Sarah Mayhew Craddock talks to a city curator about Saatchi and moving home

The unassuming Art Jericho gallery on King Street, Oxford, is a surprise, nestled on a back street sandwiched between a fish restaurant and a primary school in Jericho with a relatively progressive programme.

Thriving since its inception in 2008, it was established by Patricia Baker-Cassidy, who then handed the reins of this perfectly pocket-sized exhibition space over to Jenny Blyth two years ago.

Born in Oxford, moving to South Wales during her early years, Jenny was surrounded by the Black Mountains and deserted Welsh beaches. “That wild landscape coloured my sense of aesthetic and created a profound love of the outdoors,” developing into a primary focus on landscape in the art she exhibits.

It also prompted Blyth to relocate her family from central London to Oxford so that they could profit from the countryside on their doorstep.

As eloquent in conversation as she is describing the art that hangs in her gallery, she tells me: “My father brought us back to Oxford when I was seven.

“He was a wonderful surgeon and an extraordinary man, one of the quiet greats and definitely the best teacher I could have wished for in life .”

With regards to a formal education she “considers myself very fortunate to have been a Dragon School girl”.

She added: “Although it was challenging to be an only girl in a class of boys, with the benefit of hindsight, I appreciate that The Dragon provided a singular work ethos and resilience that enabled me to embrace challenges that came in later years.

“There was a distinct flavour of eccentricity and freedom inherent there that defined us. I recall being dressed in full school uniform with heavy blazer, shirt, tie and blue corduroy shorts and shoes to do my clothes test – you had to jump into the River Cherwell and swim across to the reeds on the far side and back before you were allowed to play unsupervised on the playing fields.”

As for her transition into curating, Blyth explained: “I didn’t embark into the art world until I was in my late 20s. I had a law degree and by some strange quirk of fate was invited to a farewell lunch only to find myself at an interview for assistant to the curator at The Saatchi Gallery. But the appeal of working with art in a beautiful contemporary gallery space proved irresistible.”

Presented with another hurdle, Blyth describes how her career took yet another unexpected turn: “I had been there six weeks when the curator left to pursue a career in publishing.

“I remember looking around at a skeleton staff and thinking that Charles Saatchi would certainly bring in someone, only to find that I was asked to step up to the mark. I remember saying to Charles ‘but I don’t have an art degree’ to which he replied, ‘neither do I’.” It was essentially a baptism of fire.

The Saatchi Gallery collection at that time ran into the thousands with only one young British artwork by a very young Jake Chapman. There were dozens of artworks travelling from the collection to museums worldwide on any given day.

“Over the next 12 years we built a collection of around 3,000 YBA [Young British Artists] artworks, during which time we mounted over 30 exhibitions to include some truly memorable shows – particularly Jenny Saville, Paula Rego, Alex Katz, Damien Hirst and some extraordinary work by Young Americans from Ashley Bickerton, John Currin, Tom Friedman, Charles Ray, and a number of European artists.”

Learning about her formative experience in the art world it is little wonder that Art Jericho is thriving: “The Saatchi Gallery brief was to put art exhibitions top of the list for young people and we upped the audience from 6,000 to 12,000 a year to over 40,000 a show.”

Reflecting upon this incredible experience, Blyth said: “I don’t know that in today’s market I would have been given the opportunity that I had at The Saatchi Gallery.” So what are the keys to success in the art world?

“Relating well to people is important in all aspects of gallery life, whether dealing with artists, collectors, auction houses or the public at large. Whether buying or selling you need to think fast and be focused at all times.

“Attention to detail is hugely important of course in the visual arts, although a sense of aesthetics develops on the job, and if you want to be in the contemporary art world, seeing as many shows as you can is a must, to include artist-run alternative shows as well as major exhibitions.

“Above all, a sense of fun and perspective are helpful as no doubt you will find yourself dealing with the unexpected: a shark that stands on its nose an hour before a press launch; a chocolate display that has been eaten by rodents in storage. Airlines will send your artworks scheduled for LA to South Africa; and works get damaged. The possibilities are limitless.”

Where does one go after such a significant role?

“I chose to leave The Saatchi Gallery when Charles moved the gallery to County Hall. I felt the need to ‘coddle my own eggs’ however small, and craved to move back home to Oxford after more than 20 years working in London and yearned to be more country based.

“I had some misgivings about ‘going back’ but found Oxford much as I remembered it, and I feel thankful daily to live in such a beautiful city.

“I particularly wanted my boys to have some of the freedom that I had experienced as a child. After 10 years in the heart of Camden, we found ourselves five minutes from Port Meadow, with the Thames, Wytham Woods and so much to enjoy – in heaven really.”

She then spent 10 years mounting exhibitions largely in London until invited to curate for Art Jericho. “It was refreshing to work at home in Oxford and wonderful to finally have a permanent space to work with emerging artists which continues to inspire me .”

A new exhibitions of paintings by Addy Gardner entitled Sky Fall has just opened at Art Jericho and continues until December 20.