One of Australasia’s leading portrait artists, Jane Pestell-Litten, resides in Queenstown. In a
sitting with PHILIP CHANDLER, she gives the good oil on what got her into art about 12 years ago, and on her embarrassment at leaving a nude model in the cold
Queenstown’s been enriched by many amazing Aussie immigrants over the years.
One such is distinguished portrait artist Jane Pestell-Litten who moved here, originally to Millbrook, six years ago, and has made her presence felt ever since.
But for all her reputation as an artist, she was in fact a noted architectural designer in West
ern Australia for the first 30 years of her career.
After only one year at design school, she was just wanting to see what a job interview entailed when she was hired on the spot.
‘‘I still to this day swear I got the job because the man interviewing me was a very tiny little Welshman, and I figured he needed me to get things off the top shelf.’’
Pestell-Litten worked on a huge number of commercial projects in Australia and Asia like hotels, casinos and the Western Australian Parliament, and won an award along with
her firm for the Melbourne Aquarium.
Running, by the end, her own consultancy, she ‘retired’ to look after her two teenagers —
‘‘I always think that’s a high-risk period’’.
However, after two or three years, she ‘‘started to go slightly stir-crazy’’.
Then, just like that, she turned into a self-taught artist.
A friend had invited her to a life-drawing class just for company, ‘‘and I got bitten badly’’.
‘‘I just started drawing and I kept on drawing.’’
Her husband, Barry, asked her what she wanted for Christmas.
‘‘I said, ‘oh, I’d love a set of oil paints’ — I’d never painted oils before — and then 15
months later I had my first exhibition and that sold out in three days.’’
Pestell-Litten — a surname combining her maiden name and married name (‘‘what was I
thinking?’’) — says she’d wanted to be an artist earlier, but came from a very scientific
family, ‘‘so it was never a pastime or a pursuit’’.
However she’d started drawing at design school, as that was in the pre-computer age.
She still finds it hard to explain her talent — ‘‘I have no idea how I do what I do’’ — but
there’s little doubt she’s got it.
An early portrait commission, of a headmaster, sold for $A10,000, and commissions have flowed ever since.
One notable subject was former Australian Labour leader Kim Beazley.
She and Barry first visited Queenstown on holiday in 2005, then returned next year and
stayed at a friend’s house at Millbrook, after which they bought their own villa there.
They made the permanent move in 2014.
The next winter, with the help of Christine Lady Hill, Jane started a life-drawing class in a
community room in Arrowtown.
‘‘I was so dumb, I had no idea it gets really cold in Arrowtown.
‘‘One particular day, I looked around and we were all sitting there in puffer jackets and the
model was standing there naked in a pair of socks, blue and shivering, and I suddenly realised it was minus 12.
‘‘The poor girl — but she did come back.’’
At the end of the course, she organised an exhibition at Arrowtown’s museum that
raised heaps for Queenstown’s Happiness House.
Along the way, she and friend Sue Marshall started a free monthly e-newsletter, Arty-Facts, on this area’s arty goings-on, that runs till this day.
She also had a role in starting the Arrowtown Creative Arts Society.
This year she’s become a Turn Up the Music Trust trustee, recognising the importance of a
musical education from her own example, growing up, and from the example of her and Barry’s family.
Between those community roles, she’s painted incessantly.
‘‘Barry will tell you I can go out to the studio and I don’t come out, and he has to tell me
it’s time for lunch or dinner.’’
Jane, who’s 60 next month, paints in the realist style.
She quips, ‘‘I’m not very bright, I paint things that look like things’’.
What she loves to do with her portraits is show the subject ‘‘something about themselves
they don’t necessarily know is special about them’’.