Jenny Saville in her studio: A 2010 Beechwood Airship Interview
Jenny Saville is one of Britain’s most recognisable and celebrated artists, with a career of canvases exploring the human form, viscerally and graphically. She currently has an exhibition in London, and to mark this we publish a chapter from Dan Richards’ 2015 book The Beechwood Airship Interviews in which he meets Saville in her former studio space.

To coincide with a new exhibition of Jenny Saville paintings and works on paper at Gagosian’s Davies Street Gallery in London, we present a chapter from Dan Richard’s 2015 book The Beechwood Airship Interviews. In the book, Richards visited the creative spaces of unique British creatives including David Nash, Judi Dench, the Manic Street Preachers, Jane Bown, Stewart Lee and more.

He also visited Jenny Saville at her Oxford studio, a former industrial space in Oxford where she worked on countless canvases at once. Richards spoke to Saville about her approach and influences, exploring both the work and mind that makes it as well as the architecture it brings life to.

The Gagosian exhibition of Saville’s work, Ekkyklema, continues the artist’s exploration of the body, her cutting and segmenting it into frames on the canvas, collaging ideas of the physical and digital self. The pastel, charcoal, and acrylic works on display are not as large as the works created in the Oxford studio back in 2010, but are just as deep, with a layering of worlds within each work.


Jenny Saville
Brewer Street, Oxford
26 January 2010

Jenny Saville’s studio is in a quiet shaded lane that belies its central city location. A two-storey building; grey-fronted and anonymous.
Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland at Christ Church College, two minutes from here. My rabbit hole is rather unprepossessing – an ashen door with a burnt-out intercom. I clatter at the letterbox and wait, stamping my feet in the cold.
Descending footsteps. Jenny opens the door and I step in. To my left is a room of large, briefly glimpsed drawings and Charcoal pieces.

A set of stairs before me. We go up and Jenny makes tea. The first floor is spacious and open plan, lit by large windows and greenhouse-like skylights. The walls are white. In front of the walls are paintings.

At the top of the stairs is a three-metre-high work of a newborn baby, the umbilical cord snaking back to a splayed vagina and soapy legs. Along from this is a trolley stand stacked with books – magazines, newspaper paint swatches, photographs and journals. Notes, clippings and articles are stuck up on the walls while other torn-out pages are filed out on the floor – creative ‘compost’ as Francis Bacon dubbed it.[1]

Empty cigarette packets, turned to display pictures of cancer and disease – bad teeth, laryngeal tumours, black lungs – are lined up on a dado rail.
Below the packets is a radiator that bears a painterly impression of Jenny’s bottom – a Rorschach test pattern.
The studio, as well as being large, is freezing and Jenny explains she can only work for an hour or so before she starts to seize up. The radiator is where she warms herself and takes stock:

“This is where I stand, as you can see. I find that a cigarette is a perfect space to stand or sit and analyse what you’re doing – the length of a cigarette.”

Opposite the radiator are several explorations of a single subject – a face with a mangled mouth; eyes closed, taut waxen skin lit from below, rising from a writhing, exploded mess. There are three versions of this piece, a large charcoal drawing, a mostly monochrome painted scheme – some patches of intense red and peach/pine – and an enormous black and white painting, streaked and leaking, the running paint visible below the surface layer.
None of the three is explicit about what is going on with the mouth, the wound is elusive and seemingly out of focus – a flayed moment of abstract expressionism – a de Kooning maw.

The finished piece, Witness, has recently left the studio for a London show in honour of J.G. Ballard. I’ve just missed it:

“I think that show’s a brilliant thing to do because he was going to write my catalogue notes several times and I’ve got a lot of faxed letters from him – these great rejection letters from Ballard. (Laughs) Whenever I was asked who I’d like to write the catalogue I would always say, ‘Ballard. J.G. Ballard,’ but first his partner was ill and then he was ill and then he wrote a fantastic summary of my work but didn’t want to write the catalogue – I’ve still got that. Everyone I’ve told about it has said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to publish it’ – letters from Shepperton. I’ve got a really good interview with him that I taped off the radio. It’s from just after he wrote Cocaine Nights and he’s talking about the internet. Claire Walsh, his partner, was telling me how they used to watch a site where you can see the migration of swallows, a camera follows them. That was his favourite thing to watch.”[2]

We sit down on a pair of paint-specked chairs and I ask about the studio, how long she’s been here, and the differences between here and her previous workspace in Palermo, Sicily.

“In Palermo I had the guts of animals outside my studio window; the stench was amazing in the summer. That has an effect on the way you think about making work. When I first walked in here there was blossom on the trees and it had an airy feeling. I haven’t wanted to overload it so far, it’s quite pure for me to have a space like this with only the work and a few things up – normally the floor is a cascade of books, but they’re all still in boxes so I’ve quite enjoyed having a clearer head. I’ve noticed that, when I have a lot of reference material around, I tend to work a certain way, so I’ve tried to switch that around a bit and see what happens.”

Did you ever find yourself trying to get reference material into the work because it’s around you?

“Oh yeah, I collect a lot of bits of paint, like that thing there (points to a paint-smeared newspaper). I’ve got hundreds and hundreds of those, trying to get an effect of flesh – burnt flesh or when you slide one colour into another – they become like a word-coupling or a musician putting sounds together – it all eventually feeds in.
I used to go to the Hunterian Museum in London, part of the Royal College of Surgeons. I was a member of the Pathology Society there and they used to have a room for surgeons to practise new types of operations; so there was always a room which had corpses and I used to go in and wander around; and what I loved was that each head was wrapped in a plastic bag, a Sainsbury’s bag or a Tesco bag – obviously it depended upon what part of the body the surgeons were working on – the last time I was there they were working on something to do with the spine, but all the heads, bagged up. There was something so everyday about having a Sainsbury’s bag over your head at the end of your life.”

Jenny leads me to a table of paint tubs, each different, numbered and labelled.

“I’ve mixed these for a new piece. Because I work on such a large scale and on quite a few things at the same time, I make a series of tones and spend days studying one colour and mixing a large amount of that, shifting it so that I’ve got a core tone that can be moved around.”

Have you got huge vats of paint somewhere?

“Big tubs of white, yes, and I use kitchen knives, big old-fashioned things to mix with. I think the maximum I’ve ever made in a day is six or seven tones. That (points to paint on a glass-topped table) will be, for example, a side cheek and a panel of the neck, so I’ll mix up two tones to go near each other – one to move your eye right back and the other to pull you forward. It started as a way of painting more abstractly, but now I’ve got certain tones that I know are going to do a job in the painting. Once I’ve got those, they’ll shift and move around. The process came out of trying to keep something fluid in a larger scale.”

Do you see these paint tones as ‘movers’ rather than colours, then? You see them in the context of the actions they’ll perform, pushing and pulling the eye – a sculptural, kinetic thing?

“I started doing it because I thought about it as a sort of human paste; making big pots of liquid flesh. It’s like composing – painting is like playing music, I think; so certain notes I’ve already keyed and I know that, if I shift it, say, ‘Plus cerulean blue to the left, plus cadmium red deep to the right,’ I know that that’s going to move the tone in a certain way and I write that on the edge on the pot and I’ll keep it and I’ll get maybe six or seven pots and then I’ll do a session and I can be much freer with the actual painting because I know they’ll do the job.
If I want real space behind an ear, for example, I’ll work out exactly ‘more cold red, more ultramarine’ so that tone behind the ear will literally shoot back and do what I need it to do.”

You’ve always drawn and painted bodies?

“Always. I’ve always done that – anybody who would sit for me. My best friend at school was interested in French literature and she would come and read and I would do paintings and drawings and sculptures of her. Instead of revising at home, she would revise on my bed while I was doing drawings; the human figure has always been something I’ve been immediately drawn to.”

Were you always drawn to the viscosity and physicality of these materials too – the oils up here and the charcoal downstairs?

“Yes. I don’t mix my mediums much. I use linseed oil and genuine turps in the paint and that’s it. I know the strength of the paint I want and language just develops and develops. I look at other artists – I look at a lot more abstract painting than figurative – I look at very old figurative painting by the Old Masters and I look at abstract work from the last century. Abstract Expressionism; de Kooning’s are probably the paintings I look at most because they feel so incredibly modern, but he had to be abstract to get to what he wanted to get to and I don’t want to be completely abstract. When he tries to paint figures later on they become quite hilarious and monstrous and cartoon-like and I don’t want to go to that level. I want to find a way, a space to keep – not a tight realism but something very precise and serious about the body. I want to do that but also keep the abstract qualities of paint so that I’ve got those two things constantly rubbing next to each other.”


• • • • •

The first piece of Jenny Saville’s work I encountered was Strategy (South Face/Front Face/North Face) that was used as the cover of Manic Street Preachers’ 1994 album The Holy Bible. I remember listening to it in the art rooms at school – scrutinising the cover triptych, liner notes and lyrics – a symbiotic body.
Jenny collaborated with the band again recently, the painting Stare fronting Journal for Plague Lovers, an album written around lyrics left behind by disappeared member Richey Edwards.[3]

“The first time I did the Manics thing, I was living in Glasgow. I’d just done the show at the Saatchi Gallery and Richey Edwards called me up and we had a conversation about anorexia and I wasn’t initially keen on doing an album cover but then, after talking to him, I really wanted to do it because we had a lot of interests that were similar – about technology and the body, writers we liked – and he faxed me the lyrics to ‘4st 7lb’ and I read that and said, ‘I’ll do it. Use the triptych, you can have it.’
I didn’t realise it was going to become this incredibly cult album. People still ask me to sign that album cover when I give talks about my work; there’s always someone, in America or wherever, who brings The Holy Bible album along.”

Later that year, I ask Nicky Wire of the Manics about working with Jenny:

“She’s been so good to us, really. Amazing. I was really intimidated to meet her when she came to see us play Journal at the Roundhouse. You know, intimidated in a nice way but ... I was so impressed with her and actually more intrigued and indebted afterwards.
I feel a correlation with her in the sense that, for me, she’s by far the greatest modern British artist but sometimes she’s not seen that way because she’s never been associated with Tracey Emin or Damien Hirst, even though they sprang up at the same time; she’s out on her own. There’s something inside her that’s like ‘Oh, fuck the rest of you.’”

I was in the Roundhouse for that Journal for Plague Lovers gig and recall Nicky dedicating a song to Jenny, who was in the crowd, with the words ‘She’s taken a lot of shit for this cover and I don’t know why’ – a nod to the hysterical reaction of several supermarkets to the Stare sleeve; removing it from shelves, covering it up or refusing to stock it altogether.

“I didn’t know it was going to get the publicity that it got,” she says when I ask her about it. “I was shocked by the supermarket scandal because it’s quite a straight painting really. I thought it was interesting the way people reacted – ‘There’s blood on the face!’ Sorry, you’re made of eight pints of it, what’s so damaging about that?
In Italy the relationship with death is much closer. We’ve sanitised all those things. We don’t wash our parents’ bodies before burial here whereas in the south of Italy they still do that. I feel that’s the way the culture’s moved really, we haven’t learnt to deal with death. We’re all so paranoid about prolonging our lives for as long as possible ... I think we’re going to have a lot of tubular humans.”

• • • • •

Standing among these paintings, it strikes me that Jenny’s work, like J.G. Ballard’s, is ultimately concerned with the interzone between life and death. The work on the walls crackles with this enquiry, the energy worked into them, bunched and potential beneath the viscous skin.

Close up, the paint is meted, cut and spread – the movements caught and frozen; plains of colour conjoining and colliding. I point to the red swipe of an inside ear. These moments of raw colour, there are scrapes of blue on the nose and cheek of Stare that seem to up the ante of reality and abstraction at one and the same time.

“You can push the limits of it because you’ve got, say, this blue; the blue is there but I’ve pushed it, made it more extreme, but you can only go to a certain level of that and still keep a realism. You can go too far and have to come back – that’s what takes the time because ... (digs out a three tone swatch) here we are, I know I can put that, that and that in any combination and those two will swing your eye over and the third will be a background – when I’m actually painting I can start to run things through that; they’re what give you the extra heightened reality.
The artists I like always can combine and move the nature of the medium they work in – be it paint, music or whatever. Radiohead are so good, they have such a good musical craft that they can push it so even something like the Shipping Forecast, they’re able to take that and move it. The people I like understand the nature of the material they work in and the nature of life; it’s the combination of putting those things together, melding and mixing, pulling it all in, that I respond to.
I used to have stacks of cookery books because I found photographs of cookery and food were really luscious. I collected a lot of things like that – fashion magazines because they always soup-up the body, they make the mouths more luscious, give the eyes more shadows – you can take elements of that, hyperbolic fashion shoots which twist reality a certain way and, if you’ve got the right eye, you can take all that and do something very interesting with it that’s not just superficial. It can be anything; the stain left by a dropped Coca Cola on the floor – this human presence that’s been left on a pavement.”

You often have spatter and workings beneath your paintings – tea stains like scar tissue, paint running out of the frame.

“A lot of that’s from Velázquez. I’ve got a picture somewhere where he shifted the edge so that most of this surface is literally raw, and Bacon did that too – raw canvas he then drew on top of. I like the idea that the material of the canvas itself becomes part of the image – you’re not just using the surface as something to cover up. You see the stain where I’ve painted this here? The oil that’s gone into the paint has gone into the paper. I’ve tried to replicate that in paintings so many times because I think it shows a sort of present. You see where the paint has slightly lifted off the paper there?”

You’re celebrating the process, then, embracing the canvas for what it is and the oily paint likewise.

“I’m trying to get inside the mechanics of what paint is. I want paint to do something that only it can do. I know how to slide paint; how to put it on dry. I go through phases of wanting to use a lot of oil and slide the whole thing, really wet and then other times see the benefits of dragging dry paint over dry paint – the way it picks up the light slowly.”

The paint projecting to meet you.

“An unkempt surface. We live in a time where a lot of things are hermetically sealed – I like it when I activate a surface and that surface is unique, it can’t be replicated in any way. I think that’s very human, that interest and need.
I was reading recently about Leonardo drawing A mother and child, how it took him two years to do it. Today, hardly any artist working, apart from Frank Auerbach probably, spends two years making a drawing. Our ability as humans to physically move faster hasn’t changed from Leonardo’s time; if you’ve got one stick of charcoal or Conté crayon or whatever, the ability to make a drawing hasn’t really shifted, so I think it’s interesting that art’s shifted according to the necessity for human speed – maybe that’s why the majority of art now isn’t made over a long period of time.”

Is your work exceptional in regard to the time you spend on it?

“Yes, I think so. Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach – there are artists about who spend a lot of time on work. I don’t think there are a lot of people who’d choose to spend a lot of time on their own in a room, to be honest – not like this. I can spend three months mixing colours. Just mixing colours. Every day. And that’s before I’ve even got going. A lot of people don’t want to spend their days doing that.”

But you do.

“I realised that I wanted to do this very young. I knew I would be labouring over making one piece and that what I wanted to do took a long time and I felt a kinship with people like Auerbach who goes to the studio every day, the same thing. It can seem very dogmatic but at the same time you have to stay in that painting space – if you want to make paintings you have to be in front of a painting by and large – unless you’re Jeff Koons and you get eighty people making them – if you want that one-on-one, Bacon-esque battle with the surface, you’ve got to stay inside a room ... and you don’t really need a lot of other stuff around you; you need a bit of human contact so you don’t go mad, but actually it can be just a coffee with someone, a conversation on the telephone – enough contact so you’re linked but not so much that it consumes and distracts you. The Van Gogh letters at the RA recently were really interesting for that reason because Theo offered exactly the valve you need. Vincent just needed to get it out, to say, ‘I’m not completely isolated; I’m making this work and this is the progress,’ and his brother would say, ‘Okay, great. Send me some drawings.’ It was enough, a long piece of elastic so Vincent was out there but he wasn’t totally on his own.”[4]

“I used to get frustrated about painting, the fact that you’d make one painting and it’s just one and can only exist as that, whereas a lot of my friends were doing photography, what seemed a more versatile medium because it could exist in all different places, but now I feel completely different about that; I like that you make this singular object and it’s almost like a human performance – the trace of it. When you make a painting, every single bit of that process is in the document that’s left. It’s like speech almost, a collection of speech, so over the year of making a painting you’ve got a year of collected experience on the surface and that, for me, is an incredible document, and so to experience the work properly you have to see it in the flesh.
The Van Gogh show was incredible to see. The work that you’ve looked at in books a lot and think you know very well – some things are a bigger scale than you thought they were and the drawings are suddenly alive in the flesh.”

“The experience of having your body in front of the piece of work, I think that’s an entirely different thing from a reproduction, obviously.
If you stand in front of a great de Kooning you literally stand where he made that work. You can’t do that in another medium – you can’t do that with music. Even in writing, when you read a printed book, it transforms you and takes you somewhere else but you’re not actually in the creative moment, and I think painting is the closest you can get – apart perhaps from performance art – the closest to creation, if you like.”


• • • • •

The ground floor of the studio consists of a single open room stretching from concertina doors at the front to multi-paned windows at the back. Jenny’s drawing studio takes up about a quarter of the floor space – a curtain of clear plastic sheet hangs down to divide this portion off and contain the warmth of two electric fan heaters which buzz and tick beside us now as we stand, surrounded on three sides by large charcoal drawings of mother and child. Inspired by Leonardo da Vinci,[5] each cartoon is over-drawn to depict multiple scenes, like a triple-exposed film – the figures frozen in three acts. My eyes pick up and follow a line, a leg or a hand, and then recognise the rest of the drawing to which it belongs before skipping over to another detail or action. It’s quite disorientating and in these moments the babies seem to be multi-limbed and flailing ... and I realise, standing there, how quickly I’ve taken for granted how mind-blowing Jenny’s work is because I’m describing it as disorientating and hypnotic when what I should be telling you is what it’s like to stand with an artist in the space where she creates work that I imagine would delight the pillars of the Renaissance. It’s shock and awe. It’s awesome and very moving ... and I don’t want to jump ahead and spoil the end but I wasn’t able to revisit Jenny after this meeting and that aspect of this chapter – it being a unique four-hour encounter – means the details are rendered rich and vivid in my mind. We got a lot done, talked and walked around before the work, peered close where the paint became a livid landscape and smelt of sour gummy turps and stood back where the apparently disparate shards and pocks of paintings focused to form these remarkable wholes. We drank tea. We spoke about Duncan Jones’s film Moon, W.G. Sebald’s De Emigrés and I told Jenny about G.K. Chesterton’s essay ‘A Defence of Skeletons’[6] and then it was over and I was back out on the street and everything was prosaic by comparison for a long time afterwards, the focus and colour lost – as if I’d been drinking tea with a phoenix and now had to go back to rubbing two sticks together.

But I didn’t know that yet as we stood downstairs among the drawings.

“I’ve used drawing a lot but never really wanted to exhibit them, whereas these are different. I’m trying to make something where you can read several things all at the same time and it’s really from looking at the internet. You don’t have one stream of information now – not one and then another – it’s many things that exist and are seen together. You’d never get that from these drawings but that’s where my thinking came from; you can see the workings of ideas.”

The draughtsmanship is brilliant. Are you self-taught or did you get a lot from art school in this respect?

“I went to a very traditional art school. Life drawing every night from seven until nine. Thirty-six life drawings a term – whether you painted abstract, whatever you did. Obviously I liked it because I wanted to paint the figure.”

I’ve read that you teach, is that right? When did that start? Is it useful to you?

“I used to teach a lot more. I used to teach at the Slade, UCL, but I really prefer the school of Eileen Guggenheim in New York – a graduate figurative school. Warhol bankrolled it quite a bit at the start. You can go and do a class on how to paint like Velázquez, you can do sculpting directly from the figure. It’s very traditional but you learn tangible skills. I do a workshop there that I was taught when I was at art school; a tutor showed me how to mix colour and he made me make a painting with squares – mixing a tone and putting it down so you make a space invader figure. Each square had to be a tone. It forces you to think behind a shoulder – ‘How do you make tone a piece of space? How do you decide what that tone is going to be?’ There are no lines, just tone, and so I pass that on and they really struggle for about three days and then, after about the fifth day, they start to make progress because they’re then allowed to make half-squares, triangles, so you can do the edges of shoulders until, finally, you get something ... I always say to them, ‘You’re not making art. This has nothing to do with art. This is an exercise in looking.’”


“Yes! It’s about articulation. There’s not a lot of instruction in art schools now. People are quite ashamed of having skills, actually. I’ve always thought, ‘I want to show off as much as possible!’ (Laughs) I don’t really see why I should be apologetic about that. I want to articulate. I think that, if you’re intent on doing something, then you need to be able to articulate how to do it and ... you know, the amount of students I’ve had who’ve painted a broken hand or foot that they can’t articulate and have constructed a philosophy around that painting to justify it because they can’t do it. I think that’s part of the big problem with painting: there’s been a whole construct of ‘bad painting is good painting’. I find that annoying.”

Jenny trails off to a glum shrug. The fan heater clicks and whirs. The plastic sheet walls whisper and we stand there in silence for a moment.

Is most of your current work about pregnancy?

“No. I’d like to mix it up a bit. I don’t really want to do a ‘Mother’ thing. I’ve noticed from looking at art history that the notion of mother and child is very much a fantastical idea but it’s fucking visceral, giving birth; it’s unbelievable. You have a body coming out of your body. That is weird.”

I’ve always thought having a baby must be incredibly scary – this thing growing inside you, getting bigger – the amount of horror films based around that premise.


Eraserhead. Videodrome . . .

“What struck me most about Miracles of Life, Ballard’s last book, was that he talks about this baby arriving that’s a new life yet looks like it’s been there for centuries – such an ancient, animalistic thing. That was quite a shock, I didn’t know how I’d feel but you are absolutely an animal in that moment ... it was very close to painting and, it’s technical but I had a difficult birth; after my daughter was born a surgeon had to come and remove part of my stomach and all the placenta by hand – literally grabbing handfuls of placenta out of my body and putting it onto a table next to me. I was looking at that and, in that moment, I was in a Francis Bacon painting. I thought, ‘I am never going to make paintings in the same way again.’ It was incredible – seeing the inside of your body being pulled out. I could feel the surgeon’s hand at the top of my ribcage – while his arm was inside me.”

James Herriot stuff.

“Really like that, really profound; an incredibly intense moment. I’ve worked under medical light before, the feeling of medical light – so all the colours, the greens and the reds, are very intense, but at the same time I had just become a mother so I had just given birth to this little girl and I had all this going on at the same time. I saw painting everywhere.”

Did you feel detachment or absolute presence in the moment?

“I think I shifted between those things constantly. I remember thinking, ‘Look at that, Jenny; you’ve got to take that in, you’ve got to hold and watch that, that’s amazing. Look at the colours in that!’ At the same time my aunt’s holding my daughter and I was asking, ‘Is she alright? Is she okay?’ You know, ‘That’s my daughter! Isn’t she beautiful!’
I have noticed in life that I’ve had times where I’ve had a conscious feeling of trying to hold a moment, visually, because I’ve known it was important; even at a very young age.
I remember riding on a merry-go-round and seeing another little girl who’d cut her legs open because she’d fallen off her horse and I was going round – sitting with my dad on one of those golden horses that go up and down – getting snippets, coming round again and getting another snippet.”

With a jolly pipe organ soundtrack.

“Exactly. I remember thinking, ‘That’s really powerful,’ because everyone was looking and then you couldn’t see. I wanted to get round and see again. That’s very much the kind of animal/human – wanting to see something but being worried at the same time or repulsed. I remember the scene so vividly. I was obviously tuned in to that way of thinking even then because I knew that it was important, visually important to me, and I understood the mechanics of it and I must only have been four or five.”

I remember slamming my fingers in a car door when I was very young and my dad – in the way dads do – bought me a Crunchie chocolate bar to make it better. So now, every time I see a Crunchie I have that memory and a slight twinge, a feeling of pins and needles. I remember looking down at the dent in my fingers, squished right down . . . that moment before the pain hits. You get a split second of perfect clarity.

“Yes, exactly, and I think that sometimes I paint with that in mind. That moment.”


• • • • •

Jenny leads the way into the larger room beyond, pushing through the plastic sheets,[7] revealing a space dominated by multiple versions of the painting Stare. The faces gaze out, each with a dazed expression somewhere between ‘Have I left the gas on?’ and ‘I’ve just cut off my thumb.’ The expression lives in the moment of a child’s confusion – the split second between the fall and the tears, the crash and the blood.

I tell Jenny I’m amazed she’s able to redraw and repaint the same image over and over – each individual yet retaining an essence.

“I know that mouth back to front now. Each one; but I’m quite pleased that I’m finishing them because I’ve painted this head an awful lot of times now.”

The textures here are really meaty.

“They’re all going to be shown together. I became interested in video phones a few years ago and early MSN messaging; you’d see somebody break apart and pixilate, leave part of their flesh over there and you’d try with your eye to get the head to come back together again.”

Where did the source material for Stare come from?

“It’s from a medical book that I had a long time ago. I use Photoshop a lot to shift the colours around so I did a blues and greens version and I did drawings of it – it had everything I needed. It had a mouth that I love, a landscape map-face, one ear that almost holds up the painting so you can shift the head.”

The ellipse of the shirt is great.

“Exactly, it’s a good rocker at the bottom. So it’s got a lot of elements to it – the shadow of the nose – a lot of things where you can get good shapes going, so really it was an indulgence being able to concentrate on the paint, being allowed to make these landscape figures.”

When you’re preparing a show, do you arrive with some Paintings or do people know what’s coming?

“I don’t have a lot of people coming into the studio because I like to get the work the way I want it before I show it.
I have the link to the gallery, the person who looks after my work, and I talk to them regularly – a few times a week – but I’ve tended not to have somebody coming in to say, ‘I’d like to show that and I’d like to show that.’ There’s nothing like that. They say, ‘Are you going to be ready in September?’ and I always push it. I’ll say, ‘I don’t know, I’ll tell you in March.’ And then, in March, I’ll say, ‘Can we go for Spring next year?’ They’re used to me and I know that there is an elastic level that I can get to but, once I’ve made the commitment to that show date and said, ‘Okay, let’s do that,’ they book the trucks and then I know I’ve got to get it done.”

I saw a film of trucks coming to take the panels of David Hockney’s Bigger Trees Near Warter at Tate Britain recently.

“I’ve had guys have to have cups of tea in my kitchen because I’ve said, ‘I’m not ready, you’ll have to wait a bit.’”

Hours or days?

“I get them to take the paintings piecemeal so, say it’s eight paintings, they’ll take three first and then they’ll come and get another two and then another two and it goes like that for about six weeks.”  

Is that to get them out of the space or so you won’t fiddle with them?

“So I can’t fiddle. I can’t juggle them all at the same time, but in one case the last truck was coming to pick up the last two and I only let them take one. I said, ‘The other one’s not done,’ but the whole show was pivoted around that piece and I didn’t have a lot of work so it wasn’t as if you could leave anything out. The person at the gallery had to find a military airbase in Scotland to fly the last painting to New York.
I had a taxi outside my studio door and then I went, covered in paint, to Heathrow and got changed at the airport and the painting went to the airbase.”

Was it on a military flight?

“It was a cargo flight that went out of a military base. It was the only flight that was going – the other ones had to go to Frankfurt first because they were too big to go in a regular cargo plane. I know what the biggest size you can get on a cargo plane is because I’ve pushed for the canvas stretcher to be as big as it could go . . . but I’m not so dramatic as that any more. I used to love the drama of that, you know (mad staring eyes), ‘I need more time! Arrrgh!’”

I’m an artist!

“Exactly. ‘I’m not ready! You can’t have it!’ The gallery person is freaking out because they’re going to get killed for not getting that painting on the truck, and they are also tied by ‘But we need to respect you because you’re an artist . . .’ so you’ve got this bit of elastic where you’re pulling ‘Arrgh! I can spend another night on the nose . . .’ Then you get to New York and everything arrives, or you get there and they’re still locked in customs and you’re going, ‘What the fuck!? Where the fuck are they!?’ It tends to always work out in the end ... but I don’t know if that’s really the best way to make art. It’s okay when you’re in your twenties and you’ve got tons of energy and don’t sleep for two weeks at a time but I think, once you get a bit older, it’s much better to let the work generate itself together. But I know of people who, I mean, Giacometti couldn’t let anything out of his studio – for years he wouldn’t let anything go.”

• • • • •

I think of Rothko exhibiting in his Bowery studio and then to the book Jenny published with Rizzoli whose pages were filled with images of her own workspace – glimpses of mirrors, ladders and platforms. Is Jenny still up and down scaffolds?
I wonder.

“I am but I haven’t worked on anything huge for a while. In Palermo I built a second floor on wheels. It had a palette table, the whole thing at different levels, but what I really want is to buy a studio and have a hole dug in the floor so I can let the painting down and up because I find that when I paint on a scaffolding I don’t paint as well because I can’t walk back to look. I like being on the ground. I want an inspection pit! I’ve tried painting sideways but you get a slightly wonky head, so now I make the effort to go up and down a ladder. It’s a lot, though, up and down for every single mark.”

Do you have to think more in terms of landscapes when you’re painting sideways?

“Yes, or an abstract painting. Thinking of space and the ways things work in space. I’ve tried multiple ways of working – collapsible scaffolding, second floors, ladders ... ladders in the end are the things that I like but I don’t have the same desire to make enormous paintings. I’ll make paintings the scale of that wall, but it’s an enormous emotional job to make a painting on that scale, getting it to work. I suppose my equivalent of that is having seven or eight heads on the go at the same time, which is what I’ve got going on with these Stares. I’ll probably come back round to large work again but, you know, I’ve got two babies now so ...”

You’re busy.

“Yeah. To do that was pretty gruelling, physically. Maybe I’ll do another one in a couple of years but I like this current scale. It’s a good scale for me.”

It’s still relatively massive, you know! (Laughter)

“I do get kinda shocked. I saw a painting I did called Hyphen – my sister and myself, heads, and I loved making that painting, I really flew. I was at the top of my game and had a great studio in London – I’d forgotten the paint was so thick, you know? I was trowelling it on. Everything is quite precise, I get the paint in the right place, but I don’t think I could make that painting now; not in the same way. I remember the studio had fantastic lino floor tiles from the sixties and I pulled them up, they were bendy. You could get the paint on and literally go like that with it (mimes smearing paint up and over with a lino squeegee) – sort of like plastering but it gave the same feeling as when a plastic surgeon pulls the flesh, so I was getting a tension and able to use the paint in a sculptural sense on the surface. I’d ripped up all the floor tiles in that studio by the end.”

• • • • •

I fully intended to revisit Jenny to take photographs of her space but it never quite happened. She disappeared back into her world of work and the lines of communication petered out ... and then the Brewer Street studio, Rorschach radiator and all, was demolished to build student accommodation.

Nothing remains today.


[1] Paragraph 1, xiv, Francis Bacon; Anatomy of an Enigma, Michael Peppiatt (Constable & Robinson, 2009).

[2] J.G. Ballard lived in Shepperton from 1960 until his death in 2009. The sage of the future possible sat before a suburban typewriter. In his autobiography, Miracles of Life, he wrote of being drawn to the place because of the nearby film studios ‘which gave it a slightly raffish air’ – and there he remained. One day, some years ago, I walked around Shepperton for several hours looking vaguely for his house, although I had no idea of his address. Looking back, I think I was exploring the space to prove it existed; tracing out patterns on an unseen map; listening for a hum like that of a distant fridge; swivelling my antennae like a moth.

[3] Richey Edwards was lyricist and guitarist in Manic Street Preachers. He wrote the majority of the lyrics on the band’s 1994 album The Holy Bible. A contradictory man – robust, verbose and fiercely intelligent; distant, fragile, anorexic with a propensity to self-harm – he vanished in February 1995 on the eve of an American tour. Never found and was declared ‘presumed deceased’ in November 2008.  Manic Street Preachers continued on as a three-piece, had number one records and sold millions of albums. The album Journal for Plague Lovers, composed entirely of lyrics Edwards left behind, was released in 2009.

[4] The Real Van Gogh: The Artist & His Letters, The Royal Academy, London, 21 January–18 April 2010. Blurb: ‘The Royal Academy of Arts presents a landmark exhibition of the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890). The focus of the exhibition is the artist’s remarkable correspondence. ‘Over thirty-five original letters, rarely exhibited to the public due to their fragility, are on display; together with around sixty-five paintings and thirty drawings that express the principal themes to be found within the correspondence.’

[5] Specifically, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin & Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, also known as The Burlington House Cartoon (1506–08).

[6] ‘One would think it would be most unwise in a man to be afraid of a skeleton, since Nature has set curious and quite insuperable obstacles to his running away from it.’ – ‘A Defence Of Skeletons’, The Defendant, G.K. Chesterton (R. Brimley Johnson, 1902)

[7] The sheeting is similar to that in cold stores and abattoirs, although this similarity will only occur to me later.

Dan Richards is an artist, writer and journalist based in Edinburgh. His first book, Holloway, co-authored with Robert Macfarlane & illustrated by Stanley Donwood, was a Sunday Times Bestseller (Faber, 2013). In The Beechwood Airship Interviews (HarperCollins, 2015), Dan explored the creative process, head-spaces and workplaces of some of Britain’s most celebrated artists, craftsman and technicians including Bill Drummond, Dame Judi Dench, Jenny Saville, Manic Street Preachers, Jane Bown & Stewart Lee. Climbing Days, his third (Faber 2016), saw him set out on the trail of his pioneering great-great-aunt and uncle, Dorothy Pilley & I.A. Richards. Following in the pair's foot and hand-holds, Dan travelled across Europe, using Dorothy’s 1935 mountaineering memoir as a guide. Ending up atop the mighty Dent Blanche in the high Alps of Valais.
Outpost: A Journey to the Wild Ends of the Earth (Canongate, 2019), explored of the appeal and pull of far-flung shelters in mountains, tundra, forests, oceans and deserts; landscapes and which have long inspired adventurers, pilgrims, writers & artists. His next book, Overnight, is set to be published in 2025 on Canongate.
Dan has written about travel and culture for various newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Esquire, Economist & Monocle. He teaches creative non-fiction at The National Centre for Writing and Arvon Foundation.

Jenny Saville was born in 1970 in Cambridge, England, and lives and works in Oxford, England. Collections include Tate, London; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Seattle Art Museum; Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego; and The Broad, Los Angeles. Recent exhibitions include Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Roma, Rome (2005); Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida (2011, traveled to Modern Art Oxford, England, through 2012); Egon Schiele– Jenny Saville, Kunsthaus Zürich (2014–15); Jenny Saville Drawing, Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, University of Oxford, England (2015–16); Now, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (2018); George Economou Collection, Athens (2018–19); and Museo Novecento, Museo di Palazzo Vecchio, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Museo degli Innocenti, and Museo di Casa Buonarroti, Florence, Italy (2021–22).


Dan Richards’ book The Beechwood Airship Interviews, is available from HarperCollins at the link below, as well as good bookshops:

Jenny Saville, Ekkyklema, is exhibited at Gagosian, 17-19 Davies Street, London, until 10 February 2024.
Full details at:


fig.i Jenny Saville: Ekkyklema, installation view, 2023. © Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo: Lucy Dawkins. Courtesy Gagosian.
fig.ii Jenny Saville: Study for Ekkyklema II, 2023. Watercolor, pastel, and pencil on watercolor paper. 22 7/16 x 29 15/16 inches (57 x 76 cm). © Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2023Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian.
fig.iii Jenny Saville. Ekkyklema, 2023Pastel on linen. 23 3/4 x 27 1/2 inches (60.2 x 69.7 cm). © Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian.
fig.iv Jenny Saville. Ekkyklema, 2023. Pastel on linen. 23 3/4 x 27 1/2 inches (60.2 x 69.7 cm). © Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2023. Photo: Prudence Cuming Associates Ltd. Courtesy Gagosian.
fig.v Jenny Saville: Ekkyklema, installation view, 2023. © Jenny Saville. All rights reserved, DACS 2023, Photo: Lucy Dawkins. Courtesy Gagosian.

publication date
04 December 2023

Frank Auerbach, JG Ballard, Birth, Body, Canvas, Child, Demolition, Willem de Kooning, Richey Edwards, Gagosian, Human body, Huntarian Museum, Manic Street Preachers, Oxford, Paint, Painting, Palermo, Pregnancy, Radiohead, Dan Richards, Jenny Saville, Studio, The Beechwood Airship Interviews, Vincent van Gogh, Claire Walsh, Nicky Wire