STAFF PICK : A Kurt Jackson Bestiary

Eleanor Hooker, Head of Sales and Marketing, gives us her staff pick for lockdown reading: 


Nature is a great consolation. In this strange time of confinement, the natural world is more than ever a source of comfort and diversion. Daily trips to the park have become more important than they ever would have been in more normal times. Watching the birds in the trees across the street or outside the kitchen window is a fascinating and stress-busting way of spending time that might once have been given to more human-centred activities. As people around the world have reached for the arts to fill their time or raise their spirits, the combination of art and nature is a winning one.


Kurt Jackson is an artist well known for his environmentalism, and his love and respect for the natural world. In A Kurt Jackson Bestiary (2015) we are taken on what feels like a wonderful and varied field trip across Britain and Southern Europe, sketching and painting as we go. I say ‘we’ because the artist/author communicates the experience of producing art in a manner so vivid that it is easy to imagine yourself as part of the situations being described. The noise and excitement of sketching gulls on a Cornish fishing boat as sardines break the surface of the water, the peaceful morning in autumn where small copper butterflies are found ‘blissed out in their floral arcadia’, the quiet scientific focus when painting the tranquilised badger or the injured buzzard.


The scientific underpinning is key. Jackson studied zoology before becoming an artist, and the book’s Foreword is written by Professor John Krebs, who taught him at Oxford. At one point in the book Jackson describes himself as a child, ‘filling my young head with a Durrell-like wonder and an Attenborough-like knowledge’ and admits he spent most of his time as an undergraduate studying painting. The comparison with Gerald Durrell is interesting – the enthusiasm for the subjects are clear in every entry, and the boyhood collecting and drawing are highly reminiscent of the Corfu books.


The artworks themselves range from large colour canvasses and bronze sculptures to more opportunistic paintings on newspaper, angling maps and, in one instance, a bee-keeper’s form. Many of the paintings are enlivened by Jackson’s handwritten notes, describing the scene and giving the painting a title, often with a touch of humour: Bit of a chat and some acrobatics, rook business, May 2007. The artist occasionally appears in the works, describing himself as having a resemblance to the crane fly ‘in the limb department’ he is sculpted in bronze with his totem animal (Self-portrait with a crane fly, 2012) and appears in bronze-like silhouette at the bottom of the large canvas, Me and the chough, 2007. But the majority of the works portray the natural world from the relatively exotic (rhinoceros beetles, basking sharks) to the everyday and familiar (mussel shells, woodlice – known locally as ‘grammersows’). The artist makes a wry note that he was quite pleased with his studies of slugs, ‘but they never sold, somewhat of a mystery’.


Perhaps it is enhanced by the confinement to quarters, but I am particularly drawn to the views out to sea – the sun sparkling on the water, the endless skies… The eye drifts out to a distant focal point in a way not otherwise possible in a garden-less London flat. But as we are all currently very limited in our human interactions it is perhaps curious to be so drawn to art so devoid of human forms. Jackson does include a few paintings of people in the section on ‘Apes’, but they are confined to lone surfers or people playing sport in the distance at night. Ultimately, we are just another part of the natural world.



A Kurt Jackson Bestiary is available here!

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