JGP Delaney examines the artistry of Jane Dowling in his series on Catholic religious artists
AMONG the few artists who have exhibited religious paintings. in recent years at the annual Royal Academy Summer Shows has been Jane Dowling. Her Adam and Eve can be found there this year. Her soft-spoken art, reticent in design and colouring but rich in associations that require quiet meditative study, is often overpowered by the more declamatory work that surrounds it.
Though she also paints landscapes and interiors, these are mainly to keep in shape for her more important imaginative paintings, which are harder to do and more satisfying when done successfully. The Bible is still an inexhaustible source of artistic inspiration, she feels, despite the fact that European artists have turned to it for centuries.
Into this long tradition, her Catholic faith and background have given her invaluable insights.
The daughter of a distinguished dermatologist, she was educated at the Assumption Convent in Kensington Square (since moved to Suffolk). During the last war, the school was evacuated to Aldenham Park, Shropshire, the home of the Acton family, where Mgr Ronald Knox was chaplain. The girls found him very shy and a scholarly recluse, but had the good fortune to hear at first hand the sermons that were later published as The Mass in Slow Motion and The Gospel in Slow Motion.
After a year in a tutorial college, Jane Dowling went to St Anne's, Oxford, where she read English. Her tutor was C S Lewis, by then a devout Christian, though he had been an atheist 17 years earlier when her future husband had studied• under him. While studying for her degree, she also studied parttime at the Slade which, evacuated to Oxford, shared the Ashmolean with the Ruskin School of Art.
Over the next few years, she was subjected to an almost bewilderingly wide range of artistic influences: the Italian Masters at the Byam Shaw School under Brian Thomas and Patrick Phillips (1946-9), Cezanne and the PostImpressions at a second stint at the same school (1958-61) under Charles Mahoney, Bernard Dunstan and Peter Greenham (whom she later married), and then more modernistic tendencies, particularly American abstract art, when she studied lithography and wood engraving at the Central School.
During this process, she had to unlearn as well as learn things, but from all these disparate sources, she has taken elements to create her own style. The wide background has also benefited her own teaching at the Ruskin School.
Adam and Eve
Her figurative painting is reminiscent of David Jones, an artist she admires greatly. It has the same Catholic background and the same allusive quality, the linking together of many images to create a complex symbolic statement. Her most recent religious painting, an Adam and Eve in a mixed media pf oil and tempera, sold at the opening of the RA Exhibition this year. The two central figures are taken from Durer's famous woodcut, and guided by her subconcious, she has also incorporated other images, a woman at her spinning wheel, figures representing the human race, and many flamingoes.
Like Jones, she loves to embellish her paintings with birds, traditional symbols of the human soul but also used for decorative effect, and the spinning woman and crowds of people suggest how the human race must "toil and spin" since Adam's fall. A series of circular Stations of the Cross, conceived (but never completed) for St Mary Aldermary, a Wren church in the city, brings the Crucifixion into the everyday life of the faithful.
As Our Lord suffers, life goes on, some of it indifferent to the momentous event taking place, as in Auden's poem Muscle des Beaux Arts. The techique, one used by the Pre-Paphaelites,
involves painting with colours into white paint still wet to achieve a brilliant effect. Two large pictures, a "Transfiguration" and a "Tobias and the Angel", are in the corridor and the out-patients department of the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.
Four of her figurative paintings have been bought by the Faringdon Trust for Buscot Park, and some 30 of both realistic and imaginative ones by the distinguished collector, Sir Brinsley Ford.
The two sides of her art still work hand in hand.
In 1985, she shared an Arts Council exhibition with her husband, Peter Greenham, RA, former Keeper of the RA Schools. Married in 1964, they have two children and live in Charlton-on-Otmoor, Oxfordshire. She has been influenced by him, just as he admits to having been affected by her "brilliantly imaginative and illuminative work."
Though they often paint together outdoors, at home they work in different studios. She and their children figure in many of her husband's best works.
Several of her religious paintings were exhibited in May in St Botolph's Church, Aldgate, and in September she along with six other invited artists, including John Piper, will be showing in "Glass of Vision" an exhibition of paintings on religious themes at Chichester Cathedral.
The imagery of the Bible is so "terrific", she says, that she is never short of ideas for that sort of painting.