Portrait artist Jack Dickson from Blandford photographed at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum with a portrait of his wife Caroline - Credit: Hattie Miles
Portrait artist Jack Dickson from Blandford photographed at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum with a portrait of his wife Caroline - Credit: Hattie Miles
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Portrait of an Artist

Inspired by his experience on Sky TV’s Portrait Artist of the Year, Dorset art teacher Jack Dickson is exhibiting his mixed-media portraits at the Russell-Cotes in Bournemouth 

Jeremy Miles

When I meet Dorset schoolteacher and artist Jack Dickson, he is cheerily contemplating selling his wife and children. Don’t worry he’s not some latter-day Michael Henchard re-enacting a scene from The Mayor of Casterbridge, though Jack is living the dream in the heart of Hardy’s Wessex. 

Portrait artist Jack Dickson photographed at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum with a portrait of his wife Caroline - Credit: Hattie Miles

We are at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth, and his much-loved family are in portrait form. Jack’s distinctive mixed-media studies of wife Caroline (titled ‘My wife and muse’) and children Ella,13, and George,10, are among a selection of his works being exhibited and sold in the café gallery. 

Portrait of 13-year-old Ella, painted by her father Jack Dickson - Credit: Image courtesy of Jack Dickson

Portrait of Jack and Caroline's 10-year-old son George painted by Jack - Credit: Image courtesy of Jack Dickson

Jack is delighted with the location. The café is, after all, guaranteed to receive a constant stream of visitors. Not only that but his show, New Histories and Old Stories which opened on October 7th, is running in tandem with the opening weeks of Telling Tales, an important exhibition of Victorian narrative art in the main galleries (until March 2023). The light, bright exhibition space offers a major platform in a much admired and respected Dorset venue. It’s a golden opportunity for a developing artist who, up until two or three years ago, had sold only a few paintings.  

‘It’s amazing!’ he exclaims, as he contemplates where to hang each of the portraits. ‘I couldn't believe it when they said it was happening.’ The Russell-Cotes show has been one of a number of pinch-me moments in 47-year-old Jack’s life. His day job is as an art teacher and, until recently, a full-time housemaster at Bryanston School near Blandford. But for years he has dreamed of becoming a professional artist in his own right.  

A self-portrait by painter and multi-media artist Jack Dickson - Credit: Image courtesy of Jack Dickson

His big break came in 2020 when he appeared on Sky TV’s Portrait Artist of the Year with Ab Fab and Little Voice actress Jane Horrocks as his celebrity sitter. Now another TV appearance is due on the BBC programme, Make it at Market where Dom Chinea, from the popular BBC television series The Repair Shop, works with a team of business and craft experts to help a group of budding entrepreneurs make a living from their crafting hobby.  

A large-scale (1.6m high) mixed media portrait by Jack Dickson of Caroline 'My wife and muse' - Credit: Image courtesy of Jack Dickson

‘They paired me up with a mentor who has given wonderful advice and encouragement,’ says Jack. ‘The whole production has been a catalyst for me approaching my practice with a little bit more professionalism and determination. Making contacts, trying to find commissions, actually saying to people I want to paint you, will you pay me? I’d never have done that in a million years, but this has given me the confidence to turn what has been an amateur practice into a professional one. It showed that, rather than trying to please the market, you should try and find the market for what you do. Do what you do really well and have a bit of integrity.’ 

Portrait of photographer and TV presenter Nigel Barker, showing Jack's attention to detail with fabrics and design - Credit: Image courtesy of Jack Dickson

However, it was the Sky Portrait Artist of the Year show that really raised his profile and, though he was ultimately disappointed with his Horrocks portrait, he says the whole experience proved a massive confidence booster. 

‘It was literally only about the fifth or sixth portrait that I'd done. I really didn’t want to muck it up. Jane Horrocks was a delightful sitter, but if I look at that painting now, in my eyes it just reflects how tense and nervous I was at the time.’ 

Jack’s mixed media portrait of artist Curtis Holder winner of Portrait Artists of the Year in 2020 - Credit: Image courtesy of Jack Dickson

Despite his misgivings, the appearance provided the impetus needed to get his art to the next level. ‘People recognised something in my work. Even though I probably didn’t deliver my best during filming, it persuaded me to properly give it a go, to continue with portraiture and drawing on a very regular basis, every day if possible.’ 

Jack found it was exactly what he had been waiting for, the key to unlock his latent talent. ‘There has always been an artist inside me, but then I’m slightly enthusiastic about everything I do; so, there is also a potential premiership footballer in there, a vet and an astronaut. Everything I do I go at hell for leather, but art has been there ticking away in the background all the time. It's something I've always returned to.’ 

So why the relatively late start? The answer turns out to be pretty obvious. Looking after his young family and ensuring a steady income to pay the bills. Finally, this summer Jack felt able to take a step back from his work duties - he had been a full-time housemaster at Bryanston for the past eight years - and devote more time to painting. 

Portrait of Dorset-based poet and writer Louisa Adjoa-Parker - Credit: Image courtesy of Jack Dickson

His portraits, which combine figurative and more abstract elements, are created by not only painting and drawing but also the use of digital imagery, photography and printed textiles. The results are powerful and striking, incorporating pattern and design to help tell a story about their subject.  

The works on show in New Histories and Old Stories focus on people of mixed heritage. It’s a subject that is central to Jack Dickson’s life. Born in Nigeria in 1975, then raised in Zambia and the UK, he has peripatetic roots. The son of a Glaswegian father and Zambian mother, Jack says his upbringing taught him the joy of cross-cultural experiences. Visually he discovered that things are not always quite as they seem.  

Portrait artist Jack Dickson with a portrait of Caroline 'His wife and muse' - Credit: Hattie Miles

‘Clothes for example. One culture might wear, use and identify with certain patterns and textiles, but they often belong to a variety of different places.’ 

He mentions a batik that appeared in one of his portraits. ‘It was Sri Lankan meets Portuguese but also looked rather Celtic. It’s very difficult to tie anything down to a specific culture, particularly things that have been traded and used as commodities for goodness knows how long. I love this aspect because it gives you these wonderful, slightly ambiguous signifiers.’ 

Jack has lived in many different places and says he becomes emotionally invested in wherever it is that he lays his metaphorical hat. Dorset, his home for the past decade, has made that easy.  

‘I took the dog for a walk this morning, before I came down here to hang the exhibition. I was watching kingfishers and herons, and I even saw an otter. Where I live is really important to me. It’s also important to me to put down roots and become part of the community. I don’t have many roots because I’ve never lived where my family is from.’ 

Dorset, he says, provides an emotional anchor and much natural beauty. ‘I find myself drawing upon the countryside and nature around me in terms of escape and of catharsis. It’s a beautiful, stunning and inspiring place to live.’ 

Portrait artist Jack Dickson pictured with a portrait of his wife Caroline as he works out where to hang the work at the Russell-Cotes - Credit: Hattie Miles

New Histories and Old Stories: Portraits by Jack Dickson is at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth from until November 13 russellcotes.com. See more of Jack work at jackdickson.co.uk