In conversation with SGFA Past President Jean Canter

Canter Jean Surrey Oaks III Early Spring(1)Jackie Devereux took the opportunity to talk in depth with Jean Canter Hon SGFA, who as a renowned and respected artist is one of the  longstanding members of the Society of Graphic Fine Art.  Her decades of dedication to the Society included being a successful and popular President and newsletter editor.  Her story includes some little known background to the SGFA.

When did your first interest in art manifest itself?

At about the age of two when I discovered the joy of making marks on paper. This was encouraged by my parents; my father supplied plenty of paper, and there were frequent trips to the National Gallery with my mother. At age ten I enrolled for Saturday morning classes at Epsom Art School, and there gained the 13+ Junior Art Award. Becoming a full time student at that age was something of a culture shock after eight years at a convent. At sixteen I gravitated into the Design Department, but after a year decided that commercial design was ‘not for me’. Ironically, at eighteen I applied to Wimbledon Art School and a place was offered in the Design Department, as I was deemed ‘not suited to the Painting Department’!

Have you ever been involved in commercial aspects of art, commissioned illustration work for example?

The only class I really enjoyed at Wimbledon was Illustration, and I was lucky enough to get some work quite quickly with the Oxford University Press for a book called ‘Miscellany One’, but in the 1960s most illustration was in black and white, and at this time I was more happy working in colour. This nervousness was partly overcome by a short spell as an Assistant to a Scraperboard artist, and the discovery that black ink drawing could be corrected!

My first full-time job was as a Colourist for a firm of Antique Print Dealers in South Kensington. Several years later at the Royal Academy’s Turner Bicentenary Exhibition it dawned on me what I had been dealing with: First Edition prints by Turner, Girtin, Cox, Cotman, Bonnington, Prost, J D Harding and David Roberts – all of whom may have handled those very same prints. It was also a revelation to discover that many of the early watercolourists had learnt to use the medium by colouring prints!

Who has been a major influence on your work?

At Epsom Art School it was Jock Heath, Head of the Junior Department. At Wimbledon it was Arthur Rackham and Tolkien. For teaching, it was the great watercolourists and the drawings of Claude’s ‘Liber Veritatus’, Constable’s pencil drawings, David Roberts’ Holy Land lithographs and J D Harding’s Tree lithographs, which had a direct influence on my love of landscape.

The one thing I never wanted to do was teach, but in 1971, now working for the Print Dealer on a freelance basis, I had no excuse for refusing to deputise at a friend’s Adult Education painting class – and loved it! So when asked to start a Watercolour Class, there was no hesitation in accepting and there in Epsom, with many other courses to plan and run, I stayed for 35 years……..

Having got into teaching by accident, it was my then Head of Art, Ken Bates, who had the greatest influence of all. His practical attitude to teaching and fund of knowledge taught me more about the real art world than all my years at Art School. Through teaching I began to exhibit, and when Ken was elected to the SGA  — Society of Graphic Art (as it was then) — I realised it was also the right Society for me.

What has so far been your most important achievement?

For two or three years the SGA had left the Federation of British Artists, and the RSA gallery was not large enough for an Open Exhibition, so when I applied for Membership in January 1977 Ken warned me not to be disappointed at rejection, as I had never exhibited as a non-Member. Collecting my work between afternoon and evening classes, I floated on air back to the Centre to tell him that now I was also a Member. At the time, I was apparently the youngest to be elected and the first who had never previously exhibited as a non-member. This has happened to a lot of other artists, some undoubtedly a lot younger than I was then – but it was nice to be the first!

A while later at a Royal Watercolour Society Event Day I met, unknowingly, Hazel Harrison from Quarto Publishing, who subsequently contacted me about her new book ‘The Encyclopaedia of Watercolour Technique’. This led to producing illustrations for many other books, some articles for ‘Artists & Illustrators’ magazine, and then regular ‘Drawing Class’ feature for ‘Painting World’ magazine. I loved doing those, and along with the other contributors was very upset at the magazine’s unnecessary demise.

When coaxed into trying miniature painting, initially I was not too enamoured with working quite that small, but seeing them at the Royal Miniature Society exhibition, the Medici Gallery invited me to take part in their Annual Summer Miniatures Exhibition. When, after eight years, they discontinued them I was accepted for the Llewellyn Alexander Gallery’s ‘Million Brushstrokes’ exhibition, and it was from there that I was persuaded to apply for membership to the RMS. My surprise and delight at being elected an Associate Member so quickly was doubled when one of my paintings receive a Gold Memorial Bowl Honourable Mention. Now I can apply for full Membership, so must bare my ARMS and produce six of the best!!

Do you feel your style has changed over the years, and where do you see it developing?

My style has not basically changed – I’ve always loved detail, and often spent a lot of time putting it in, then nearly as much time taking some of it out!

Ideally, I would produce a lot more of it, but as carer for my 92-year-old mother, the more experimental work planned is having to be postponed.

What would you change about your life as an artist if you could wave a magic pen?

Having a tidier studio – 35 years of accumulated teaching clutter is still being sorted; not having to spend hours every year producing accounts for a tax return; a 32-hour day, and a ban on the phrase ‘artistic licence’!

What major changes have you seen within the Society during your membership?

Mostly, no longer receiving job applications from people assuming we were a design consortium! And our major change in the early 1980s of the Society’s name. After much discussion, Ken Bates’ suggestion for the addition of ‘Fine’ — going from ‘Society of Graphic Art’ to ‘Society of Graphic Fine Art’ — was agreed upon and implemented, as it was felt to define our aims more clearly and did not change the initials too radically.

The Society moved back to the Federation of British Artists shortly before my election – there we remained until the early 1980s, when eighteen of their Societies were asked to leave. As they had lost our beautiful Ballot Box and a lot of our early Archives, there was, inevitably, a lot of dissension. Joining the Council in 1981 we had a very difficult few years finding another gallery and having to do everything ourselves. We also lost a lot of our best members, and by the mid 1990s were at our lowest ebb, having strayed too far from our roots. When I became President in 1994 it was a case of hauling us back on track, raising morale and attracting new members, all on a tiny budget. Dorothy Cross and Ruth Mantle did wonders for us at the Artists & Illustrators’ 1994 Trentham Gardens Exhibition and, with Stephen Hembley, at the NEWC in 1995. Valerie Warren started the Newsletter and arranged visits and painting weekends, and with the Knapp Gallery becoming increasingly expensive and shabby, Reg Fisher found us the Art Connoisseur Gallery. With Geraldine Jones as an excellent Vice President who wrote a great deal of very good publicitymaterial, Maz Jackson’s huge Artists’ General Benevolent Institution exhibition in Norfolk, Michael Taylor followed by David Brooke as our ‘Honourable Treasurers’, Sharon Curtis as our wonderful overworked and underpaid Secretary and a lot of help from Art Moves of Chelsea……..we survived!

When the Art Connoisseur closed, we moved to Lauderdale House in Highgate, which solved the problem of where to hold the AGM, and there we remained into David Brooke`s Presidency, when we moved our Annual Exhibition to Bath and had smaller members-only exhibitions in London. Under David’s guidance the Society continued to grow in strength, attracting work of increasingly high standard. With Roger’s presidency we have taken another great leap forward with the Annual Exhibition bringing entries of a higher quality every year, with more out-of-town exhibitions, excellent publicity and a strong and hardworking Council. So although the last three presidents may have retired in a state of exhaustion, seeing the Society in such a flourishing and healthy state makes all the past struggles worthwhile.

Thank you Jean, on behalf of myself and the Members. JD

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The Society of Graphic Fine Art
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