ABOUT THE ARTIST: JAN BARWICK
Born into a creative, professional family in 1953 New Zealand, Jan Barwick’s formative Pacific life was, and still remains, the inspiration for her future art. Her father, David Barwick, a young lawyer with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was posted to the Solomon Islands when Jan was 3 and five years later, as High Court Judge for the Western Pacific, David moved the family to Kiribati (the former Gilbert Islands). This Pacific childhood of palm trees, exotic birds and flying fish enchanted her and gave her a lasting love of colour and nature. Her mother, Margaret Barwick, a writer and burgeoning garden designer, also introduced her to island trees and flowers, showing her how to paint and observe botanical detail – skills she later applied to illustrate her mother’s renowned botanical works.
Her parents were posted to Malawi, Africa, in 1975 by which time Jan had been sent to the more subdued landscape of English boarding school. Art was not particularly encouraged, and had to be squeezed in while other girls played hockey and went horse riding. Holidays to Malawi were a welcome escape, bringing her back into contact with colour, and introducing her to a wider, earthy landscape, where the visceral simplicity of tribal art, strong African patterns, resonated with her Antipodean background, and added weight and a boldness to her Pacific themes.
By the age of 18 Jan Barwick knew she wanted to be an artist, and went to the Hornsey College of Art in London, which produced luminaries such as Anish Kapoor. However, she was more inspired by Arts and Craft patterns of Morris and Pugin, and the textural fabrics of Biba and David Hicks than the post-modernist or political art of 1970s Britain. “No one at the College of Art really understood my style, as it was too representational, too bright for them. It wasn’t abstract, and it didn’t have a political messages.
But I wanted to do things that were beyond politics, more enduring.
About the vitality of the natural world – with brilliant colours
that British artists didn’t think were ‘real’,” says Barwick.
Her twenties and thirties took her on to new, exotic landscapes, first Florida and then the Cayman Islands of which her father was, by then, Attourney General. Her work was now distilled into its recognizable palette of bold colour, with cerise, turquoise, tangerine and citrus, capturing the vivid flowers and marine life of the Caribbean and Key West, which had so inspired Wallace Stevens (“The yellow glistens./It glistens with various yellows/ Citrons, oranges and greens/ Flowering over the skin.” ― Study of Two Pears.)
In 1998, disillusioned with the commercialism of Florida, and divorce, she decided to leave for the SouthWest of France, where her parents had retired. There she met French garden designer and ‘paysagiste’, Philippe Claudy, and set up home and studio in Les Mespoules, a hamlet west of Cahors. Her influences are now the verdant Quercy landscape of oak woods and orchid meadows, which veer between summer heat and winter frosts. Pacific colour, however, still permeates her home and commissions, rather than the traditional greys of French country style. As well as painting, she has extended her creativity to three-dimensional forms, working on garden designs with her mother and husband, and weaving tapestries that still pay homage to the balance and jewel colours of Biba Hicks and Morris.
Her paintings might best be described as magic realism, capturing a paradisal world, more likely to be discovered in dreams than reality. There is something primitive in their expression, echoing the dream time pictures of the Aborigines. Repeat patterns suggest she is most at home with the techniques of printmaking and balance, whilst the colours and abundance that explode across the canvas have fluid confidence of Klimt. Her paintings have been used in both commercial work, such as the tail fins of British Airways Caribbean planes, and individual commissions. One of her large underwater scenes, is on display in the national museum of the Caymans. Her art always hints at ethereal and transient beauty, and particularly resonant since Kiribati, where she grew up, is the first nation that will be reclaimed by the sea because of climate change. Her work is perhaps more powerful and prescient than her former art tutors would have ever guessed.