Judith Tucker (1960-2023)
British painter Judith Tucker (1960-2023) was tragically killed in a car accident on 13 November.
She was returning to her Yorkshire home from a weekend in Lincolnshire, where she has been working for many years, alongside her partner the poet Harriet Tarlo, painting, drawing and learning from the people living on the climate-threatened plotlands of the North-East Lincolnshire coast where working-class communities of the North have long built fragile holidays chalets, locally named Fitties, around the originally Viking village of Humberston. The Humberston Fitties are now a conservation area. A selection of Night Fitties paintings and newly created drawings featured in her most recent exhibition at HackelBury Fine Art, London (September-November 2023). In 2023, she curated Arcadia for All: Landscape Painting Now which is still showing at Attenborough Art Centre, University of Leicester after its opening at the Audrey and Stanley Burton Gallery, Leeds.
Educated at North London Collegiate School, Judith Tucker graduated in 1981 with a B.A. in Fine Art from the Ruskin School of Art, University of Oxford, and, following her MA at Bretton Hall College of the University of Leeds, she completed a PhD in Fine Art titled Painting Landscape: Mediating Dislocation at the University of Leeds in 2002. In 2003 she was awarded a three-year post-doctoral AHRC Research Fellowship at the Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History, also at Leeds, where she has subsequently lectured in Fine Art, attracting many doctoral students to her specialisms in the aesthetics of memory and landscape.
Born in Bangor in 1960 where her academic father John Tucker worked in the Philosophy Department, Judith Tucker’s maternal history linked her to both the pre-war German Jewish community and, after 1933, to forced migration, exile and the traumatic shadow of genocide in which her maternal great-grandparents were murdered in Terezin and Auschwitz and to a world war in which her pacifist, communist German grandfather died in the British bombardment of Berlin. Judith Tucker examined these legacies of absence, severance, displacement and trauma through landscape as sites of shattered memory. Through both painting and large-scale drawing, she created several series beginning with a focus on British coasts and margins, and later, some of Germany’s Baltic seaside resorts and former military sites haunted by the missing past in their post-1989 present. Judith Tucker’s meditative returns to the holiday sites of her mother’s early childhood in Nazi Germany in turn inspired her mother, the experimental novelist Eva Tucker, to write two novels, one about about her Jewish family history in Germany, Berlin Mosaic (2005), and a second, Becoming English (2009) that recalled her migration in 1939 and willed assimilation into Britishness. Both covers featured daughter Judith Tucker’s eerie and scintillating paintings from her series Resort—based on photographs of her three-year-old mother’s swimming lessons in a pool soon forbidden to those of Jewish descent, and Tense—contemplating the pools and looming concrete diving boards in the Thuringian Forest, home to the family of Eva’s German father, but also the location for the training of the German Diving Team for the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Judith Tucker’s paintings still and chill any echoes of Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous cinematic glorification, in Olympia (1938), of the fascist aesthetics of the male body with her desolating focus on the empty, menacing architectural relics and the opaque waters of that dark empire.
Judith Tucker’s work complements and extends into painting and drawing, the post-1990 literature that defined a ‘second generation’, children of Holocaust survivors, caught up in what Marianne Hirsch defines as ‘post-memory’—the intimation of often unspoken but trauma-lined pasts so often uncannily mediated by family photographs. In 2008, art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen wrote of Judith Tucker’s Resort: ‘Although unwavering in her twenty-year-long commitment to landscape painting, Judith Tucker has increasingly come to see that genre as a potent vehicle for the exploration of ideas and feelings more often expressed in art through the human figure—in her own words, as “a site for my investigation of loss, un/belonging, dis/connection and home”. While an anthropomorphic approach to landscape is hardly a novel one, Tucker’s position as the child of a mother who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s (“I can never know what it is to be a refugee, only what it is to be the child of a refugee”) lends her work a very specific and very contemporary poignancy.’
Senior Lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Leeds, Judith Tucker was both an internationally recognized artist and a much-published scholar-writer. Her painterly commitment to landscape enacted her critical engagement with social history, cultural memory and ecological emergency. Her large, atmospheric drawing series, Outfalls—views of the disused but preserved waterway of the Louth Canal, Lincs)—was selected for the First Biennial Sino-British Contemporary Art Exhibition in 2018, while, in 2020, she won the Jackson’s Painting Prize (Scenes of Everyday Life category). Her current, unfinished painting series, Dark Marsh, marvellous in its depth of colour and estrangingly surreal in the detailed botanical portraiture are haunting and monumental close-ups of the ‘wise’ plants of the marshlands that are critical to the survival of this threatened ecology. Judith Tucker created a scripto-visual dialogue with Harriet Tarlo’s experimental and open-form poetry as they jointly re-visioned both Yorkshire and Lincolnshire histories through the concept of place, memory and vulnerability.
Judith Tucker was a beloved partner and an adored friend, an admired colleague, a cherished PhD supervisor and a dedicated activist on behalf of painting and environmental ethics. Her memory will be treasured for her warmth, humour, generosity, energy, fun, and determination to make a difference through combining intellectual searching and creative making. A keen horse rider and competitor, she loved the standard poodles with whom she shared her life for over twenty years. She was also an intrepid cold-water swimmer, a therapy that helped her live through Long Covid after she fell prey to the virus in the first pandemic months in 2020.
Publicly, she was internationally recognized as a dynamic presence in the wider community of British painting and international ecological thought. In 2002 with artist Iain Biggs, she founded and energized Land2D, a network of artists created to explore contemporary issues and engagements with an expanded understanding of landscape, place and uncertainty. Since 2010 she co-convened Mapping Spectral Traces, a trans-disciplinary, international group of scholars, practitioners, community leaders and artists who work with and in traumatized communities, contested lands and diverse environments: Invited to join at its foundation in 2013, she was currently Chair of the artist-run organization British Contemporary Painting that awards an annual prize.
Her untimely death leaves her recently expanded studio rich with many paintings ‘on the go’. It makes a devastating hole in the lives of her partner, and the latter’s two children, of her sisters, Catherine and Sarah, her many friends, students and colleagues, and, indeed, the British art world at the join of ecological ethics and the current moment in the long tradition of innovative British painting and landscape.
By Griselda Pollock, Professor emerita of Social and Critical Histories of Art, University of Leeds, 2023.