillard used a strange medium which I tried to imitate but egg tempura was the one that seemed closest to it. I developed egg tempura from that time onwards. The main thing with it is that it takes a long time to dry really well.”

Jean’s artistic sensibility was also enriched by the fin-de-siecle French interior genre painting of Denis, Bonnard and the Nabis, the post-impressionist French painters. Jean began her painting career in Cambridge, where she and her husband Jasper Rose were founding members of the Cambridge Society of Painters and Sculptors in the late 1940s and ’50s. She exhibited at the Portal Gallery and at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London before moving with her family to America, first to Houston in Texas and then Santa Cruz in California where Jasper took up a university teaching post, during which time Jean was asked to exhibit at the Ankrum Gallery in Los Angeles. Artist and art critic Peter Davies says in the catalogue, “This was Steinbeck country and a hub for West Coast musical ‘cool’ … Against this mood music background Rose’s work took a ruralist route and with it a gentle lyrical poetry in sync with the idealist, even utopian, mindset of those halcyon days.”

Returning to England after Jasper’s retirement, Rose and Jasper settled in Bath, appropriately at 99 Sydney Place, once the home of Bath School of Art before its transfer to Corsham. Both Jasper and Jean painted daily and exhibited regularly, and after Jasper’s death in 2019 Jean has continued to work in oils, casein and fresco.

The fresco technique is an urgent process, requiring completion within a maximum of two days per small section of ‘intonico’. “I have been very influenced by the frescoes of the old masters in Pompeii,” says Jean.

“The process involves working on wet plaster with wax mixed with ammonia which becomes a liquid. And then you mix that with your dry pigment and press it into your intonico, the plaster surface on which you paint.”

“Jean’s natural predilection for process made her a natural fresco painter,” says her son and artist Inigo Rose. “The fine detail of her stucco lucidos (the burnished fresco technique of Pompeii) and the myriad layers of colour creating these windows into her vision I have not seen produced by any of the great fresco painters.”

About to move to Wells, Jean lives in expectation of her new subjects: “I’m looking forward to the gardens in the Bishop’s Palace and the market which comes three times a week. That will be a big stimulus.” Jean has no plans to stop painting: “I think that art gives you energy,” she says firmly. I would suggest that looking at it does the same.

Jean Rose: People, Parks and Plants is at Victoria Art Gallery from 5 March – 4 May;