Daytrip to Darktown

Imogen Lycett Green meets Jonny and Sharon Hannah. From ROSA #3 Winter 2022/2023.

Scrimshaw © Jonny Hannah

Two working-class kids from opposite ends of the United Kingdom – one from Dunfermline, the other from Southampton – meet at art school in Liverpool and fall in love. They take jobs to bring in the money but keep their eye on the easel. They buy a house in her hometown, they have a child, go to Paris, have another child, move back to the Southampton place. From this ordinary house they emanate extraordinary joy. She works in a secondary school and looks after the kids, while he devises exhibitions and music workshops, designs book covers for Penguin and Random House, makes linocuts, paints pictures in acrylic, draws imaginary pirates, cowboys and drunken sea captains, illustrates books, writes words in peculiar and exuberant fonts.

Everything dark, they turn to light, and when things go pearshaped – like they can’t get that mortgage, because who gives a mortgage to an artist? – he dresses up in Breton shirts, watches French films and drinks red wine. She writes poems in any minute she has spare, and begins to paint strange and beguiling still lives. Together they listen to Hank Williams, whose songs, as he writes, ‘are a set of stories, both happy and dark, that reflect the life and times of Hank’s most important people, the listeners… they are a guiding star for whatever life might throw at us.’

Which might just as nicely sum up the life and work of Sharon and Jonny Hannah.

Here’s hoping. The slow train from Brighton to Southampton dawdles along the south coast. Barnham, Southbourne, Emsworth, Cosham, Fareham, Swanwick. It’s raining hard and any view from the train windows is obscured by racing tears. Most of the grey-faced passengers look laden with cares and struggles, work, debt, family. The carriage is stony silent. As everyone will keep on saying, these are dark times.

Daytrips & Jaunts in the Darktown Charabanc is the name of illustrator Jonny and painter Sharon Hannah’s new shared exhibition, at Chichester’s Oxmarket Contemporary gallery in December, where their paintings, illustrations and random writings and sculptures will be on show. I have arranged to visit the husband-and-wife team on a Monday at 5pm, when Sharon will be back from her day job. I’m wondering if now is the right time to interview these artists, however jolly they appear on Instagram. I’ve had my car impounded and my son’s just broken his leg. Last week was not good. Here we are at Monday again. Please make it better.

In the rain, Southampton does not look its best. I find the Hannah family house, as instructed, behind Lidl, off Shirley High Street. Theirs is a red brick semi in a road of identical houses. I ring the bell and wait.

The door is opened by a man with blue eyes and a red check shirt buttoned up to the neck like Desperate Dan. Hello. Hello. We shake hands, neither of us sure of the other. I follow Jonny into the kitchen, where I meet his son Jerry (making toast, looks about 18, cool retro clothes, a bit like a Mod). Jonny appears flustered. We talk about the journey. I note the unusually jaunty wallpaper, dotted with what appear to be flying books. “Oh that’s Darktown Billets-Doux, my design for the St. Jude Collective.” He designs wallpaper too? “And fabric.” I think Billets-Doux would look great on a sofa. I note the cupboard knobs are all individually painted, picture frames are decorated. Hang on a minute, everything is painted with patterns and letters, even the butter dish, yellow with blue spots. Jerry departs as Sharon appears –neat, petite, dark brown hair in a bob – shakes my hand, makes tea. Jonny looks relieved.

Finally, the Hannahs sit, side by side, across the pine table from me. There is a pause. “So which paper is it you’re from exactly?” It turns out their gallery only said ‘a journalist’ would be coming. I show them two issues of the delightfully glossy ROSA mag and they gobble it up, oohing and aahing over the artwork, relishing the text. “Well that’s lovely,” says Sharon, sliding it back. No, no, keep them, I say. These two understand what care goes into creating and publishing an arts magazine. They respect the endeavour. Everyone relaxes.

For the next twenty minutes, Jonny gabbles – they’ve been here 20 years, Sharon comes from Southampton, they tried Brighton, didn’t like it, they met at Liverpool John Moores, the art school. “But we didn’t get together then,” says Sharon. Jonny went on to the Royal College of Art. When there’s a pause, I encourage Sharon to butt in, but then Jonny speaks again, fast, in a soft-as-summer-mizzle Scottish accent, eager to get his words out. He is bursting with these words.

Xmas Card © Sharon Hannah

“I learnt how to draw from copying my heroes,” says Jonny. “My mother was a cleaner, she worked early mornings. On Monday she came in with The Beano, on Wednesday The Dandy.” He was allowed to paint the bedroom wall with “DIY Crass stencil cut-outs”. His childhood was solid, he says: “no dark stories there”. Is that why he is attracted to the tragic ballads, country & western drunks and sad town piers that inspire his work? “Perhaps.” Echoing Hank Williams, he adds: “Life is good and bad.” You can’t see the light without the shadow.

Sharon, from a long line of Southampton dock workers, had a stricter time. “I wasn’t allowed to paint the bedroom wall,” she says. “Oh no.” But now she can paint wherever she likes (she decorated the kitchen cupboard knobs). Working full-time as an art technician, she lays out materials, clears up mess, but when she has time, she writes poems and paints mesmerising pictures, depicting the moon, conches, birds, seaweed, a black panther – symbols, organic forms – arranged in careful relation to each other on theatrical stages bordered with lush red curtains. There is surrealism in her work, and a sensuousness.

Jonny works in the garden shed (it used to be Sharon’s) but he is spilling out of there and the living room is another workspace. They also share a studio upstairs, really a box room. Watch out, I say to Sharon, he may take that over too. “We have border wars,” says Jonny. When I look later, his side is messy, piled high with paper and cut outs for collages, while hers is clear, her paints and brushes laid out ready for the next opportunity she has to paint. There is a metal ruler placed between them.

So is Sharon the breadwinner? “I resigned recently from teaching at Southampton Solent University,” says Jonny. “It’s a different world now.” His love of forgotten seaside towns and jaunty postcards, chalk horses, folklore and long-dead Blues singers does not appeal to the modern student. There were a couple of complaints and he has stopped feeling confident enough to speak his mind. Even with his two sons, now young adults, as guides in this new world, he feels the era of cancel culture to be a minefield. “Technology is not for me.”

Which is how he and Sharon arrived at Darktown. Darktown is, I’m beginning to understand, both a story that Sharon and Jonny tell themselves, to make life more interesting, and a fully realised fictional place, based loosely on nearby Shirley High Street, where everything is humdrum. More than humdrum. Dismal. Charity shops and Iceland, cheap shoe shops and opticians. But Jonny grew up in a world of just such high streets and as a child discovered wonders in the quotidian, “like the magic of Miss Kay’s half-toy, half-sweetie shop, and bright blue denim from Donaldson’s, otherwise known as ‘the household’.” Darktown has a row of imaginary shops such as Emmet Miller’s Unquiet Grave where, “legend has it”, Hank Williams bought a deck of cards and jug of wine before his fateful last ride in that Cadillac. Jane Russell owns the apartment upstairs and Jacques Tourneur runs the Roxy cinema. There is Clarence Hardware, and Chinaski’s Poetry Store. Hannah is all of these characters and none of them. He is shopkeeper and customer, poet and cowboy. He is Bukowski and Harry Smith, Jacques Tati and Monsieur Hulot. In Darktown, you don’t just meet your heroes, you become them.

“However, we don’t want to actually live in our dream world,” says Jonny, in all seriousness. “We inhabit Darktown, but there is a ferry to the mainland. It is important, as artists, to be connected to real things. We were both brought up to be part of society. To live in the world, not out of it on some island.” This is Southampton, not Charleston. In amongst the painted butter dishes we have a perfectly normal chat about mortgages and fitting art around bringing up children. Nobody is pretending life isn’t hard. It’s just that together, Jonny and Sharon can dream up the bright side. I think the fantasy requires two of them to commit to it. Just one, and the whole endeavour might seem utterly bonkers.

Spirits Call © Sharon Hannah

Their sons are fed up with Darktown, and won’t watch any more old movies with their dad. “Our sons call black and white films ‘grey’, which they are, if you think about it,” chortles Sharon. Though the boys live happily surrounded by their parents’ art. Even the curtains are Jonny’s work. St. Jude Collective’s The Captain’s Pattern, in pink. “When I settled down with a glass of wine and Sharon closed the living room curtains, with my design on them, for the first time, I thought, there, well, I’ve made it.”

How about a glass of wine yourself, Sharon asks. I won’t say no. Jonny has one too. What does ‘making it’ mean to Jonny? Sharon watches him fondly. “Being able to work. I’d like to do something bigger. Maybe a show in Paris?” He laughs and raises his eyes to heaven. Sharon says: “I’d like to do something bigger too.” Does that mean a bigger canvas, a broader reach? “Just bigger,” she says, sighing. She gathers the car keys from the sideboard – now she must take Jonny, who doesn’t drive, to band practice. Please come back, they say, we’ll take you for lunch at the Mermaid Café. I promise I will return.

On the way home, when it’s late and I’m tired, a bunch of teenagers board the train, teenagers who might, on another day, have felt abrasive and loud, screeching into their phones, jostling one another, barging into people. But transported by Sharon and Jonny Hannah, with my new vision, the kids become a charming carousel of school children who might at any moment burst into a song from Hamilton or Oklahoma The sky clears and the stars come out. I can hear Blues on the wind. Yes, yes! I’m on the charabanc! If I practise, I might be able to stay in Darktown forever. As a fortune cookie once told me: ‘what you see is what you get’.

Imogen Lycett Green is an arts journalist and curator of kids’ poetry projects, including Betjeman Poetry Prize and Track Record.