Jane Ray: Illustrations for the Nightingale Project

by | Sep 12, 2017 | IBBYLink Spring 2017

Detail from Green Tree.
Copyright © 2016 Jane Ray and the Nightingale Project

Judith Philo

An exhibition at: South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Centre
1 Nightingale Place, London SW10 9NG
Opening hours: Monday to Friday 9am to 6pm
Exhibition continues until 21 April 2017

Jane Ray is IBBY UK’s nomination for the 2018 Hans Christian Andersen Award for her work as an illustrator. Melvin Burgess is the nominee for the category of author. These awards are the most prestigious in the international world of children’s books.

The enchantingly entitled Nightingale Project, presumably in homage to Florence Nightingale, is a charity. Founded in 1998, their patron is Quentin Blake. In collaboration with numerous artists their aim is to promote the ‘therapeutic use of high quality arts in healthcare’, which they do by presenting temporary exhibitions in waiting rooms and supporting the creation of works of art for long-term use in hospital wards. In this way, these environments are transformed for the people who use them, patients, visitors and staff, and become attractive welcoming areas, rather than reflecting the characterless features of an institution.

The illustrations that Jane Ray produced for the Nightingale Project currently grace the walls of the Outpatient Department (details above). As you enter the department the presence of the paintings is immediately apparent. Four paintings entitled ‘Foliate Heads’ lead you forward. The first one gives an impression of someone who is withdrawn, in a deep sleep, her mouth drooping. She wears a simple white shift. Her hair is short and downy like new growth, and small leafless trees sprout from her scalp. Overhead the sky is grey with a hint of cloud and birds in the far distance. A few gold stars gleam faintly and white dots suggest snow in the atmosphere. The remaining background is featureless. The second face, also depicted in sleep is more vibrant. Her face is framed by thick dark hair; there is colour in her cheeks; a hint of a smile suggests that she is dreaming. Her shift is scarlet, decorated with gold stars and snowflakes. The image of a fox is imprinted on her forehead. The small figure of a deer appears to be standing on her shoulder, a bird is perched on the other. Are they dream images or memories I wonder to myself? The surrounding sky is blue, gold stars are present and birds in flight. The third head is that of a young woman. Her cheeks are flushed and her bright dark eyes rest directly on the viewer. She wears a straw hat embellished with a nest that sprouts green shoots and in which an exotic bird sits trailing elegant tail feathers. Round her neck is a necklace of red berries. There is nothing in the background, she is entirely present.

Foliate Head 1, Foliate Head 2, Foliate Head 3, Foliate 4.
Copyright © 2016 Jane Ray and the Nightingale Project

The half-length figure of a woman completes this group of paintings. She gazes directly at the viewer, her expression serious and thoughtful. Her dark hair is covered by a blue cotton headscarf with a gold motif. The neckline of her simple blue dress is trimmed with gold braid. In both hands she holds a blue ceramic bowl, whose inner surface is grey. The bowl is filled with water which reflects blue sky and white clouds as if to confirm that beyond the grey sky above there is fair weather to come. This is a very moving painting, more so when one learns that during the process of her work Jane Ray had a dream in which she carried a deep bowl of water which reflected the sky.

These paintings were the start of Jane Ray’s work after she had visited a ward which she describes as ‘fresh and clean, but featureless’, and she had spoken with some of the women there. Sensing their deep distress, she says: “I felt there was a need for positive imagery: not just cheery pictures, but images that would tap into something deeper. I painted images from human heads – expressing the energy and creativity of the teeming mind. Hats and masks began to appear on the heads, and then a tree grew out of a boat being rowed by a woman with a flourishing crown, guided by birds and stars. Ultimately a series of trees emerged, their branches full of birds, embodying themes of rootedness, growth, hope and freedom. These in the end, were the ones we chose for the wards.”

The painting Guided by Birds and Stars caught my attention with its flowing narrative life. I found the rich shades of the main colours, blues and greens, immensely satisfying. I could imagine spending time with this picture letting myself be in that boat. A label beside it indicated that this image had been transferred onto a wall of a hospital ward.

I could imagine spending time with this picture letting myself be in that boat. A label beside it indicated that this image had been transferred onto a wall of a hospital ward.

Guided by Birds and Stars.
Copyright © 2016 Jane Ray and the Nightingale Project

When I reached the end of the exhibition I could understand why the series of trees were selected for the wards. Whatever the season, the branches of the trees are filled with birds.

As Jane Ray writes, the themes that they (the trees) embody of rootedness, growth, hope and freedom are enduring ones. Imagery of the natural world puts us in touch with the wellsprings within ourselves, the potential of our own lives.

I was reminded of cave paintings by some of the motifs and animal images in the paintings I had seen. To me they resembled an imprint of early memories, even of intimations that we all have of ‘things‘ not yet thought or named, in John Clare’s phrase in his poem ‘The Nightingale’s Nest’, ‘like a thought unborn’. Poetry came to my mind several times, nursery rhymes, Ted Hughes’s ‘Thought Fox’ and Siegfried Sassoon’s poem ‘Everyone Sang’: Suddenly everyone burst out singing And I was filled with joy As prisoned birds must find in freedom

I hope that the people who use the services of this centre and those who visit this temporary exhibition will be moved by these paintings, whose imagery has the power to tap into something deeper within us all. What a gift, and what an opportunity to see Jane Ray’s work off the page.

A video describing the project is voiced by Jane Ray, speaking about the project and her work for it. For more information on the project, see www.nightingaleproject.org.

Judith Philo has had experience in nursing, midwifery and social work, particularly with young families. After completing a Jungian training she practised as a Jungian analytical psychotherapist. She has taken seminars with trainees on myths and fairy tales. She is now retired. She has had a lifelong interest in dreams and imagery linked to her personal experience and also her analytic training and practice. In 2003 she completed an MA in Children’s Literature at the University of Surrey, Roehampton. She wrote her dissertation on dream narratives in six mid-to-late twentieth-century children’s novels. For many years she helped pupils in Years 5 and 6 with guided reading in her local primary school. She maintains her interest in Children’s Literature, and is currently Book Review Editor for IBBYLink.

All illustrations and a link to the video were supplied by the Nightingale Project with help from Jane Ray