Art: A joint venture

Blue sky and Blue Feathers by Jenny Matthews
Blue sky and Blue Feathers by Jenny Matthews
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FOR the two best friends hatching big plans in their school library it was supposed to be the beginning of a new artistic movement.

The only problem for Jenny Matthews and Janet Melrose was that they couldn’t remember exactly what their plans had been.

Visiting the Temple by Janet Melrose

Visiting the Temple by Janet Melrose

“We spent ages in the library, I think in 5th or 6th year, and I remember we discussed this great idea of starting an art movement,” says Janet. “The problem was we had forgotten all about it within half an hour, and we both just started laughing.

“Of course we’ve probably both learned by now that art movements aren’t something you can start off and plan – they just tend to happen.”

They might not have realised their grand plans, but the two girls who first met in 1976 when they were 11-year-olds at the Royal High School have both managed to forge their own art careers.

And more than three decades on they are finally preparing for their first ever exhibition together.

“We have had works feature in the same group shows, but yes, this is our first exhibition together,” says Jenny. “We’ve spoken about it before of course and wondered how we could make it happen.”

Both women admit to being surprised that they have, through their own paths, wound up following the dreams of their youth.

After school they went on to study drawing and painting at Edinburgh College of Art, where Jenny veered towards botanical illustration under the tutelage of Dame Elizabeth Blackadder, and Janet studied with renowned wildlife artist, John Busby.

“It is surprising, when I think about the number of people who we studied at college with who have gone on to do different jobs, that we both made it,” says Jenny.

“We were just both really into art and we had the same teacher.

“Janet was probably more into drawing the natural world than I was at the time, although she reminded me recently that one of my first ever Iris paintings was done at school and they were her parents’ Irises.

“We were full of ideas and we did definitely talk about setting up our own artistic movement, although I must admit I still can’t remember what it was supposed to achieve!”

Even without their art movement however, both women have gone on to achieve great success with their work.

Janet was recently awarded the honour of being an elected RSW by her fellow artists of the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolours. She was also a finalist in the 2008 Aspect Prize.

And Jenny’s work of exquisite botanical illustrations is familiar to thousands of people who buy greetings cards. Her work is widely collected and author Ian Rankin is one of her biggest fans.

“I have read some of his books in return,” she laughs. ”It was great that he became a collector, and he invited my family to his house for a party not long after he bought one of my paintings and he had a sort of unveiling, which was strange but very nice.”

Now living in Colinton, with her husband and two daughters, Jenny has also become a keen triathlete and is a member of the Edinburgh Road Club, along with her elder daughter, 15-year-old Zoe.

“Being in my studio is a very solitary life,” she says, “so I enjoy the camaraderie of the club. You have to be as focused for triathlons as you do in preparing for an exhibition.”

Janet lives in the Perthshire town of Crieff, with her husband and two teenage daughters, and is a horsewoman, finding that many of her best ideas come from rides around her Perthshire home.

Janet explains: “I love being outside with my horse and wandering along the river bank with him. I see far more when he is with me as we both look out for one another.”

While both artists draw their inspiration from the natural world, they admit that their styles are very different, with Janet describing her paintings as “accidents which have waited to happen”, a contrast to Jenny’s more structured works.

“My work was always slightly madder,” says Janet. “It’s not quite as considered as Jenny’s and I suppose that’s still something that comes through our work.”

As the opening of their exhibition approaches, however, neither has seen the other’s work.

“We’re in almost constant contact,” says Jenny. “This has been a conscious decision not to look at the work before it’s hung in the gallery.”

“I think just to avoid influencing each other, so I’m really looking forward to seeing it. We’ve been texting all the time though.”

• The exhibition at The Union Gallery on Broughton Street opens on May 4 and runs until June 4.