Obituary: Alfred Janes
Saturday 06 February 1999
He showed precocious promise, always loving to draw and paint, and, after Swansea Grammar School, he attended Swansea College of Art, where, in 1931, he won a scholarship to the Royal Academy Schools in London. Janes enjoyed the academy at first, especially the drawing classes under the exacting eye of Tom Monnington, but the lure of modernism in the nearby Cork Street galleries proved disturbingly distracting, and he left the schools before completing the course.
He stayed for some time in London, painting in the succession of Chelsea flats he shared with William Scott, his closest friend at the Academy Schools, and later with Dylan Thomas and Mervyn Levy. These were Depression years: hard times but happy times, spent in unforgettable company. In 1934 he painted his first portrait of Thomas, now in the collection of the National Museum of Wales. It remains the best portrait of the poet, cooler and less romantic than that by Augustus John, to whom by curious chance it owes its survival.
Janes left behind the paintings and drawings he had made in his last London flat and most of them were lost forever, but not before Cedric Morris and John had collected a few, including the portrait, for an exhibition of Welsh painters held in Cardiff.
In 1936 Janes returned to live in Swansea, where he remained until the Second World War. During this period he painted a series of still-lifes and taught part-time at Swansea College of Art. The handful of still-life paintings he made in the Thirties are among his finest achievements. They were painted with extraordinary precision and painstaking slowness, each taking many hours a day over several months. In a letter to Vernon Watkins, written after the war, Thomas ironically recalled this pace: "How is that blizzardly painter, that lightning artist, that prodigal canvas stacker? Has he reached the next finbone of the fish he was dashing off before the war?"
The still-life subjects of these extraordinary works are seen as through a crystalline glazed grid, a faceted transparent screen, behind which fish and fruit are transformed into a mineral brilliancy. They are utterly unique in the art of their time.
Janes joined the Army soon after the outbreak of hostilities, but defective vision (of a purely mechanical kind) kept him in the non-combatant Pioneer Corps. On leave in November 1940 he married Mary Ross, "auburn- haired leading light" of the lively Swansea Little Theatre, an amateur outfit at the heart of the lively art and culture of the town. He was posted to Egypt, where he remained for two and a half years without home leave, working in a prisoner-of-war camp.
A gifted linguist, he learnt Swahili and, from the camp inmates, fluent Italian. He became a passionate lover of Italy and the Italians, frequently visiting the country and maintaining friendships made in the camp for the rest of his life. He made no paintings during the war.
Back in Swansea in 1946, he returned to painting and teaching. During this period he made memorable portraits of Vernon Watkins and Daniel Jones. In 1953 the Janeses and their young son (a daughter was born the following year) moved to the rambling and then remote Nicholaston Hall, a hillside manor house overlooking the sea on the Gower Peninsula, where he used the barn for his studio, and embarked upon a series of experimental works using sand, various oils (including Castrol) and hardboard.
The rigours of the country life, however, did not really suit this most urbane of artists, and in 1963, invited to take up a post at Croydon School of Art, he moved to Dulwich, where he lived happily for the rest of his life. Of teaching, Janes wrote, "[It is] perhaps the best thing we can do - certainly for me, a great pleasure and a very great privilege." Down to earth and absolutely without affectation, he was an inspired teacher, remembered by students and colleagues alike with respect and affection.
At Croydon he was famous for the meticulous care he took to construct the still-lifes, placing fruit and fish, jugs and fabrics to most effectively test and develop the students' perceptions of light, colour and form. Fred Janes took to his teaching a formidable knowledge of techniques, learnt in his own experimental practice and generously shared, and great theoretical knowledge of colour and of the psychology and philosophy of perception.
As painter and draughtsman Janes was wonderfully able to catch at the likeness of life, to make a picture of the visible. Throughout a long career he resorted, without any limitation of style, to representational modes. There were the vivid paintings and drawings of his creative friends, and formal portraits of the famous and distinguished (Iain Macleod, Dr Thomas Parry, Sir Ifan ap Owen Edwards among many others) by which he made the occasional supplement to his teaching income.
In the Forties and Fifties there were satiric and genre paintings, and in the Sixties and Seventies photowork collages and perspex reliefs, in the Eighties he painted a series of dream-like shorescapes. But he was driven by a relentless curiosity, and his painting and construction-making were essentially a kind of research, a pursuit of the real. If this led to abstract experiment Janes happily followed it in that direction.
He loved music, the most abstract of the arts, playing the piano every day, and, like his close friend Ceri Richards, he saw close parallels between composing and painting. He was above all a committed modernist, his denial of signature style and personal gesture a critical and creative abnegation, as well as the expression of a natural modesty and self-effacement. He described himself as "a maker of pictures, rather than a painter". "I concentrate on the craft," he once said, "and if what comes out is art, that's a bonus."
Time will confirm that many of the pictures he has made are indeed art of a high order. His art celebrates, sometimes with the ironic wit so characteristic of the man, sometimes in comic mood, sometimes with a surprising poetic lyricism, the infinite variety of the world as given.
Alfred George Janes, artist: born Swansea 30 June 1911; married 1940 Mary Ross (one son, one daughter); died London 3 February 1999.
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