Interview: Internationally renowned artist, PJ Crook
- Credit: © Thousand Word Media
From eating Stinking Bishop cheese with Nick Park, to entertaining Giffords’ ringmaster, Cheltenham artist PJ Crook believes in living life to the full
PJ Crook is an internationally renowned artist, particularly known for her fascinating crowd scenes, often on monumental canvases. Look carefully at these multitudes and you’ll discover that each person is painted with their own individual personality and quirks.
Named one of Cotswold Life magazine’s ‘100 most influential women’, PJ uses her reputation to support some of the Cotswolds’ best-loved causes, ranging from charities to art societies and institutions. In 2011, she was appointed an MBE.
PJ is married to the artist Richard Parker Crook. Son, Nathan, is a filmmaker; and daughter, Henrietta, is an art teacher with two children of her own: Isaac 12, and Samuel, 10.
Where do you live and why?
We live in Bishop’s Cleeve, in a house built for an eminent jockey called Billy Speck. Very sadly, he was killed on Cheltenham Racecourse [in 1935, aged 31]. His tombstone, in St Michael’s churchyard [Bishop’s Cleeve], is rather wonderful: it has a carving of a whip and cap on it.
Before we moved here, we often would pass this house as we walked up the lane – Choir Lane, as we called it. At the time, four members of the church choir lived on the road, including a lovely man called Charles Minett, who joined St Michael’s as a chorister when he was about eight years old, and continued until he was 90.
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How long have you lived in the Cotswolds?
My parents were Londoners but my father was in the RAF. When my mum was pregnant with me, she came to stay with relatives near Bishop’s Cleeve to get treatment in Cheltenham General for a cyst at the base of her spine. While she was there, she told a nurse, ‘I think my baby’s coming!’ The nurse said, ‘Oh no, dear; your baby isn’t coming yet.’ When mum said she could feel my head, the nurse ran off to get a doctor. By the time they got back, mum and I had done it all on our own! In the end, my parents moved to Bishop’s Cleeve to be out of London.
When I was six and my sister was three, my mum contracted TB and was admitted to a local sanatorium called Salterley Grange [on Leckhampton Hill]. I didn’t see her for two years: my sister and I went to a foster mother, who lived in Priors Park, near the crematorium. We used to call her ‘Aunty or ‘Shoppy’ because her name was Mrs Shopland. As dear and wonderful as Aunty was, she wasn’t mum; I used to lie in bed and think, ‘If Aunty sends me to buy a bag of sugar, I could use the money to catch a bus to see my mum’. Of course, the reason we couldn’t see her was the fear we might contract TB, too.
What’s your idea of a perfect weekend in the Cotswolds?
I’d pop into the Wilson [formerly Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum] to see an exhibition. Seeing something for real, rather than in reproduction, is always moving. I can remember first seeing an Artemisia Gentileschi; the power of her work, and the way she approached it with no concessions to her being a woman, was awe-inspiring. Or Michelangelo’s David, in his immense stature, where the marble does seem almost like flesh; even the sling looks like it’s made of a different material. There are times when you feel so daunted, you think: ‘I can’t pick up a paintbrush again!’
If money were no object, where would you live in the Cotswolds?
Rather than move, we’ve grown the house to suit our requirements. When we first saw it, Richard said, ‘I think it will be much too small’. But I said, ‘It’s got such wonderful light!’; and, when I kicked up the edge of the carpet, I could see a tiled floor. Gradually, over the years, we’ve trebled it in size. I’ve also bought the house opposite, which is now my studio.
Where are you least likely to live in the Cotswolds?
Anywhere busy or noisy. When I’m in the studio, I can hear birds singing and I love that noise; but most sounds I don’t really want when I’m working.
Where’s the best pub in the area?
We’re not pub people - we tend to work or entertain at home - but Jason Smith [chief executive of Marketing Gloucester] did take us to a very nice pub when we were judging the street art [Art in the City, in July] in Gloucester: Robert Raikes’ House. It’s wonderful to think of all the history it has witnessed.
And the best place to eat?
It’s where I always take people – Star Bistro. I love the National Star College [the Leckhampton College where the bistro is based, providing education and training for adults with disabilities]. The bistro was started by Rob Rees, who founded the Wiggly Worm charity; it’s a wonderful place to eat, and it also provides training for students. I’ve been a patron of the college since 1992 – a connection that started when the then-head of art, Myrtle Barter, brought some of the students along to one of my exhibitions. They were wonderful: full of life and zest.
What would you do for a special occasion?
Often, on May Bank Holiday, Henrietta and her husband Kev come to us with the boys, and we take them to Giffords Circus, which is simply spectacular and magical. Once, Gerald Balding, the ringmaster, came round to see us; we were mesmerized by his stories, which he told while twiddling his moustachios. We thought he had had a profound effect on us; but the next year, Toti Gifford told us Gerald had run away from the circus to become an artist!
What’s the best thing about the Cotswolds?
The wonderful communities you find all over. I have the great privilege of being connected with several, including as patron of Cheltenham Open Studios. That’s a community of 200 artists, who all support each other. They hold an art trail every other year [the next is 2019], which gives you an insight into that inner sanctum where they’re creating.
... and the worst?
An occasional element of snobbery.
Which shop could you not live without?
There are two on the corner as you’re coming through Bishop’s Cleeve. One is Cleeve Supplies, an old-fashioned ironmonger’s, where you can buy anything from sandpaper to a new saucepan. And the other is Joyce Arnold’s, the greengrocer. Joyce started it many years ago, with a little stall and sunshade on the pavement. She still serves there with her two sons.
What’s the most underrated thing about the Cotswolds?
Gloucester. It seems to be looked upon as the poor relation to Cheltenham – which I also love – yet it has a greater history, and the people are so full of warmth. I particularly like the Museum of Gloucester and Art Gallery. I once did an exhibition based round their collections, and David Rice [the then-curator] knew every single work they held.
What is a person from the Cotswolds called?
What would be a three-course Cotswold meal?
Bibury trout, with locally-grown asparagus; an apple or rhubarb crumble made with fruit from the garden, served with egg custard using eggs from Arnold’s. (They’re known as yokel eggs, and often contain a double-yolk.)
We’d finish with Double Gloucester and Stinking Bishop made by Charles Martell. A dear friend of ours, Nick Park, did a lot to increase the popularity of Stinking Bishop when he used it in the Wallace and Gromit film, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.
What’s your favourite view in the Cotswolds?
From Cleeve Hill, down over the racecourse and – when the weather is good - as far as the Malverns. To me, a crowd is also a ‘view’, which is why Edward Gillespie [former Cheltenham Racecourse MD] would always invite us to the races: he knew I love watching people.
What’s your quintessential Cotswolds village and why?
The new Pittville Student Village at the University of Gloucestershire’s Pittville Campus, which I had the honour of opening the other week. I studied on that very site – as did Henrietta and, later, Nathan – so I felt a bit sad when I heard the old college was being pulled down. But Nathan said to me, ‘Oh, mum! The roof did used to leak!’ I love the way they’ve embraced their heritage by naming buildings after notable people in the arts, who all have local connections: Ivor Gurney; Gustav Holst; Dennis Potter; Lynn Chadwick; Brian Jones. Even Reggie Dent, who was principal when I was there.
I have an honorary doctorate from the university, and I give the PJ Crook Award for an outstanding graduating student each year.
Name three basic elements of the Cotswolds
Wool, which built so many churches and villages;
Water, which brought materials to the Cotswolds; which drove the mills and provided fish and elvers;
And the mellow stone.
What’s your favourite Cotswolds building and why?
St Michael and All Angels here in Bishop’s Cleeve. I was talking to Peter Gilbert Scott [an architect, who worked on the recent restoration], whose family designed St Pancras and the red telephone kiosk. He told me the church could almost be classified as a cathedral because of its size and history. There’s been a place of worship on the site since the eighth century.
I’m painting an altar-piece for it, at the moment. I’ve included a mother and child, because, to me, that’s such an iconic image. There’s a depiction of St Michael, with a wedding taking place behind him. And I’ve got St Jerome with his lion; I particularly like him because he’s patron saint of learning and books. I’m hoping to complete it ready to be unveiled for Advent.
What would you never do in the Cotswolds?
Starter homes or executive properties?
Starter homes. The young need as much help as possible to get their first homes - especially young artists!
What are the four corners of the Cotswolds?
I’ve exhibited many times in Burford, so that’s my east;
Richard and I met at the art fair in Bath in 1981, so that’s south;
Broadway, where I have my June exhibition, is north;
And, if the Forest of Dean isn’t too far over, there’s my west. I have the pleasure of being an honorary vice president of Gloucestershire College, which is in the process of building a stunning new campus at Steam Mills.
If you lived abroad, what would you take to remind you of the Cotswolds?
My little silver National Star College badge.
What’s the first piece of advice you’d give to somebody new to the Cotswolds?
Become a volunteer or join a group – such as the Friends of the Holst Birthplace Museum or Cheltenham Festivals. It’s a great way to discover like-minded people.
And which book should they read?
Dr Steven Blake’s A History of Cheltenham in 100 Objects. Richard’s two panoramic views of Cheltenham are in it.
Have you a favourite Cotswolds walk?
I’ll always remember a pilgrimage I went on with the late Bishop Michael, where he walked from church to church in the diocese. I did the section from Tewkesbury Abbey, along the river to Deerhurst, with its Saxon church where we had a service. And then we walked on to Apperley, to the Haw Bridge pub for lunch. It was very picturesque.
Which event, or activity, best sums up the Cotswolds?
Cheltenham Races. So many people from the Cotswolds attend them – and you get more Irish people here on St Patrick’s Day than you do in Dublin!
If you were invisible for a day, where would you go and what would you do?
I’d visit a hospital to watch surgeons at work. When I was a student, we did anatomy and life-drawing; every day, even now, I use the knowledge I learned then.
To whom or what should there be a Cotswolds memorial?
To Edward Jenner’s Blossom, the cow he used to extract the cowpox with which he vaccinated the milkmaid, leading – ultimately – to the eradication of smallpox.
The Cotswolds – aspic or asphalt?
The Cotswolds have always been progressive. Fan-vaulting was invented in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral, for example. And that innovation is still happening today, with Ecotricity and Renishaw. Sir David McMurtry’s futuristic eco-house is truly amazing; one of my paintings hangs in there!
Which attitude best sums up the Cotswolds?
Generosity of spirit.
With whom would you most like to have a cider?
Edward Wilson. Not only was he this brilliant [polar] explorer; he was a doctor who worked in the slums of London, where he contracted TB – which rings a bell for me. And he was also the artist after whom the Wilson is named. It’s home to hundreds of his beautiful drawings and watercolours, which still have luminosity and clarity after all this time.
• You can see PJ Crook’s work this month at Trinity House Paintings in Broadway High Street (trinityhousepaintings.com). She also has an exhibition in Japan, from July to October, at the Morohashi Museum of Modern Art.
• PJ holds an annual ‘Mince Pies, Mulled Wine & Miniatures’ open-studio weekend early in December in aid of the National Star College and other charities. Last December’s event made in the region of £13,000; pjcrook.com