Life & Culture

The capital’s parks and childhood memories - the colours of a Londoner’s life

On the eve of a new exhibition, Ruth Sallon reveals the inspirations behind her joyous paintings


Ruth Sallon paints exquisite landscapes. So it seems astonishing that she did not feel able to create many until after her father’s death in 1999. “He used drawing as a way of exploring human nature and made me feel the only subject worth depicting was people,” she explains. Her father was Ralph Sallon, who many JC readers will remember as a cartoonist for many national newspapers — including this one.

Ralph — who would scribble impressions of his fellow passengers on bus tickets when taking his daughter around London on double-deckers — was also a keen rambler. So Ruth’s love of nature was nurtured on walks on Hampstead Heath and in the other London parks that would become the focus of her work.

People gradually slipped out of the landscapes, although they linger here and there as tiny figures. Meanwhile, her still-life compositions often feature ghosts.

Sallon’s bright, colourful work will soon be on show in Highgate where Waterlow Park inspired many of her paintings.

They are a far cry from the gloom of her childhood. Her mother Hannah suffered long periods of depression and lay in bed smoking. Young Ruth, one of four Sallon children, would open the curtains and try to coax her mother out of bed.

“That’s why Dad would drag us across the Heath or take us all to Regent’s Park. It was an antidote to our mother’s depression,” she explains. “I would dread getting home and seeing her grim, set face.”

Raised in Neasden and educated at Henrietta Barnett School, it is amazing Sallon became an artist at all, given the lack of encouragement from her teachers. “I was very good at maths, and they were cross when I decided I wanted to study art,” she recalls.

Most of her early art education came at evening classes. Later, as a non-driver, she customised a shopping trolley to hold all the supplies she needs to paint outdoors. “I wheel myself all over London painting.”

But her work is not all about landscape; the mid-century childhood memories of the 75-year-old surface in theatrical still-life arrangements that often include photographs of her mother, and the furnishings and homewares she grew up with.

She says that trips to the furniture store Kilburn Grange was a teenage inspiration: “I would go there all the time and painted room sets recalling the 40s and 50s.”

Then there were the young women who injected a dose of joy into the Sallon household:

“Ours was a family held together by au pairs; they came from all over Europe to help my depressed mother cope with four children,” she says of beloved companions such as Karen from Denmark, depicted as a blonde Baltic figurine in Au Pair Doll. The 'Boxed In Live'

dolls pay a melancholy tribute to women neither free nor joyous in adulthood.

“Those Madeira dolls in their boxes, which were so collectible in the 50s, are an elegy for that lost generation of women like my mum who were forced to abandon their jobs and careers after World War II and left to moulder in their suburban boxes,” she says.

Like Monet and his contemporaries, Sallon is driven by a love of painterly elements such as pattern, colour and reflections, but she chooses to paint in acrylic rather than oil.

“The fact it dries so quickly means I can paint in layers — I might cover a canvas in blue, paint in a yellow tree and scratch into it before it dries to reveal the blue or perhaps pink underneath,” she explains of a technique vividly illustrated in the image from which her exhibition takes its name, Above the Blue City .

“I think I have been influenced by the floating landscapes of early Chinese brush paintings.”
As for the spirit of celebration in her landscapes, she says: “Taking joy in life is an expression of being Jewish. You don’t have to paint someone lighting candles to show that.”

‘Above the Blue City’ is on show at Lauderdale House, Waterlow Park, February 1-28

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