Eiko Yoshimoto was born in Okayama shortly before the Second World War. The story of how she came to live in England, and became a prominent pastel artist, is fascinating. She was born into a samurai family. Although such social distinctions have now largely disappeared, the samurai were the military class, with a strong sense of service and responsibility towards those beneath them. A number of her relations were active in politics. Some of her ancestors had visited Europe early in the 20th century, and the family was more open to western ideas than many. The young Eiko was sent to the Notre Dame Sacred Heart School, where she learned English, and a love of English literature and drama. It was thought she might go to university or art college. Instead, she was contracted as an actress with the Toho Film Company and the world-famous director, Kurosawa. She was taught to act and dance, and to perform martial arts with naginata, appeared in several films and, in her spare time, attended life-drawing classes in Tokyo.
This, though, was a time of cultural upheaval in post-war Japan. Unhappy with the dominant male attitudes in the film industry, she gave up her career, and changed to a non-male dominated artistic occupation - hairdressing. At the time, there were very strict regulations governing foreign travel, and very few individuals qualified. Here, then, is one of the first unusual twists in her story. After she had met some diplomats from the Malaysian Embassy, out of the blue came an invitation: the Malaysian Government wanted someone who could speak English and teach hairdressing and beauty culture.
"I was very lucky. I went to Malaysia, and had a fabulous time, demonstrating and teaching in a beauty school," she says. "This lasted for about 18 months. But my great passion was to travel to England. It looked impossible. And then one of my relations became second female Minister for Technology. She took the view that young Japanese women should be able to see the world, and I was able to get a passport."
So it was that Eiko came to England, not as an artist, but as a hairdresser. Not any old hairdresser, though. She became a partner in a business, Baron-Yoshimoto, which specialised in traditional Japanese hairstyles for TV, the theatre, opera, and weddings in the Japanese community. Eiko married in 1964. In 1965 came the defining event of her whole life. When pregnant, at full term, she was given an overdose of local anaesthetic. This resulted in cardiac arrest, open chest cardiac massage to restart her heart, followed by vocal cord paralysis and loss of her voice, deep vein thrombosis and life threatening pulmonary embolism. The baby died. It took 12 months for Eiko to recover. In 1971 , she was blessed with the birth of her son. When he was about six, she thought of writing and illustrating a children's book about a Japanese boy living in the English countryside. She started to create the pictures in pastels. As she says now: "The book was never completed, but I found the pastels very interesting, and haven't stopped since."
For some years she continued with her hairdressing, too, but it is not wise to suggest that her art was just a hobby. "I don't look at anything as a hobby," she says very firmly. "A hobby to me means something you do for pleasure and relaxation. Art is serious. In the same way, gardening is not a hobby, cooking is not a hobby. Every moment is so important and precious." This attitude, she explains, comes from a sense of beauty instilled by her parents.
"There is beauty everywhere. You must look at things from every angle." Success came quite quickly. Within 18 months of starting, she entered a GLC competition and sold her first picture. Through her broadcasting contacts, she was invited to draw the BBC Symphony Orchestra in rehearsal. Musicians became one of her favourite subjects, along with ballet dancers, gardens, and, more recently, the Thames in London.
In 1991 she was elected to membership of the Pastel Society. The following year, she became a member of the Pastel Society of France, and was also invited to stage a solo exhibition at the Royal Opera House, and at Glyndebourne. Every other year she has a solo exhibition in Japan, when she also leads workshops. Some of her paintings have been bought by the Japanese and Saudi Arabian royal families.
Her style is strongly influenced by Monet and Degas, whose work she was familiar with from her father's collection of art books, and by Turner. "When I was young, he wasn't known in Japan," she says, "and seeing his paintings in England was a real eye-opener. I love Turner's paintings, and am proud of him as an English artist."
Already established, she undertook some more formal training at City & Guilds. "In many ways, it was a good experience, but for two and a half years my work went very dark and so stiff. I think it affected my natural sense of colour. I had to overcome this because the way I work is to launch straight in with colour, without any underpainting or other preparation that might interfere with my spontaneity and energy."
Eiko's search for new ways to express her creativity continues. She enjoys making monotype prints, which are more abstract than her pastel work. This year, for the first time, she began making pottery figures.
'Pastel Painting and
Cover of Centenary book
of The Pastel Society by Eiko Yoshimoto.
© Eiko Yoshimoto