Prior's Field Old Girl Alison Jensen who is also Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Prior's Field Foundation, is a well recognized painter. Recently she was elected to serve as the "Master" of the Art Workers Guild which is a great honour in the art world. Compared to her achievements Jensen is very modest. We managed to catch up with her when she visited Prior's Field in April. Jensen also gave a speech at Old Girls' Day on May 9 2009. She talked about her work and experiences at Prior's Field.
Born to a Danish father and an Anglo-Scottish mother, Jensen divides her life between London (Bermondsey) and Denmark (Sjaelland). She is famous for her portraits, landscapes and drawings of musicians and dancers. In an interview during one of her visits to Prior's Field, she told Prior's Field that her love of art started at the school in the 1950s when she was a full boarder. Her art teacher was Mary Dickie whose nickname was "Potts". Jensen remembers the lovely art room (now drama studio) with big windows, and well equipped facilities including looms, pottery wheels and oven. She remembers that Miss Dickie encouraged her students to draw and try different disciplines like sculpture, pottery, painting, calligraphy, weaving and screen printing.
After Prior's Field Jensen decided to take up painting and went to Byam Shaw School of Drawing and Painting in Kensington, London where she won the Byam Shaw prize for drawing in 1960. She then went to the Royal Academy of Arts in Copenhagen as a guest student for a year. On her return she was chosen from among hundreds of applicants to join the Royal Academy Schools, Burlington House in London. She preferred the classical, structured art education in England. Jensen described the Royal Academy in the early 1960s not just as an educational institution, but as an organisation which also supported artists and enabled its students to showcase their work in the public galleries. All the students were given scholarships. Jensen was one of the very few girls studying art at the time. She said: "In those days it was still thought that women will get married and will not use their training, so they wouldn't like to invest in girls. It was tough being a girl because the place was dominated by men.... You just put up with the teasing and you had to fight for recognition. But I have good memories, they were good times".
After she left the Royal Academy, Jensen had her debut show in Copenhagen. She also did some teaching in a girl's school in London for a while.
As predicted by her former teachers, Jensen married, had three boys, and had to slow down because of family commitments. But she also continued to paint, took part in exhibitions, and established herself as a recognised artist. She was elected to become the Master of the Art Workers' Guild for the year 2009 which is considered as a great honour in the art world.
The Art Workers' Guild is a society of artists, craftsmen and designers with a common interest in development and distribution of creative skills. It was founded in 1884 by the members of the Arts and Crafts movement. Charles Voysey who designed Prior's Field building was a member and the Master in 1924. Jensen is the seventh women elected to be Master of the Guild which is now 125 years old. Only after 1960 the Guild started to accept women as "brothers" and today there are as many women members as men. Jensen describes the Guild as a celebration of a whole range of ideas and artistic talent. The Architects of Arts and Crafts Movement not only designed buildings but designed every element of the space, including details such as door handles and furniture. Prior's Field's buildings are a very good example of this movement. Jensen describes the Guild as a "network". Despite its wide usage today, the word "network" would not have made much sense in the early days of the Guild. But the Guild can be considered as similar to today's social networking sites. It is not easy to "sign up" to the Guild. One needs to be proposed and seconded by two members and submit a body of work. It is the contribution an artist or a craftsman has made to the Arts and the contribution they are able to make to the Guild that qualifies them for membership.
A large part of Jensen's work consists of portraits, landscapes and drawings of musicians, dancers and actors at rehearsal. She said that her interest in musicians started when she was studying at the Royal Academy. She was given a project to draw a composition with figures and she went to the Royal Albert Hall to watch the musicians performing. Their dress, the silhouettes they formed and the deep, woody colours of the instruments and the floor captured her imagination. She got permission to draw the musicians at rehearsals. She recalled that when she turned up at rehearsals the atmosphere was a bit disappointing because the musicians were casual, wearing ordinary clothes and throwing their instrument cases casually on the floor. But when they started to play, she was captivated. She has been studying musicians and performing artists since, drawing performers at The Salisbury Music Festival, York Music Festival, London Concert Halls, Glyndebourne and while on tour with The Royal Scottish Orchestra.
Jensen has a parallel career as a portrait artist and works on commissions. She prefers to paint her subjects in their personal space: "As a rule I paint a person sitting in their own room/house. I will not work from photographs, because that is two dimensional already. If you give me a photograph of a face and I draw that it is a drawing of a photograph. It is removed from the real thing, and it will look like it. A lot of people use photographs as an aid to composition but I prefer to work from life".
She also loves landscapes and most of her landscape work is painted in Denmark where she has a second home, surrounded by woods and near a beach. Jensen works on small scale when painting landscape because biking is the only option to get around some of the beautiful places and the equipment has to fit in the basket.
Jensen showed many examples of her work at the Old Girls' Day in May. Her presentation attracted many Old Girls to visit the school, some for the first time in 20 years. Many of them were mesmerized by her work. The highlight was the caricatures of her fellow students drawn when she was a pupil at Prior's Field.
Having Alison Jensen back at Prior's Field was certainly an inspiring experience.