Still Life (White) signed J G McNulty 1986, oil on canvas 31 x 51 cm

This is another example of the difference a frame makes. When we cleared Jenny’s studio after she died we found, in a box full of miscellaneous works, a painting in oils on canvas, with no stretcher or other protection. It showed 6 pots and a paper cone in a triangular arrangement. It was (treatment of paint and background apart) virtually identical to a painting which had long hung, unframed, in Jenny’s sitting room. There was no visible title, signature or date. To see it, as it were naked, in a box when the rest of her oil paitings were carefully framed or wrapped, made us wonder if she had meant to keep it and if so why: to be frank, it looked rather sad.

Five years later, with the benefit of experience, we framed it for its protection. We had found a photo album Jenny had made of her oil Still Lifes, perhaps in 1999. She had written ‘White 1983’ on the back of of a photo of this and ‘Sketch 1990’ on the one which had been hanging unframed in the studio, so she was keeping it for a reason. But when framing it we discovered a signature and a date – 1986 (sic).

Still Life (Sketch) 1990 oil on canvas 36 x 30 cm

I blogged about why she had created two very similar works, and made up a story to explain their titles. It was completely speculative and I now think wrong. But part of the confusion was because, unframed, Still Life (White) looked distinctly yellow. Now, framed, it is indeed white. Framed, we see why it had to be kept.

We have now found another two versions, in oils, of the same arrangement, a dark version in thicker paint, a gouache also dated 1990 which bears a family resemblance in objects and form. All were in a folder of etchings in the print chest. This posed another question: had they been forgotten or was there a reason for keeping them with etchings of pots?

As an Art Executor it is salutary to remind myself how little I, or anyone now, can know about Jenny’s art or her working methods. These works might all be studies – but three of the five are more or less identical. Are there so many because she was commissioned to do them, for example, or could she be thinking of making an etching of the arrangement? Or was she simply not satisfied with the previous versions and why was that? If this is typical of her perfectionism how much she must have destroyed of her preliminary work for her other oils!

So I know now that my blog about ‘Sketch’ and ‘White’ is wrong in so many ways. I leave it up as a salutary reminder that while I need to construct a narrative to try to place her art in context I can never be certain that I’m right. I have to navigate between an explanation of what I think she intended and respecting what might have been her wishes: if these are studies would she have wanted them exposed? Essential questions about her art can never now be known. But I think I did get one thing right. Just as when learning her trade as a printmaker Jenny experimented with every aspect of the process, so with these five works, she is trying different treatment in brush stroke, paint thickness and colour. If ‘Sketch’ is the final triumph then the title is telling us how it was accomplished. (possibly!)