Former Windmill girl turned artist to make guest appearance at Leicester’s Oberon Gallery
A star of the stage and screen – including Hi-de-Hi! And Eastenders – who turned her craft into art, is making a star appearance at a Leicester art gallery this summer.
The vibrant and colourful artwork of Jean Picton, a former Windmill dancer, will be on display at the Oberon Gallery over following months, while members of the public will be given the chance to meet the artist at a glitzy VIP event.
Jean, who has had a colourful past, started her career at the age of 15 when she signed up to join the circus. Travelling the country as a dancer for the big top before moving to a variety act, she soon became noticed and worked alongside some of the top acts of the time, including Tommy Cooper and Bruce Forsyth.
She also danced her way into the then famous Windmill Club in Soho, a risqué-for-the-time dance involving well placed fan feathers and elegant moves.
She said: “The first few weeks were tough at the Windmill and there was a lot of rehearsals and performances, and it was very different to what I had done before. But I knew what I had signed up for. It wasn’t a strip club, it was a review and you had to be a dancer and performer. The shows were beautifully lit and so well-choreographed, with well-placed feathers and outfits.”
The Windmill closed by the end of the 1950s and Jean went on to marry her first husband and have children.
It was then she started her acting and cabaret career, cruising the seas, performing in pantomimes, and appearing in various television shows and adverts.
“It was so much fun working on shows such as Hi-de-Hi! and Eastenders. I played the mother of one of the delivery men on the hit show alongside some huge names in television. In Eastenders I was working in the hairdressers and appeared on the very first broadcast starring Grant and Phil. They had come in as painters and decorators to do up the salon and I was there, so it was a very special time,” she added.
Jean was also one of the extras at the graveside of Dirty Den’s infamous first funeral.
It was when she retired she decided she still wanted and needed to work, so took on a part time role at the BBC working in the wardrobe department.
“I was in my 60s and it was a great job, and it was around this time I started dabbling in painting. Because of my childhood and not going to school, I didn’t really have any qualifications, so decided to take an A Level, and then Foundation in the Arts. I loved it so much I left my job and started my degree. Although I hadn’t sold a thing, the university could obviously see my talent, and I was awarded a scholarship. This helped me get myself established, and was the beginning of my whole new career,” she added.
The 84-year-old didn’t sell her first painting until she was almost 70 where she found her entrepreneurial streak.
Re-married to Brian, they bought a home in Mallorca, where they came up with the idea to run art holidays, which was a great success for a decade. It was here she made contacts with art galleries, realising she could sell the art she loved so much.
“I work in fluid acrylic which is an incredible medium to use in my paintings. I have been working with colour all my life, from the years on stage and screen with lighting and sequins, costumes and backdrops. My work isn’t just about flowers, it’s about creating movement and colour harmony on the canvas, creating depth of movement, like the layers of the theatre. It’s incredible to do and I love every second. I spend all my time painting, it was an easy transition to make,” she added.
Jean’s popularity soon grew, and she now sells dozens of pieces of her artwork throughout the country, and when is invited to galleries, enjoys meeting her many followers.
“It’s fantastic, I love meeting everyone and it is like being back on stage. Everyone is so kind and it’s great hearing their feedback on my work,” she added.
Jean, who lives in Bedfordshire with her husband, is looking forward to returning to Leicester in June, and remembers fondly spending two summers in the park in the 1990s when she performed her puppet show.
“They were two glorious summers and Leicester is a great city. I performed under the name Jenny Wrenn Puppets and I’m sure there will be some adults now who will remember me from then,” she added.
Jean believes she has never worked in her life, as she has always loved what she does.
“On my tombstone I want it to read: ‘I have been dead lucky and have managed to earn my living without going to work’. I think it’s quite an achievement to get into your 80s and still be earning a living and loving what you do – especially when you started life working in a circus and having not gone through school properly,” she added.
Donna Marie Cross, Oberon Gallery Manager, said: “Jean has a huge, colourful personality and we are really looking forward to her coming to Leicester to meet us all at the end of the month. We are going to be spoiling our guests to an array of entertainment, nibbles and drinks, making sure we mark the occasion in a fitting way, so there will obviously be lots to celebrate.
We know she has a huge following across the country and we are making sure the event is going to be as colourful as her work.”
One of Jean’s watercolours will also be raffled off for a local charity on the day, and visitors will be given the chance to pick up a unique piece of artwork, along with meet her to find out more about her life and work.
Jean will be making her VIP guest appearance at the Oberon Gallery on Saturday 30th June from 1pm.