On 28 June the Oxford Festival of the Arts welcomes acclaimed television writer, producer and director Sally Wainwright OBE to talk about her second series of Gentleman Jack. Ahead of tomorrow night’s season finale, Esther Laffery met artist Becky Paton to talk about her mosaic portrait of Gentleman Jack – created at Sally’s behest – which will be on show alongside and throughout the festival.
Known for strong female characters in Coronation Street, The Archers and the crime drama Happy Valley starring Sarah Lancashire among other things, it is Wainwright’s vivid portrayal of Anne Lister, ‘the first modern lesbian’, in the BBC’s Gentleman Jack that has most recently transfixed the nation. Previously, she muses, historical fiction had “all too often been rather Jane Austen”, focused on finding the perfect man, and she questions how important this should be in today’s world. The story of Anne Lister, however, ran counter to this traditional take and very much intrigued her: the stage was set.
Lister was a wealthy landowner of independent means who lived near the northern town of Halifax; dressed always in black and, eschewing the ‘feminine frills’ expected of women in the early 19th century, she was known to locals as ‘Gentleman Jack.’ Lister was also a prolific diarist, who wrote of her secret romantic encounters and lesbian love affairs in more than four million words, a considerable proportion of which was encoded in her own ‘crypthand’, a combination of algebra and the Greek alphabet which she believed no one would ever be able to decipher. She was wrong. First decoded by a family member who kept the secret to the grave, the diaries were then rediscovered in the 1980s by researcher Helen Whitbread and the secret was out.
Both eccentric and uncompromisingly gay, a feat of great bravery, Lister inspired Wainwright to bring the story of Anne Lister to the world and it is now celebrated for both itself and the “Gentleman Jack effect” as women who had never heard of Anne Lister were moved and emboldened by her story.
In Gentleman Jack, Anne Lister is played by Suranne Jones who has the perfect intensity, humanity and energy. Her likeness is captured by Oxfordshire Artweeks mosaicist extraordinaire Becky Paton, whose passion for portraiture and her talent corralling together many individual pieces to bring a flamboyant character to life, made her the perfect artist to depict both Anne and Suranne in a single piece.
Wainwright had been very taken with Becky’s art and style since seeing her iconic portrait of Queen Elizabeth I with its contemporary twist. She decided to ask Becky to produce something similar to celebrate Anne Lister’s life and impact today. “It was a dream commission,” says Becky. “We talked about whether the portrait should be based on existing traditional portraits of Anne herself or whether we should use Suranne as our model. We chose to use Suranne. In much of my work I use the face of a personality in today’s world to add a contemporary flavour and depth of character to historical figures. For example, although Queen Elizabeth is unmistakeable as the 16th century monarch, I actually used a photo of Tilda Swinton as the basis for Queen Elizabeth’s facial features. It was exactly the right look, and I knew it instantly. Tilda looked beautiful, and also embodied the regal authority had by Elizabeth I.”
Nearly a metre across, Suranne as Anne Lister is equally breathtaking and beautiful. Under a heavy dark coast of black glass with ornamental loop-fastening details known as ‘frogging’, she is wearing a very silky shirt, and as the light shifts across the pieces, there’s an apparent flimsiness which belies the hardness of the glass pieces used in its creation.
Looking as if she could step right down from the wall, Suranne’s face, too, is remarkably real considering the medium. “I’m always very aware of people’s skin, the tones and the shades and how the light falls on people’s faces,” smiles Becky. “I start from the nose and build out. It often looks totally wrong close-up as I put in the individual pieces, but then when you stand back the face comes alive.”
“Sally had a clear view of the facial expression she wanted in the mosaic. I was incredibly lucky to have access to studio photos for inspiration and we found almost exactly what we were looking for, except Anne Lister was wearing a top hat. With the help of photoshop, we were able to take her hat off and put her hair on and I could begin drawing up the main part of the mosaic. Her blouse and jacket are taken from studio shots. I added the heart pin to her blouse, a piece of jewellery which is depicted in one of the three maybe four known surviving images of Anne Lister and picked up in the TV Series.”
In the portrait, “With Shibden on my shoulders”, Becky shows Anne with the stunning Shibden Hall at her back, the house where she lived and the location for much of the shooting of Gentleman Jack.
“If you haven’t been, Shibden Hall is stunningly beautiful, rich in history and hugely inspiring,” says Becky. “I wouldn’t have been able to let Anne Lister get so under my skin if I hadn’t seen where she slept, where she ate, where she conducted business and, of course, where she loved. I put Shibden Hall to be in the background but almost resting on her shoulders, so that the viewer might feel the responsibility she had with the upkeep of such an esteemed building. This led on to the naming of the mosaic…”
In the mosaic, Shibden Hall is striking in black and white, reinforcing the strength and determination of Anne Lister, and yet it is set into a soft and almost elusive foliage which shifts in colour as you move as if it would be perfect for hiding a secret.
“The outer ring of the mosaic is influenced by the heavy and heavily decorated wood panels, stained glass windows and textiles at Shibden. Pre-William Morris but designs that must have been a huge influence in his future work, there is a poetic flow which I hope to have captured in my work on the mosaic. I added red glass gems to pick up the majestic colour of Anne Lister’s heart pin,” says Becky.
“The inner ring contains the wording, ‘Justus propositi tenax’; just and true of purpose. Anne Lister had this engraved into the wood panelling in the Housebody (main room) of Shibden Hall. The writing underneath is, ‘in God is my (hope)’. The word ‘hope’ is written in code. After Lister’s death, when people tried to crack the code of her diaries, at some stage a scrap of paper was found with ‘in God is my (hope)’ written down. They had already cracked the vowels and assumed the word was hope. This led on to unravelling the whole code and discovering the extent of Anne Lister’s love life.”
“When it came to the sky there was no choice. It had to be gold. Gold to tie in with the stars and the heart pin, but more so, gold to create an ‘iconic’ look to the mosaic. In my opinion, the only colour to do justice to this warrior of a woman. Gold for glory.”
During Oxford Festival of the Arts, you can see Anne Lister’s portrait and other pieces by Becky on show in conjunction with Sally Wainwright in conversation with David Isaac. For more details visit artsfestivaloxford.org