Jane Gifford

Jane painted more than 20 exterior murals in England between 1977 and 1987, the largest of which were for the Covent Garden Community Association, El Salvador Solidarity Campaign and the Glenelg and Strahleven Residents Association in Mauleverer Road.

She was raised in a village in the New Forest in Hampshire, the middle child of three in a left wing, creative family.

” I always loved doing art, looking and making things. My secondary school which became a sixth form college had inspiring teachers especially in the art department The art teachers did their own work and there was a good atmosphere in the art rooms – this had a big influence on my future”.

secondary school, love of making art, galleries


Her parents, a civil engineer and a geography teacher, were active and encouraged their children to be creative in every aspect – drawing, painting, listening to music, sailing, campaigning, going on demonstrations. They were life long Labour supporters with strong social beliefs. At 17 after ‘A’ levels Jane went to Newcastle University to study fine art.

” Newcastle was a great city, especially after a rural childhood and very far away from Hampshire. I thought the course was fantastic to begin with, but became disillusioned. The tutors were nearly all men and feminism hadn’t surfaced in the department. I was a bit lost, I wasn’t pushy so didn’t get the feedback I needed, but I made lots of paintings. The best part of the experience, were the other students, who were making all sorts of interesting work. I helped create a float for a procession, made posters and scenery for the university theatre and painted a mural of the Jarrow March in a left wing bookshop. As part of a college project we painted enormous hoardings in a new shopping centre. We made big, simple abstracts at speed, in situ – with big cans of emulsion paint – I can smell it still! It was so exciting and the team aspect was great.

I seem to work either large or small – I find scale very interesting. Its like the human body, you’re either standing up and reaching out working on a big size or you’re working at a table with just your hands, close up doing something tiny. Very often drawings are more intimate and direct. I make drawings in notebooks or sketchbooks; they are a direct line from me to a piece of work – like automatic writing. I like the difference between the two, taking things that are small then seeing them enlarged.

In 1977 I left the art department in Newcastle and went to New York on a Max Beckmann scholarship to the Brooklyn Museum Art School. The studio space was very limited so I painted in the place I was staying in. Joan Semmel, a feminist painter taught there, she took us to visit other artists in their lofts. One of the most significant impacts of being in New York in the 1970s for me was seeing huge murals. These ranged from old advertising signs – some about 20 stories high, to community murals, to art murals with abstract images on enormous walls, and one mural that used to change every few months. There was an artist called Richard Haas who painted trompe l’oeil architectural murals, which interested me because I was into realism and trompe l’oeil. Manhattan is such an extraordinary city,
and to see painted imagery as part of the cityscape was really powerful.”

college artworks, scholarship to USA, paint-craft, Rosenquist


” Back in the UK after eighteen months in New York, I moved to London and knew I wanted to paint murals. The first was at Wix Lane School in Clapham where I worked with five year-olds who painted directly onto a long exterior playground wall. They worked from pictures of monsters and volcanoes they had made in the classroom. I supervised them painting on the wall, and filled in the backgrounds. The school organized a party when it was finished with all the children wearing monster masks they had made.

The second mural, funded by ‘Cleaner Westminster Campaign’, was on a hoarding covering a shop front in Wardour Street in Soho. A trompe l’oeil image of a baker’s shop seemed an obvious choice, and like a mural I had seen in Little Italy, New York. I chose bread because it is fundamental, positive and maybe because I like bakery products and painting them”.

Wix Lane school and Soho bakery


Next was an adventure playground in Bethwyn Road Camberwell.

” I painted two walls – one was a portrait of the kids and leaders; we had the children standing up against the wall and drew round them, then they painted their images, or I would paint their portraits. The other one was the end wall of a pub, which I painted myself, off a ladder; health and safety at that time – forget it! It was a great opportunity to do something larger. It’s painted like a dolls house, with the inside of the pub on the ground floor, a family upstairs in their living room and their kitchen, and a bathroom at the top.

In some of my early murals I was like a trades-person who comes in and makes a mural within a context, through talking and getting ideas from play-workers and kids; then I would do the designs, show them and then involve the kids in the painting. Most of my work has been about working with a community; I don’t usually come to a project with an already formed, strong idea of what it should be.

What tapped straight into my mural painting practice – was the craft of painting, without the same status as fine art, for example sign writing, marbling and fairground painting, and the giant hand-painted cinema posters that I saw in Leicester Square and reminded me of Rosenquist.

People who were making murals in that period were interested in creating positive change; they weren’t stuck with old conceptions about women’s roles. The mural movement was interwoven with women’s liberation”.

effects of time on murals, the El Salvador mural


” The ‘Changing The Picture’ mural, funded by the GLC (Greater London Council) was specifically political. I was asked by Chris Hudson of the El Salvador Solidarity Committee to paint it, as part of a team of four artists with Sergio Navarro, Rosie Scaife d’Ingerthorpe and Nick Cattermole. We discussed concepts and came up with an image reflecting the ordinary people of El Salvador taking control of their own lives in their struggle against oppression and imperialism. Simplified and optimistic – depicting ordinary people in the countryside in bright colours – all working together rolling up the picture, which depicts big business, machines of war, Reagan and Thatcher and a puppet soldier with his boots on the ground, all in muted colours. I made the actual design in gouache which we squared up and copied onto the squared up end wall of a 6 story block of flats in Greenwich. We cut up the plan so each artist had a piece, and reproduced our portions square by square onto the wall. Climbing the scaffolding was terrifying on the first day but we all got used to it.

We worked well together. Because the initial design was stylized and clearly worked out it was easy to draw up and then to paint, with emulsion, working from the top down. It took around two months to complete. It was celebrated with an opening ceremony, with Julie Christie and music by Happy End “.


Mauleverer Road


” In 1983 the Glenelg and Strathlevan Residents Association decided to have a mural painted on a long graffitied wall on Mauleverer Road. It was a tricky place for a mural -140 feet long, and opposite a terrace of houses just the other side of the street. When we spoke to the residents, some said they would like to look out on a forest or a park – so I felt a responsibility to add to their visual life in a positive way. People wanted something different, something good to look at – a sort of escape from their urban environment. The mural was in three segments – a forest, a park with a bandstand and a Caribbean Island and then a stable with horses. The team were: Ruth Blench, Mick Harrison and Caroline Thorpe. We prepared the wall with wire brushes, stabiliser, a ground colour then painted in gloss, using squared up photographs and drawings of the New Forest and Brockwell Park, and working from out of a van. We worked on the taller section on scaffolding, and on the rest from a scaffold tower. We achieved what we’d set out to do – a success for the community. There was a party with speeches at the end and later local residents had it ‘locally listed’, though this didn’t prevent it from being demolished by developers. The funding came from Inner City Partnership Fund following the Brixton riots in 1981 “.



Covent Garden mural, her choice of subjects for murals.


” The following year I was commissioned by the Covent Garden Community Association (CGCA) to paint a mural to acknowledge the people living there at that time, shortly after the market had closed and the area was changing rapidly. The image was a trompe l’oeil version of the façade of the building it was painted on, opposite the CGCA office. It included portraits of people who lived or worked in the area, looking out of the windows. We worked from a cradle suspended from the building’s roof and worked through the freezing winter. The mural was well regarded and became a local landmark, lasting at least ten years before the site was redeveloped “.

Littlehampton – you don’t own murals


” I painted more murals, including an exterior one for Littlehampton, in the High Street, which depicted the history of the town – shipping, seaside and old windmills. It’s a lot safer to choose historic subject matter than dealing with present issues but you can end up with something twee, so I had to be wary of that.

Murals live in the present, you don’t own them – they carry on their own life. I would be quite happy to have them repainted by someone else. Most of the murals I worked on didn’t get graffitied, which I take as a compliment.
I’d say to people starting out: it can be a very exciting and rewarding thing to do – be open to whatever the needs of the community are, and be prepared for your work to be changed by that – but at the same time if you have some really strong interests, take them to the community and share them.
I’m interested in the visual world and don’t get bored by it. My own attraction to painting murals was not so much that it was a political medium but because it was an interesting pictorial medium for making work and it was outside the gallery context. I was involved with the connection to architecture and the site and I always felt a responsibility toward the communities I was working for or with”.

After 1988 Jane carried out commissions in universities, hospitals, schools, sports centres and hotels; mostly interior murals and public art projects. After a printmaking course at Central School of Art, Jane became more involved in making personal work – drawings, paintings & prints, which for years have been based on her dreams. She has also worked in illustration, film and TV.