Jan Beaney & Jean Littlejohn: The more you look…
Jan Beaney and Jean Littlejohn are both renowned international textile artists. Jan is the longest serving member of the 62 Group having joined in 1963. Together Jan and Jean have written many books, as well as taught and exhibited in the UK and overseas. In 1997, they set up Double Trouble to promote further interest in embroidery.
We’re honoured that such a prestigious pairing agreed to chat to us about their work. In this joint interview they offer insights into how they began, their creative processes and the techniques they’ve used to evolve their work, as well as offering some invaluable advice to aspiring textile artists.
An endless Palette of materials
TextileArtist.org: What initially captured your imagination about textile art?
Jan: I hated sewing at school so I was unexpectedly enlightened about the potential of textile art in my final year at Hornsey College of Art. Eirian Short was the tutor and I became excited about the ability to make marks using textiles.
Jean: Qualities of surface, tactility and the endless palette of materials available for expression of ideas.
What or who were your early influences and how has your life/upbringing influenced your work?
Jan: Besides Eirian, my uncle Rusell Brockbank, a cartoonist and former Art Editor of Punch encouraged me to go to Art College against the wishes of my school!!
Jean: No specific artist but a genuine interest in all art forms and especially ancient art where the energy of invention is evident. I was brought up in a household where making was part of life, and resourcefulness was encouraged. I enjoy responding to a challenge.
What was your route to becoming an artist?
Jan: I started at Southampton College of Art and discovered lithography which has been very influential. Went on to West Sussex College of Art and studied Painting with Lithography additional. I spent my 5th year at Hornsey to obtain my Art Teacher’s Certificate.
Jean: I trained as a teacher specializing in Art.
Exaggerating and simplifying
What is your chosen medium and what are your techniques ?
Jan: My chosen medium/technique depends on the initial ideas and the surface I wish to create. The media not only include fabrics and threads but also paints, dyes, beads, wire, any mixed media that are appropriate.
Jean: I work in mixed media and techniques will vary according to the inspiration or concept. Most typically I work in layers of applique with print, stitch and the use of a needle punch machine.
How would you describe your work and where do you think it fits within the sphere of contemporary art?
Jan: Generally, my work tends to be based on aspects of landscape in this country and overseas. I attempt to capture a memory or the essence of a time and place in part representative – exaggerating some elements and simplifying others. I am not sure where my work fits in the sphere of contemporary art but I hope that my integrity is respected.
Jean: I would describe my work as stitched mixed media and at present there seems to be a refreshing change in the sphere of contemporary art where many styles are recognized and therefore there is no pressure to reflect fashion.
Lost without sketchbooks
Tell us a bit about your process and what environment you like to work in?
Jan: A sketchbook is the essential start to any work. In most cases, I make a rough painting to scale in order to sort the composition before starting the textile.
Building up the surface with dye, print and fabrics often precede hand stitch and machine work. Working with soluble film entails fabrics and threads being placed before the machining. I like working in my studio with little distraction so I can give the piece the necessary concentration.
Jean: I like to work in my studio space and new phases of work take time to develop. They usually involve some form of observational drawings that are then developed, often combining various printing methods, into a range of designs from which the final ideas emerge. The resulting images are a synthesis of observation and historical references that usually contribute to the ideas.
I would be lost without sketchbooks, both for recording observations and developing ideas. Nothing happens without visual research.
What currently inspires you and which other artists do you admire and why?
Jan: Unusual, unexpected or humble aspects within landscape that are often overlooked always appeal. Light qualities and tonal variations continually intrigue.
Jean: I am currently working towards an exhibition with my friend and colleague Jan. A recent house renovation offered opportunities for reflection and the work was drastic as it is an old house and years of paint and wallpaper hinted at previous generations and owners. The work for the exhibition could be described as domestic archaeology with a family narrative.
I have a real admiration for David Hockney too but ancient artifacts move me the most.
Tell us about a piece of work you have fond memories of and why?
Jan: My themes tend to last from 3-10 years. Clivedon UK, Crete, New Zealand and Australia have all inspired and challenged me. The sense of history, colour and tonal qualities of the Australian series bring back many great memories.
Jean: Many people seem to remember a series over 25 years ago based on France and including ‘Bayeaux Cathedral’. At the time I wanted to capture a dreamlike sensitive atmospheric feel and in a way my new work refers back to this series but with different techniques and materials and with a more personal content.
Fluency and freedom
How has your work developed since you began and how do you see it evolving in the future?
Jan: I now have a wider range of techniques to choose from and in particular will continue developing soluble film. Hopefully, it will develop if I follow my mantra –‘the more you look the more you see’.
Jean: I am always seeking for a fluency and freedom. When starting a theme it takes time to work through the tighter stages until a more fluid feel to the imagery. In future I hope to continue to seek a more spontaneous feel to the work.
What advice would you give to an aspiring textile artist?
Jan: Follow your feelings. Be aware of what is going on around you in the art world but do not try and follow trends unless you are genuinely involved and motivated. Personal integrity is very important and as always inform your work by observation or writings.
Jean: It is difficult to earn a living in related work and find time for your practice when doing other work, but it is important to keep going and fit it in when you can. We have seen many artists with potential fall by the wayside because they took breaks and found it difficult to get back in.
Continue to evolve a personal style and present that focus when applying for galleries etc.
Join an existing group as the members will have an exhibiting programme ready formed. Alternatively form a small group with like-minded artists and approach galleries. They will expect a really professional portfolio but most importantly they will look at the quality and freshness of the work.
Tell us a bit about Double Trouble and how it cam into being.
Jan: After writing many books for Publishers I felt I would like to self publish. I had been working for years with Jean and it was natural that we would start this together. DT was formed in 1997 to write books to inspire and promote stitched textiles. It has now developed with a number of DVDs but with still the same ambition.
Jean: Initially Double Trouble was formed because we wanted to self publish. It started with two books and just grew from there. It meant that we had full editorial and aesthetic control and only published themes and techniques that we had explored and developed from our extensive teaching experience. We also found it very energizing and it often influenced our work.
The latest DVDs were undertaken for people who wanted classes in their own home.
Can you recommend 3 or 4 books for aspiring textile artists?
Jan: Difficult to answer as we hope our books will inspire and inform. Books showing the drawing and mark making of painters can be most informative.
Jean: This is a very personal thing but the books I would recommend are not specific textile books but rather those that inspire ideas or thinking processes.
- Matisse, His Art and His Textiles: The Fabric of Dreams – Royal Academy of Art
- The Creative Habit – Twyla Tharp
- The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman – Grayson Perry – The British Museum Press
- Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable or a good dictionary of quotations
Where can readers find out more about your workshops and books?
Jan: On our website doubletrouble-ent.com.
How do you go about choosing where to show your work?
Jan: Exhibiting with the 62 group for many years has offered many outlets for exhibiting as with the Knitting and Stitching shows. Other venues have been by invitation.
Jean: We have been very fortunate and have often been invited to different venues but being part of the 62 Group is a strong incentive to keep developing ideas and have work accepted for exhibitions on a regular basis.
Where can readers see your work this year?
Jean: Jan and I have a joint exhibition at The Knitting and Stitching Shows at Ally Pally, Dublin and Harrogate this year.
The Knitting and Stitching Show takes place on the following dates:
- Alexandra Palace, London 10-13 October
- RDS Dublin 31 October – 3 November
- Harrogate 21-24 November
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