THE natural world dominates Jane Duff’s art in the same way it has dominated her life, and our latest Picture of the Week reflects that.
Jane’s childhood was an idyllic existence on the edge of Snowdonia in which she was largely left to her own devices, riding her bike or climbing hills with her dog as her faithful companion. By university her horizons were broadening and she was to spend much of her early twenties in the Nepal Himalayas, initially trekking and camping alone and later becoming a guide herself, taking groups for weeks at a time through Nepal’s magnificent peaks and forests.
When she returned to the UK a few years later to work for OUP as art editor, her passion was for photography and it was not for many years that she turned her hand to drawing and painting.
This led to her enrolling in an arts foundation course and her interest in the natural world also led to an advanced diploma in environmental conservation at Oxford University. She now fuses her interest in the environment with her love of painting.
Landscapes dominate much of her work as demonstrated by Winter Snow in the Wetlands, a 60x60cm oil on canvas painting of the Earth Trust’s River of Life wetland project near Wallingford.
She is also a volunteer for The Earth Trust in Little Wittenham and an avid supporter of their efforts to create new wetlands and improve water ecosystems along the River Thames and River Thame, as well as several new ponds in Little Wittenham woods, home to one of the country’s most significant populations of great crested newts.
“The new ponds, reedbeds, backwaters, wildflower meadows and wet woodland provide vital habitats for wildlife including otters, water voles, club-tailed dragonflies, kingfishers, skylarks , yellowhammers,” she says.
“Regular monitoring has shown that hundreds of thousands of fish fry are using the channels as a safe haven and that 12 of the Thames’ 20 species of fish are already present.”
Phase Two of the project will involve creating wetlands between Little Wittenham and Clifton Hampden and is due to start in 2021.
“The Earth Trust do amazing work,” she says “They look after miles of footpaths and open access land over Wittenham Clumps enjoyed by over 150,000 people per year as well as running a farm and an environmental education programme for local schools.
“ I’m not sure if the general public realise how much work is involved maintaining the paths and hedgerows and forests. Things are really tough for them as for many charities and they do need our support, especially right now.”
Jane put together a solo exhibition entitled Wildsong at the North Wall Arts Centre in Oxford showing 55 paintings of some of the wildest landscapes in the UK, including several west country seascapes and many paintings of the Welsh moors and mountains.
They showed remote, dramatic and elemental landscapes – even if she laments there is no true ‘wilderness’ still to be found in the British countryside.
At present she is preparing for a solo exhibition at West Ox Arts gallery in Bampton in Feb-March 2021 entitled A Love of the Land.
Oxfordshire may lack the more dramatic landscapes reflected in her paintings of Mid-Wales, North West Scotland or the far west of Cornwall, but the softer surroundings of Oxfordshire nature reserves, heathlands, woodlands, chalk downs and open spaces, as well as the River Thames and its many tributaries, provide their own inspiration, she insists.
Jane loves the ever-changing light of wild places, as well as the solitude and peace which helps to concentrate the mind, and despite the practical challenges of painting in situ she tries to do so whenever possible.
“I immerse myself in a landscape for hours, absorbing the atmosphere, the play of light and shadows, the textures and colours of the vegetation before finding the place that moves me enough to want to put up my easel and paint there,” she told OX magazine in an interview last year ahead of her Wildsong exhibition.
“I often struggle to get started and procrastinate a lot as I love it all too much! I find it overwhelming. But once I start I am away with a burst of energy and find myself reacting instinctively to the landscape, bringing the emotions, weather and light of the place into my paintings.
“I will often finish a painting in one sitting but will equally often work further on a painting back in the studio. It can make me a bit nervous painting in remote places especially if there are curious cows and horses around so if this happens, I sometimes pack up and go home armed with sketches and photographs. My two dogs sit alongside me for hours. They must wonder what on earth I am doing.”
She works mostly in oils, cold wax and acrylic and often on a large scale.
She firmly believes that art has a part to play not only in reminding people of the beauty of the landscape but highlighting the importance of protecting habitats and their biodiversity.
“We have such fantastic landscapes in the UK – we are fortunate beyond belief to have so much packed into such a small island. Thank heavens for the National Trust protecting so much of our beautiful British coastline and for our wonderful National Parks and nature reserves. Some of my paintings are of Sydlings Copse, a BBOWT nature reserve under threat from encroaching development to the north of the Oxford ring road.
“It is small – only 22 hectares – and is considered by many to be the jewel in the crown of Oxfordshire nature reserves. It has heathlands, amazing wildflower meadows, broadleaved woodland and a rare fen and supports over 400 plant species. It is of international ecological importance yet it is still under huge pressure from development.
“We need to respect and protect our natural world much more than we do. If an area is designated greenbelt, AONB, SSSI, SAC or SPA or landscape conservation area it means that it is likely to have very high biodiversity or landscape value and too often local authorities and government disregard their protection status such as with the recent loss of Calvert Jubilee nature reserve near Aylesbury.
“This precious flagship reserve has a lake which is a haven for overwintering wildfowl, waders, bittern and tern and it has wildflower meadows with all five species of the rare UK hairstreak butterfly yet it is in the process of being razed to the ground to make way for HS2.
“One can’t always mitigate against loss of some habitats. It takes a very long time for a woodland to regrow with its complex ecology so we must do everything we can to take care of these special places. They are irreplaceable and I would say that it is deeply immoral to destroy them. I’m not sure if I’ve left it too late to paint Calvert jubilee nature reserve but I fear I might.”