My maternal family heritage traces back to British convicts Robert Forrester and Isabella ‘Bella’ Ramsay. Robert and Isabella were both separately convicted for crimes of theft and subsequently received sentences of transportation to New South Wales.
I have been looking at Australia’s colonial history and the journey of the First Fleet for some time now. It interests me from both a personal perspective and also from a broader viewpoint as an Australian as it was these convicted British men and women that together formed the origins of what has become modern-day colonial Australia.
In 2012 I relished the opportunity of having a 6-month studio residency at The Ropewalk in North Lincolnshire. During this time I began the process of collecting images relevant to my British ancestry. On various road trips through the north of England, I gathered drawings and photographs of places that are seen as central in the story of the lives and convictions of Robert and Isabella.
Upon arriving in the harsh environment of New South Wales, both Robert and Isabella would have reflected back on their former lives in England. Their memories of the motherland may have been fond or far from it. It is impossible to know. I have tried to take a contemporary approach to documenting some of the places that would most likely have held familiar memories for them. Actually being located in the north of England was essential for gathering the images and the aesthetic that underpins this body of work.
From New South Wales to The Mother Land
It seems the world has never been so personal. We receive daily updates from a variety of sources about friends, family and even previously untouchable celebrities and public figures. There is arguably little distinction between the real world and online social media content. With this plethora of personal information being shared, one might start to expect an increased insight into character or engagement with issues of identity. This may be the case in other arenas, but the contemporary art world remains heavily conceptual and we infrequently encounter artwork that is directly autobiographical or self-referential in nature. We seem to prefer our artists one step removed from the real world and most are reticent to share their personal heritage in any direct fashion. It is fair to say that a lot of bad art involves ‘over sharing’ and drawing upon oneself as a subject bears the threat of egotism.
It comes as some surprise, then, to find an artist like Alan Jones whose work exclusively draws upon material of a personal nature and is done so without the slightest of sense of self-importance. In fact, the opposite might be true. Born in Sydney, Jones draws upon his convict ancestry as source material for his diverse practice, considering himself complicit in cultural dispossession. Relentlessly delving into his own genealogy, Jones presents an unedited account of his own heritage to engage with a wider narrative on colonisation. The artist deftly winds the threads of his family history throughout his painting, sculpture, installation and collage. In doing so he communicates to the viewer the intricacies of human connections, even across continents and centuries.
Jones has long been interested in Australia’s colonial history and the journey of the First Fleet. The arrival of 717 British convicts in 1787 formed the beginnings of modern day Australia, and it also marked a dramatic turning point in Jones’ own heritage. His ancestor, Robert Forrester was convicted of theft in London in 1783 and was destined for New South Wales on board the First Fleet. The lives of Robert Forrester and his common law wife Isabella Ramsay have been the genesis for a number of Jones’ exhibitions to date in Australia, uncovering the early days of the convicts and English colonial rule. A History of Violence (2008) and Crime and Punishment (2009) featured soft relief sculptures depicting the crime and conviction of Robert Forrester and chalkboard drawings revealed the epic nature of the First Fleet voyage. Cultural Imperialism (2010) went on to explore the arrival of the British and the wider socio-political ramifications of cultural imperialism. His solo exhibition That’s The Way It Is (2011) juxtaposed sculptures of British icons such as Tower Bridge with imagery of Jones’ family members and Australian landscapes.
The genesis of these exhibitions was an idea that coalesced as Jones undertook a travelling art scholarship in Europe in 2004. Building upon this work, this year Jones has delved deeper into his ancestry, leaving his homeland for Europe again to trace his convict ancestors to their origins in Northern England. Throughout his six-month residency at The Ropewalk Studios in North Lincolnshire, Jones collected and produced imagery that related to personal landmarks in his ancestors’ lives. The artist visited the possible site of Robert Forrester’s baptism in Kirk Andrews upon Esk near Carlisle in Cumbria and also the site of his alleged crime of stealing six gold coins in a lodging house near St Giles in the Field church some 260 miles away in London. In his collages Jones juxtaposes the beautiful pastoral landscapes of Forrester’s childhood in Cumbria with the gritty urban city his ancestor found himself in during his early twenties.
Forrester was convicted and sentenced to death at The Old Bailey, a sentence that was commuted to transportation to New South Wales. He spent three years imprisoned on the Thames before setting sail on one of the First Fleet’s 11 boats, The Scarborough. The boat was named after the North Yorkshire town where it was built, which is coincidentally a key location in the heritage of Jones’ British partner’s family. Robert Forrester’s own partner, Isabella Ramsay, was also convicted of theft in 1790 in Carlisle. Jones spent a period of time in and around the city, sketching and photographing the scenery and buildings from the late 1700s that still stand today such as the Town Hall, Carlisle Cathedral and Carlisle Castle. By transposing himself to England, Jones embedded himself physically and psychologically within the landscape of his ancestors in what was once their home.
Largely constructed with layers of canvas collaged and painted with thin acrylic washes, the works form the Ropewalk Residency have evolved organically, directed by the discoveries of his various journeys in North England and the local aesthetic. Jones relinquished some aspects of creative control in order to leave himself as open as possible to new influences and processes. This openness to change and progression is typical of the artist who has worked across a multitude of mediums, never sitting still with his subject.
Despite the hours of research and elaborate thought processes that inform every work, the canvasses have a distinctly immediate appeal, as if the various threads have hastened to join together. Jones manages to take hundreds of years of history and deeply layered imagery and present it as a snapshot. The works may be to the point but they are no less poignant for it. In fact, the sense of nostalgia and connectivity with generations past is effectively heightened by their closeness and contemporary presentation. However, these are not whimsical wonderings about how his family members lived generations ago, intended to document and entertain, far from it. Several have a distinctly unsettling effect upon the viewer, using specific people and places as vehicles to explore wider socio-political themes. These specific people and places include references to Jones’ contemporary personal life, such as incorporating a likeness of his baby son, Ingo into ancestral landscapes, and therefore contribute an acutely sensitive layer to the dialogue. Jones is at once incredibly specific and fastidious with the truth, and also simultaneously gifted at drawing wider conclusions and highlighting collective trends and experiences. Although Jones is an artist preoccupied with the theme of identity, he is not making work about himself. Millions share the fundamentals of the narrative he presents; he taps into shared experience and finds commonality in his own past with others. Mutato nomine et de te fabula narratur: Change only the name and this story is about you.
When considered as a whole this body of work represents an intersection between the artist and his young family, the possible realities of his ancestors’ experiences over 200 years ago, the criminal justice system, the church, the British landscape tradition and the implications of colonial imperialism. Jones is not attempting to reconfigure the reality of Forrester’s life, nor is he asking anyone to take sides on weighty issues, he is simply refusing to ignore the complexities and relevant nature of the past. It often feels like there is urgency not simply in the creation of each canvas, but to Jones’ whole practice. By constantly creating new departures in terms of the medium he employs, Jones does not allow himself to get comfortable. This obviously lends his work a distinctive, fresh appeal but it also possibly means more. It is as if, by implicating himself so personally, he cannot ever be comfortable with this subject and so his work is a ceaseless, energetic and cathartic journey, one taken with others, but that has no end.
Title: Alan Jones: Works from The Ropewalk Residency
Publisher: The Fine Art Society Contemporary, 148 New Bond Street London W1S 2JT, faslondon.com
First published: 2012
Contributors: Essay by Kate Bryan, Introduction by Alan Jones
Design: Ian Brown
Printing: Printed in the UK by ArtQuarters Press
Edition: Published in an edition of 1000 copies
To accompany the exhibitions: The Mother Land at The Fine Art Society Contemporary, London and New South Wales at Watters Gallery, Sydney
Exhibition dates: The Mother Land: 10-27 October 2012, New South Wales: 30 October – 17 November 2012
Cover: Head of a Convict Woman, 2012, acrylic on canvas, 92cm x 82cm