Alex Galbinski speaks to artist Beverley-Jane Stewart, whose first solo exhibition next week explores the dual identity of Jews in Britain
The paintings of Beverley-Jane Stewart, who knew from the age of nine that she wanted to be a professional artist, look in detail at Jewish life in a multicultural Britain. Stewart’s paintings and etchings will be on display at her first solo exhibition, Spirit Recaptured, at the Trinity House Gallery in Mayfair from 8 to 17 September.
Her early work, such as Queen’s Silver Jubilee, Albert Gardens E1, and The Voice Of Freedom – Nelson Mandela, portrays specific historical scenes of London life and the relationship of buildings to people and gained her several awards. In later years, her focus turned to synagogue services, as portrayed in Dollis Hill Synagogue and The Wedding Scene.
Stewart, who has a degree in Education and Art from Wimbledon College, became interested in painting shuls after hearing that her synagogue in Brixton – near to Clapham Common where she grew up – was closing down.
“The interesting thing about a synagogue is it’s a time warp,” she explains. “No matter what’s going on outside, inside it’s got so much history of time that hasn’t changed. I find that such an interesting contrast.”
More recently, her work goes beyond the synagogue’s walls, linking it with the world outside. In her paintings of Leeds and of the East End, for example, she shows the services being conducted in the synagogues, but says “there’d be the mosque, the temples, the churches…” she adds.
“It’s showing where we are today and how we had the journey from the beginning to where we are now. The East End was about the past and the present, and about personalities of places. A building could start as a Huguenot church, it changes into a synagogue and then it becomes a mosque.”
Describing herself as a “visual writer”, Stewart says: “I tell a story. My latest work is about how Jews have connected with British society, kept their identity and have contributed towards Britain, but at the same time have that faith in our multicultural world.
“In life you can have more than one identity, but people label others as having just the one identity. People may wear different clothes – for example, many Muslims might wear different clothes but they still identify as being British.
“Many of the Orthodox think of themselves as British and Jews. It’s the same with women – they’re mothers, they’re professional people …and yet they get labelled with just the one.”
Through her work, the former primary school teacher tries to emphasise a positive image of multiculturalism, adding: “It makes the community richer.” While the ideas come to Stewart quickly, the research on her subjects is as meticulous as the art itself, explaining why her output is limited to around three or so paintings a year.
As the Grove End Road Synagogue member says: “I’m trained as an abstract artist, so I think quite quickly in abstract terms and then I put in the detail. My style is very intricate and very detailed and I have to do quite a lot of research. That’s why I’m a visual writer. I try to imagine the scene and bring it to life so people can identify with it.”
Stewart, who now lives in West Hampstead, conducts interviews and immerses herself in the history of her subjects. For her portrayal of Plymouth, she visited the naval base, looked at what the boats would have been like, interviewed relevant people, went to libraries, including the Greenwich marine library and looked at visual material.
“If I’m going to do a synagogue, I want people to recognise it as that synagogue.
“I’m not just doing a synagogue as a general concept, it’s a specific one in a specific place with a specific history,” she explains. “And I’m trying to tell that history.”