HARRY JONAS: my mentor
I first met Harry Jonas in the mid 1980’s. I was a volunteer social worker in Islington, and a message came through the office that an ancient artist who thought he was the best painter in Britain needed some assistance. I had heard of him some years before, because one of my cousins had her portrait painted by him in the 1970’s. However, to my regret, I did not follow up this lead for another 10 years.
When I first met Harry, he made a vivid impression on me. Though old and frail and in his 90’s, and also very untidy, his mind was sharp and his voice clear. He was immediately interesting and full of wit and warmth. I started visiting him regularly, and though I was not much use to him, I did some shopping and ran a few errands. In the main, it was company that he wanted and so we used to chat away for hours. He had so many stories and experiences to relate. It was a well that never ran dry.
He lived in quite a grand apartment on the ground floor of an old Georgian House in Myddelton Square, just behind Saddlers Wells theatre. He had arrived there, because he had been a sitting tenant in Maple St, in central London when they redeveloped the Tottenham Court and Euston roads. The developers had to find him good accommodation at a low rent. This was a perfect studio, spacious and quiet. Passing through the front room, which was Harry’s bedroom, you found yourself in this very large high ceilinged room with big skylights. Perfect for painting. There were many easels with paintings on them, because Harry had become a picture restorer for the Catholic church in his old age. The room was full of junk, much of it antique furniture. I remember in particular a spectacular gilded and embroidered screen with bevelled glass windows. There was also a good grand piano that Harry used to play, though he was not a trained pianist.
There were other rooms off this main studio, including a kitchen, bathroom and other store rooms. One entire room was full of picture frames, from his work as a restorer. There was also a small walled garden. By the time I knew Harry, he had largely stopped using all but his bedroom, and the rest of the place was like an attic stuffed with interesting junk. It was also extremely cold, because he could only afford to heat his bedroom.
I was lucky to know Harry at the end of his long life, because he had distilled a lot of knowledge. He sometimes forgot a word as he was speaking, like a lot of old people. As I do these days. As he was searching for the word he described his mind as a library where all the books had fallen off the shelves, and he had to get down on his knees and look through them for an answer... which he invariably found some time later.
One of his main ideas about painting was what he called “Dynamic Composition”. The geometry was paramount in the construction of a painting. In simple terms this meant that a strong diagonal would indicate movement and a strong vertical would signify stillness. Of course in a complex composition one would have a whole mosaic of directions. He thought the most complex and difficult pictures were multi-figured compositions. His great hero was Leonardo, who combined all of the qualities. Harry thought he was the first great modern painter, as he thought Beethoven the first great modern composer.
His main interest in the history of Art were the early Italian painters. He particularly liked Giotto, (brilliant at dynamic composition), also the Lorenzetti brothers and Veneziano. I inherited his collection of books on early Italian painting, which he used to delve into a lot.
One of the other techniques which Harry often used, was to use pastels when making a change or correcting an oil painting. Pastels are as strong in colour as oil paints, so that they can give a good correction on the painted surface. I used to worry that the pastel would make the oil paint lumpy but in practice it just disappears into the oil.
Harry’s main concern with painting was feeling or atmosphere. Being a portrait painter and brilliant at drawing, he was always able to get the proportions correctly. He said the main problem, after all the preparation, was to bring the image to life. This was a difficult process and sometimes did not happen. He used to say that after he had painted a portrait the person was never the same again. I think what he meant was that the process of painting a portrait and getting to know someone was almost like a psychological breakthrough. Certainly Harry was a devout Christian and seemed to have a spiritual sense about everything, but particularly about people.
I used to bring my inexperienced paintings for Harry to look at. He was always respectful and helpful and correctly identified me as a painter of icons. This is because I have a tendency to paint compositions head on, which is a feature of primitive art. I had very little awareness of this but Harry was such a great guide and mentor that it seemed you had made the discovery all by yourself.
He took no credit for making you more aware of yourself.