The Fitzrovia Gallery in Whitfield Street is hosting an exhibition this month entitled Seduction & Sedition, featuring new work by Joe Hesketh an artist who lives and works in Pendle, Lancashire.

Man and woman on film set.
Joe Hesketh with Griff Rhys Jones during the filming of “Restoration”

Joe says of her work: “My paintings are all about life’s journey, all the pieces you pick up and all the things you’d like to throw away. My mission is to create a visual diary of self discovery, self realisation and self direction.” Local residents may recognise Joe’s work from an earlier exhibition in Fitzrovia at The Piper Gallery in Newman Street, where she exhibited a series of work depicting the life and poetry of Sylvia Plath.

Joe has had a studio in the majestic Higherford Mill in Barrowford for the last nine years, just minutes from her home, which backs onto the same river that once powered the enormous mill wheel. The Grade II listed spinning mill was built in 1824 and operated until 1971. Shortly after she moved in, the mill was featured in The BBC television series “Restoration” hosted by Fitzrovia resident Griff Rhys Jones. After insisting that he don a paint splattered boiler suit and a bandana to match her own working garb, which he was happy to do, Joe was filmed with Griff, who added a few touches to a piece she was working on.

Joe paints in oils, in a studio littered with objects and characters that inspire her: everything from a Dr Seuss figure to a blow up doll. She works on a large scale, up to nine feet high and rarely smaller than six feet, resolving and completing one painting at a time and never returning to re-work a picture. Her paintings are both disturbing and amusing, and she manages to tread the narrow line between poignancy and tragedy. She has a dynamic and engaging personality, characteristics that come across in her imagery, but there is a dark side as well. Her subject matter has been compared to Francis Bacon and her technique to Willem de Kooning, but she is also a big fan of caricaturist Ralph Steadman, who she describes as “quirky, a bit dark, but funny as well”.

Artist with paintings.
Joe Hesketh poses with two of her paintings.

Many of her paintings feature herself, but often depicted unflatteringly as a voluptuous “balloon headed” clown, in an environment loaded with symbols of potential harm and criticism. This is her way of dealing with her inner demons and self doubt, a technique that while keeping her on the edge, creates images that are both beguiling and subversive. The Guardian critic summed it up: “Joe Hesketh is obviously a character and it shows in her large and brazenly sensuous paintings … a cheeky rudeness, brave flaunting of sexual intimacies, and also an undertow of vulnerability.”

Joe explains: “I don’t think that anyone would get it all as I see it, they get bits, and that’s what I want them to get. The main thing for me is that they get a feeling about the picture, it might be a heady feeling or it might be a daft feeling. A lot of people claim to get it, and tell me what they see in the picture, and I listen to their stories and I love it. If I see an artwork it either screams to me or it doesn’t and whatever anyone else tells me about it later, it’s always about my first reaction, and I think that that’s how it should be … I used to think it was all about the story, and I must put this and that in, but really, half way through you’re not feeling the same, lots of ups and downs, so it all goes in and it becomes what it is. But it’s not a gloomy process, I have great fun making my paintings”.

Woman in studio.
Joe Hesketh in her studio.

In 2011, with the Arts Council of Great Britain’s support, Joe embarked on a series of paintings entitled “A Pendle Investigation” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Pendle Witch Trials in Lancashire. She produced six extraordinary depictions of the hysteria of the moment, dancing between 17th and 21st century politics. She has always been very close to the Pendle area where she was born and still lives, and practices a little witchcraft herself. “I’ve always done bits of spells – it’s well wishes. People from the earth using herbs for good luck. I like to call it orange witchcraft, because it’s not black or white.”

The Fitzrovia Gallery is an elegant space with an interesting story. Directors Michael Skelly, Suresh Pushpananthan and his wife Sarah all live above the gallery, and are all doctors: a GP, a neurosurgeon and an anaesthetist. Michael has lived above the gallery since 1985 and is also an accomplished playwright whose work has been staged in Dublin, New York and London. He was attracted to the area by its bohemian history and is a former vice chairman the Fitzrovia Neighbourhood Association.

Michael remembers the Mayor of Camden opening the sports court opposite the gallery in around 1983, and witnessing the spectacle of the building they now occupy collapsing as he performed his mayoral duties, due to imprudent demolishing of basement walls by builders working there!

The premises had struggled as a sandwich bar and Greek restaurant, and they decided to take on the lease and open a gallery with the aim of supporting emerging artists of quality by giving them an opportunity to exhibit their work.

Seduction & Sedition, 5-28 November 2015. The Fitzrovia Gallery, 139 Whitfield Street, London W1T 5EN.