50 years and Moor

Picture perfect: Ashley Jackson at Top Withins, West Yorkshire.
Picture perfect: Ashley Jackson at Top Withins, West Yorkshire.
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ASHLEY Jackson has had his paintings presented to four British prime ministers and an American president. He once exhibited with Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso and he became great friends with LS Lowry after the legendary painter walked unannounced into his Barnsley gallery one day.

“I said ‘Jesus Christ’,” recalls the 72-year-old. “And he said ‘Not quite, young man, you may call me Mr Lowry’.”

But perhaps Ashley Jackson’s proudest moment remains receiving a letter in February 1963 – from the clerk of Dodworth Urban District Council.

“I’d just opened my first gallery in a pub outhouse,” he says. “And he wrote thanking me for bringing culture to the district.”

That was 50 years ago.

Today, Ashley, famed for his watercolours of the Yorkshire moors, is recalling those early days. He is speaking to The Diary to mark half a centenary since he opened that gallery in the backyard of the Thornley Arms in Dodworth High Street – and, thus, set off on a road to international recognition and riches.

“Photographers from the national press came to the opening,” says the grandfather-of-four who grew up in the centre of Barnsley. “They were fascinated a 22-year-old was opening a gallery behind a miners’ pub.”

If it was a humble beginning (“one quid a week rent agreed with a handshake”), it was also a successful one.

Punters refused to be put off by the pub’s two Alsatians tied up in the yard and everyone from miners to church men flocked to buy Ashley’s watercolours.

It was a sign of the future.

In the last five decades, apart from having his paintings given to Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, he’s also exhibited across the globe (including that show with Dali and Picasso, and another at London’s world renowned Mall Galleries), had a train named after him and made his own TV series. Oh, and he’s also earned the right to tell people to “bugger off”.

“Lowry said you know when you’re successful because if someone is boring, you can tell them to bugger off and no-one says anything,” laughs Ashley. “Well, I’m a Barnsley boy and I’ve done that all my life anyway.”

More importantly, perhaps, his paintings depicting everywhere from Stoodley Pike to Slack Bottom have continued to be popular with the public.

“I’m working class, and that’s important,” he says.

He left Dodworth in 1970 to set up a gallery in Church Street, Barnsley centre. Then he opened up a second place in Holmfirth in 1978, and moved to the town. He closed the Barnsley venue in 2008 to focus on one gallery.

And now? In this anniversary year he’s refusing to slow down.

He suffered a collapsed lung recently and doctors told him to stay off the moors. His compromise is not to go in February – “but I love painting them too much to stop,” he notes.

His wife Anne incidentally, is happy with that. She’s been by his side since they married in 1962.

“Marrying an artist is like marrying a weirdo, so she understands,” says Ashley. “I don’t plan on ever retiring.”

An exhibition is running at Cusworth Hall, Doncaster.