Artist Profile: Tess Jaray

1 December 2017

Across seven decades, Tess Jaray has produced an extensive body of work of unwavering quality, one that spans painting, drawing and printmaking, and includes major commissions to redesign public spaces.

Although at first glance Jaray’s oeuvre could be considered abstract, it draws inspiration from a wide range of sources, from the perspectives of Early Renaissance painting and architecture, to neatly-planted hedgerows and ornamental gardens, to the patterned light cast through railings and screens. Jaray’s meditative compositions invite us to contemplate the quiet, indeterminate space between things; between darkness and light, proximity and infinity, between ourselves and the wider world.

Born in Vienna in 1937, Tess Jaray fled Austria with her family the following year due to the threat of war and persecution, finding sanctuary in the UK. In 1957, having completed her studies at St Martin’s School of Art and before taking up a place at the Slade, Jaray returned to Vienna for a holiday with her parents, observing its cultural treasures with fresh eyes. She was immediately struck by the mysterious, dimly-lit gothic interior of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, its vertiginous tree-like pillars branching into ornate vaulted ceilings, and the green repeat patterns of the tiled roof. Recollections of the cathedral gestated in Jaray’s mind for some years before finally finding outlet in a number of paintings produced during 1963 and 1964.

St. Stephen’s Way (1964) is a fine example of Jaray’s work of this period. This painting features a series of vaulted forms which appear to hover and glide through deep space. Straight lines stretch and bend across the canvas to forge sensuous curves, adding to the sense of gentle motion and passage. There is a playful sense of looking across at a painting and, at the same time, looking up into vast architectural space: the critic Jasia Reichardt aptly perceived Jaray’s early work as a kind of ‘ceiling geography’. Despite the influence of the gothic architecture of the past, the work conveys a sense of timelessness, perhaps even a futuristic quality.



Like many of Jaray’s paintings of this period, St Stephen’s Way establishes strong tonal contrasts and a preference for the colour green. Barely perceptible variations of dark green – almost black – can be discerned upon close inspection, and these enigmatic zones butt up against strident lime and leafy hues to striking effect. In her book, Painting: Mysteries and Confessions (2010), Jaray reflected upon her fascination for green and how it can be ‘stretched, extended, pushed; demands may be made on it to extend its meaning, more, I suspect, than any other colour. Soft, hard, distant … immediate, dimmed, unfathomable or mysterious.’

Natalie Rudd

Senior Curator, Arts Council Collection

St Stephen’s Way features in the Arts Council Collection touring exhibition Kaleidoscope: Colour and Sequence in 1960s British Art at the Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre until 9 December; Walker Art Gallery, National Museums Liverpool (24 February – 3 June 2018).

The Arts Council Collection wishes Tess Jaray a very happy birthday for 31 December 2017.


The Arts Council Collection is the UK's most widely seen collection of modern and contemporary art.

With more than 8,000 works by over 2,000 artists, it can be seen in exhibitions and public displays across the country and beyond. This website offers unprecedented access to the Collection, and information about each work can be found on this site.