Commentary archive


In a recent statement about his artistic vision and practice, Jason Sumray has defined his paintings as lacking in narrative and working instead as ‘triggers for potential meaning’. This desire to eschew literal representation in favour of a more suggestive, evocative approach to his subjects is fully realised in his latest, wonderfully mature body of work, entitled What’s in a Jug? and exhibited in a solo show at London’s Highgate Gallery in September 2020. In my view, this collection of paintings and etchings constitutes the artist’s most accomplished work so far. The works are powerful in their boldness, coherent in their relationship with some important models (such as Chardin and Braque) and technically brilliant.

The paintings in this series are playful, serious and profound. Though not realistic, they portray moments from life and enact small everyday dramas: a pot with its lid off teetering on one end of the table; a jug jutting out behind it; two turquoise spoons ‘looking right’ and brightening up an otherwise sombre scene; and spilt strawberries and cream taking centre stage, while a dark jug, a cup and spoon are perilously close to the table’s (and the picture’s) edge. Yet most of these paintings are also enveloped in a void, their backgrounds dipped in deep, velvety shades of black and various hues of grey.

Sumray’s sophisticated use of colour and light, and the arresting way with which he arranges his subjects/objects, are evocative of his earlier works and of some of his favourite painters, but they are also utterly original. They exude confidence and – despite their darker, enigmatic undertones – they are strikingly vital.

Dr Daria Santini. Writer and literary historian. Recent books include ‘The Exiles: Actors, Artists and Writers who fled the Nazis for London’. Bloomsbury 2019


Jason Sumray’s richly symbolic visual language is put to good use in his latest series of paintings which focus on the domestic space. These situational paintings depict characters and scenes poised on the cusp of dramatic action and his use of the figure as the focus of our enquiry is always suggestive, never prescriptive.

The ambiguity of these scenes clash instantly with familial subject matter and indeed the joy of Sumray’s work is in the scope to look beyond our initial assessment of the these familiar scenes.

There is often an ‘otherness’ to the cast of characters Sumray portrays. Figures that a moment ago were poised to clear a table or rise from their chair now seem desperate and brooding in their demeanour. Those we initially presumed to be napping on a couch or slumped lazily at the dinning room table seem awkward and disturbingly still in their repose.

The ambiguity of these images proffer a far more engaging portrayal of the human condition and human relationships through their rejection of a distinct or clear narrative and it is through the haze and mystery of the unknown that we come to see the truth in Jason Sumray’s work.

Clare Gormley
Pangolin London Gallery London manager and independent curator 

Jason Sumray’s Fisherman paintings of imagined characters narrate mysterious and haunting scenes. With great skill Sumray’s characters evoke sentimental relationships that feel anchored in the past. Grey and murky tones, coupled with isolated flashes of colour see the characters emerge as if passing through the night from another, more distant place.

Nessa Finnegan, curator, Projects Coordinator Rowan Arts  2014 

 Exracts from ‘Sumray & Sumray’ Boundary gallery catalogue 1996

One of the principle themes of these paintings is disclosure. A curtain or a hood is drawn back: a blind man reveals a face like a mask; a monster from within is kicked out. Figures are attacked and captured, netted. Samson is scalped by Delilah. A drummer drums up the dogs of war. A frisson of the sinister coils around a vulnerable sleeper. The colours might be a bruise. Or sea- blue-greens. Or a pale chalky blue like eternity. In their ambience, the huge hands and feet of some of these figures have not just a clumsiness, but a helplessness. The subtle tonal modelling of their bodies is checked by ropes. In the still watches of the night, solitary figures keep their vigil. Shadows linger only to be dispelled by the bright red handbell wielded by the arm poised aloft like architecture of a lumpen brute( a very original interpretation of Quasimodo). The contained figures of Harman(his Father) have become the captives of Jason. Perhaps that development reflects a change in Zeitgeist; what then might it bode for the future? The human predicament is not likely to ease.

Again, one of their shared preoccupations is with achieving a moment of stillness, where the different formal forces within a picture are held in balance. For Jason, Goya and Piero della Francesca have been an inspiration in the realisation of this. Jason is not afraid to distort his figures if that serves the emotional demands of the created situation …..but he seeks an ultimate resolution and calmness of image.

There is something elusive here,as if a narrative voice has been stifled, and a subject calculatedly rendered obscure. As the paint is subtly modulated across the canvas or paper, so are the figures held in a state of emergent meaning. The viewer is encouraged to participate, and bring to the reading of the image his or her own knowledge and insight.

Both Sumray’s belong to the tradition of twentieth century British painting, though without being in danger of subsuming their individual expression in a melting pot of movements and schools…………….The subject is resolutely the human condition. The aim is to leave an after-image in the mind, a philosophical residue – the complexion of which, to a certain extent, it is up to the viewer to determine. The audience must come at least halfway to meet the artist.

Andrew Lambirth
Contributing editor to RA magazine, writes for Contemporary Visual Arts and Spectator among others. Author of books on Ken Kiff and Josef Herman

London: 1996

Extract from ‘Pick of the week’ Whats On magazine

(Here) is an exhibition of paintings, drawings and prints by Harman and Jason Sumray. Harman(whose twin brother is the artist Maurice Sumray)is Jasons father.
Jason’s sister, Lou, is also a painter. Artist dynasties seem to be proliferating, as they once did under the guild system of medieval times; different generations are showing together in a way which is intensely stimulating…………

The subject of Jason’s painting is mysterious, but is to do with being taken prisoner(Samson is twice evinced) and the relationship between twoor three figures. Any construct that Man evolves is in a sense a prison. Whether it be a painting, a piece of writing or a building, something is trapped within it. This is, of course what Man does; trying to make sense of things, trying to create some kind of order out of chaos. But as we discover, this isn’t easy. Jason’s imagery walks the knife-edge between being kept in and being booted out. There is an apocalyptic mood to his pictures: let us drape or trap our loved(or hated) before the long night.

Andrew Lambirth 1996

Exract from article The Times
…….Harman and Jason’s styles of painting are not as different as one might imagine from the age difference. Jason’s colour is cooler, his paint surface more agitated. Harman’s approach is more closely related to the flat surface on which he paints. Jason is more interested in almost sculptural modelling. But their subject matter is very similar. Curiosity about Harman’s work is gratified to some extent by a couple of earlier works ….of 1953 which looks very like the contemporary work of Colquhoun and Macbryde. Now it would be interesting to compare also the work of Harman’s artist twin Maurice.

John Russell Taylor
Art critic, The Times Newspaper, 1996

Jason Sumray’s painting evoke images of society. A woman cradls a body of a naked dead man in a version of an incident from John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. A young painter faces us as he poses alongside one of his pictures. In a park a couple hold out handfuls of bread for the birds. Employing gestures of openness, generosity or display, they share a sense of potentiality, of waiting for something to happen. A question is being asked of the viewer. But what? The sense that these figures are allowing us to watch them, in a sense to take advantage of them, suggests that an appropriate reaction should be one of sympathy not simply of vicarious pleasure. These are all fragments of the life of a community we may not always fully understand. But it is one we belong to whether we like it or not. Fellow- feeling, not cold aestheticism, is the glue which binds that community together.

Stuart Morgan, Writer and critic. Editor of Artscribe and contributor to Frieze
Brighton 1986