Jenny Cowern Retrospective UK
When you think of Jenny Cowern you think, naturally, of felt. Jenny’s images are interpreted so skilfully in felt that you cannot imagine her using any other medium to record the skies, seas, rocks and plants of Cumbria where she lived.
What struck me most about the retrospective exhibition held in Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in March and April of this year was that there was so much more to Jenny than felt. I had forgotten that her artistic skills could be translated in pencil or pen, in oil, acrylic or tempera and even in enamels. If she had used only one medium she would have left a spectacular record of her work but to see ideas carried forward from paint to felt or from drawing to enamel makes you realise what an all-round artist Jenny was.
I only met her once – although that was over a two-day course in Pictorial Feltmaking at Galashiels, at the Embroiderers’ Guild Scottish Branches annual summer school in 2001. During the course we learned how to translate coloured pencil drawings into felt. I had made felt before in the time-honoured, bash it on the kitchen table method, where strength and endurance mattered more than finesse. Jenny’s felt making was a revelation. We made soft, almost ethereal pieces from wispy tops, patting them gently into place and breathing mistily onto our work, encouraging, manipulating and almost inviting the fibres to nestle together. We blended colours to make samples of the softest and gentlest tones.
Jenny seemed like her felt, soft, kind and gentle but with such inspiring skill in her ten fingers - the same number as we all had, but hers had magic in them too. And that magic was all too visible in the array of paintings, drawings and felts which adorned the gallery for the retrospective at Tullie House.
It was a good space for such an exhibition. Being long and high-ceilinged, the gallery provided room to stand back from the big felts to see them from a distance and to absorb how the dappled colours of water or sky were perfectly recreated in wool. Ripples in clear water, wispy clouds in a blue sky or at sunset lent themselves beautifully to the fibres carefully blended and felted together. This was not functional felt for any practical purpose but ethereal, artistic felt which only asked to be gazed at and acknowledged for its artistic essence.
While felt was a relatively late development in Jenny’s life as an artist, only regarded seriously by her as a medium after seeing an exhibition by Mary Burkett in 1979, many of her earlier paintings and drawings, such as “Mother cutting the hedge” (1962) or “Doors and windows” (1970) have a softness about them which presages her move to felting.
You can also see the eventual transition to felt almost before it happens. A large acrylic painting, called “Repeats” and another similarly titled in gouache, done in 1972 and 1973, show highly geometric patterns but even here there is a soft edge to the shapes which find their way eventually into various pieces of felt such as “Happening”, completed in 1995, where the colours are more muted but with a definite echo of the patterns of the earlier paintings. Much later work in pastels, as described in “A Softer Landscape”, the highly readable book written by Mary Burkett and Valerie Rickerby to accompany the exhibition, shows how Jenny captured ripples in water and translated them beautifully into felt.
She also portrayed rock and stone in her felts. In “Sandstone Hanging” (1996), the stone at the edge of the sea is almost tangible, with the layers and folds which identify sandstone skilfully interpreted, showing the way it has been shaped by pressure for centuries. The deep russet tones of the rock and the greys of water and rock pools complement each other perfectly.
Vegetation is another subject which Jenny mastered in both felt and paint. “Painting and drawing of plants” (1975) demonstrates a fine eye for a tangle of undergrowth while in the felt “Swept Leaves” (undated) you feel you could pick up individual leaves which are lying in a heap of rich autumn colours. “Nut and Quince” (1989) shows a similar depiction, this time in a neutral range of black, brown and natural-coloured felt while “Leafmould x 12” (1993) combines felt, gesso, silverpoint and ink to show various stages in the decomposition process from leaf to compost.
Even in her enamel work which Jenny started doing in 1989, the soft style of her felting is apparent. In “Maquette for the outside of Heworth” (1990) which was a commission for the Metro Station at Heworth and represented local culture, craft and industry, the 30 panels show marks and textures which would later crop up in her water studies and sky felts. And “Pebbles 2000” which could not be a harder subject in a harder medium succeeds in recreating swirls and striations which she brought into her felt studies of pebbles in both 1988 and 2003.
Despite all the types of media she worked in, felt dominated this exhibition as it did Jenny’s life. It is somehow fitting that what she has left us is not just technically superb but also attempts to capture, and so often successfully does, those indefinable things about living where she did on the Solway, the wide, infinite skies, the endless movement of water, the beauty of plants and the timeless qualities of rock and sand. Her felts may have been confined in physical frames but in artistic terms they stretch indefinitely.