The Wick - Julia Peyton-Jones The Wick - Julia Peyton-Jones
Monday Muse

Interview Gallery director and curator Dame Julia Peyton-Jones

Interview
Dame Julia Peyton-Jone
21 March 2022
Interview
Dame Julia Peyton-Jone
21 March 2022
Dame Julia Peyton-Jones is perhaps best known for being the director of London’s Serpentine Gallery from 1991 for 25 years, and helping to turn it into one of the most successful galleries in the world – her outstanding contribution earned her the title of DBE (Dame of the British Empire). In addition to helping to increase visitor numbers to over a million people a year, she inaugurated the annual Serpentine Pavilion commission, which invites an international architect to create a temporary structure to host events during the summer. Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei have all previously designed structures.

In October 2015, Peyton-Jones announced her departure from the gallery and took on perhaps her most challenging role yet – motherhood. She also returned to art making after giving it up 30 years prior to become a curator. In August 2021, she released a book celebrating both. Created in the lead up to and during the pandemic, Pia’s World is a visual diary of her life with her three-year-old daughter, Pia, over the course of a year, featuring a beautiful series of drawings executed in ink, charcoal, pencil and watercolour.

Peyton-Jones serves on several boards, including The Courtauld Institute of Art, London and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee Pageant Commercial Advisory Board. Since 2017, she has also been the senior global director of special projects at Thaddaeus Ropac in Salzburg, Paris, London and Seoul.

THE WICK:   Talk us through a typical Monday.

Julia Peyton-Jones:   It very much depends on what time Pia wakes up. It depends on whether she’s woken up several times in the middle of the night, or sleeps until 7:15am and has to be coaxed out of her bed — usually by saying that her little dog, which she named Rosy Red, is waiting for her downstairs. Typically, I set my alarm for 6:45am and cram everything in before Pia goes to school at 8am. That’s just the getting up part, but everything else has its own joys and challenges thereafter.

I work at the gallery for some part of every day, which amounts to three and a half days a week, and balance doing my other projects, mainly my own art, around that time.

TW:   Who is your personal Monday Muse?

JPJ:   Funnily enough, I’m heading to the book launch of psychotherapist and author Julia Samuel, so she’s very much on my mind at the moment. There used to be a group of Julias that I was a part of — all incredible women, hugely intelligent, sensitive, capable, successful and aware. Especially with her upcoming book launch for Every Family Has a Story, it is a reminder that she tackles such important subjects and is also a truly remarkable woman. All the Julias in that group were — it was the most exclusive club in London, and I was very proud to be a part of it.

TW:   What were some of your proudest achievements during your tenure at Serpentine?

JPJ:   I suppose I’m most proud of the fact that the organisation continued to develop and grow. That its aspirations remained at the forefront of everything we did, particularly our support of artists, architects and cultural practicioners in every possible sense, as well as our fundamental belief in embracing the public in the widest possible terms. I’m proud of our commitment to education and knowledge, and to the extraordinary team that I worked with. It was an incredible privilege to do what I did, even when it had its challenging moments. Every day had new problems to be solved and new challenges, but it was thrilling beyond measure, and that excitement never left me. I learned something new every day, and to learn is such a stimulating and wonderful position to be in.

TW:   What are some of your ambitions for Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac?

JPJ:   To draw attention to the work of the artists we represent to the broadest possible public. That means connecting them with all those collectors globally who are supporting artists by buying their work through the gallery, and presenting shows which are really stimulating and engaging, rigorous and enjoyable.

“The good thing about being my age is that I’ve been so fortunate to already do so many things, so there’s not that same fear of missing out.”

TW:   At 64, you decided to become a mother. How did you come to this decision and what would your advice be to other women who are wrestling with the same decision?

JPJ:   It was something I’d been thinking about for a very long time, and had been flip-flopping back and forth about whether or not to go for it. I suddenly felt that I’d reached the last possible moment to make the decision, so I went away to make up my mind and came down on the side of going ahead very quickly. My sister was next to me every step of the way and helped me with the very many practical arrangements. I’d say it’s something that any woman needs to think long and hard about, and I wouldn’t dream of recommending it or making a comment on anyone else’s decision — it’s such a personal thing. When it first became public knowledge that I had a baby, the reaction was much less neutral than it was when the book was published last year. If I can be supportive of any women going through the same thing, I would do so without hesitation, but I’m not a poster woman for those decisions.

TW:   What inspired you to create Pia’s World?

JPJ:   I was an art student for seven years and did my postgraduate in The Painting School of The Royal College of Art and won several scholarships, but I’d been out of the studio for many decades. When I left the Serpentine, I decided to do residency courses to start making my own work again. I’ve always admired people who go into the studio on a daily basis, so from 1 January 2020 I gave myself the challenge of doing just that. I decided I would give myself a very simple model — rules of the game — to do 12 small drawings on a page that would document what had happened during the day. I wrote down twelve things that came to mind, then I set about drawing each thing I had noted in one of the twelve small squares. I posted this grid of images every day as a story on my Instagram, and that’s what started it. Then the drawings started to evolve — they outgrew the twelve squares , and colour started to appear. I only missed about seven days over twelve months due to illness, and by the end of the year I had a huge number of drawings. I spoke to my old friend Franz Koenig, who runs Koenig Books, which is the largest independent bookseller in Europe, and asked whether it would be possible to make them into a book, and he said yes. The drawings were much more about my practice and the process, and the subject of the drawings were moments big and small — me washing my hair, for example, or making the bed, as well as going to the Royal Opera House to see a performance. I purposely kept it very simple.

TW:   What has motherhood taught you?

JPJ:   It’s taught me to be humble, patient, loving and kind. I find that I have to draw on a great well within myself, pulling out what I didn’t even know I had in me, because your responsibility is now for another being. It is hugely rewarding as well as very challenging. Plus, I don’t put myself first anymore. Before Pia, I could fly wherever I wanted to, whenever I wanted to, I could do what I wanted, go where I wanted, have my evenings to do with as I pleased. That’s not possible anymore.

TW:   Given that you have to juggle a hectic art world schedule, jet-setting job and motherhood, what are some of your hacks for staying on top form?

JPJ:   Well, of course one doesn’t stay on top form all the time. When I was at the Serpentine, I had one principal focus — I did one job that spread out into a number of areas. Now, I have a lot of different jobs and I’ve had to learn to juggle in a very different way. I’ve had to learn a huge amount, and sometimes I’m not all that successful. You have to learn to prioritise differently, and I accept that I can’t do everything. The good thing about being my age is that I’ve been so fortunate to already do so many things, so there’s not that same fear of missing out that I might have had if I was younger. It’s ok if I’m not at every opening or going to every event, no matter how wonderful they may be.

TW:   If you could change anything about the art world, what would it be?

JPJ:   I’m going to answer it in a different way. The art world has changed enormously since I started in the seventies, which is when I was in art school. There were almost no commercial galleries, and the appetite for contemporary art was extremely limited what seemed like only a handful of people. Now, it’s a global phenomenon, and the wonderfully exciting thing is that England is absolutely engaged in the cultural discussion on an international stage. So, my desire for the art world is that it continues to grow, develop and support artists and the cultural sector to reflect the time in which we live.

TW:   If you could add any artwork to your personal collection, what would it be?

JPJ:   What comes to mind, which is rather surprising, is Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. This is the most famous painting in the world, a painting that has been used by many artists who I admire beyond measure. I want to understand, by living in close proximity to it, what it is about this painting that has fascinated so many, and through that route better understand all the art that it’s inspired.

TW:   Desert island quarantine: what one artwork, book and album would you take with you?

JPJ:   Morton Feldman for music, and for the book, I’d take the Bible, because it has everything in it, every story you could want, no matter if you are religious or not. Like the Mona Lisa, I would want music, art and literature to sustain me through all that time alone, and be connected to things I could really learn from. And for the artwork it would be the Mona Lisa, for the reasons I mentioned.


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