Published: 06:00, 12 July 2021
| Updated: 14:14, 12 July 2021
A former prisoner who took up painting at a renowned Kent jail is set to showcase his art at London gallery.
Jack Murton, now 63, spent nearly three years in the late 1980s at the now closed Blantyre House, in Goudhurst, after he was convicted of armed robbery.
He says his time was a "completely unique experience" which changed his life.
HMP Blantyre House was labelled in 2010 as one of the "jewels in the prison service crown", and the resettlement prison was designed to prepare inmates for the outside world, giving them responsibility and opportunities to develop skills.
In 1996 research found that 8% of prisoners released offended within two years, compared to the 57% for those who left other prisons.
However, standards began to slip and a 2013 report found there were "unprecedented" problems with drugs, bullying and violence. In 2019, the site closed.
When Jack Murton entered Blantyre House he'd had enough of a life of crime after spending time in and out of Borstals and jails since he was 12, for offences ranging from arson to grievous bodily harm.
"By the time I was in my late 20s I was beginning to feel like I was disappearing as a person. I had never been in a plane, I couldn't drive a car, all of the things my mates visiting me from the outside spoke about and people inside, I couldn't talk about. I felt like I was losing who I was."
In 1984 he was jailed for 12 years for an armed robbery of a Securior van and was sent to Maidstone prison, where he had already served time for a previous conviction.
"It was a dangerous place, it might be really quiet for six months and then something bad would happen," Jack recalls, but adds that it was "pretty stable in general".
It was in Maidstone where he first became interested in art after, out of boredom, he looked through catalogues from Sotheby's auction house, ordered by two friends and fellow inmates.
"They used to order all these art books, one used to paint alongside Lucian Freud, they were older than me. Then one day I saw this painting, it was called The Fighting Temeraire, it had the most beautiful colours."
Jack couldn't get the William Turner painting out of his mind and told himself if he was ever to go to "this special place", Blantyre House, then he would start painting.
"Everyone wanted to go to Blantyre house, they used to come to Maidstone once a month to pick maybe three or four people. They didn't care what your previous convictions were, they didn't care how serious, they picked the right people so they had the right balance."
Jack eventually did get transferred in 1988, where he says the ethos was "You're lucky to be here. What you mustn't do is do nothing."
"Funnily enough when I went there it turned out to be one of the hardest prison times I had done," he said.
"All of a sudden you have got to think for yourself. All of a sudden you have got to manage your own day, he remembers.
The inmates weren't locked up at night and were allowed to wonder around the "massive house" and have cars, so they could leave the prison for their jobs.
He remembers guards as well as inmates arguing over the approach to prison life at Blantyre House.
"We would hear the prison officers arguing, some saying 'this is brilliant, ground breaking', and the old guard saying 'nah, we're giving them too much.'"
He remembers politicians from Australia and celebrities visiting the prison, to see how it worked.
There was also a no drugs and no fighting policy and if you were caught doing either, you were out.
"If you had a fight you were gone, no ifs and buts. That's what made it so safe," he said.
In Blantyre, Jack developed his art skills, first copying other painting and then composing his own.
"Every day and every night I used to paint in the art room in there. I fell in love with art."
He still remembers the amazement after his first painting was sold to a Tunbridge Wells couple for £130 while in prison.
While in Blantyre, Jack, who now lives in London, made a video diary for the BBC about life in the prison, and on release he worked on a documentary about prisons for BBC2.
Between 17 and 20 of the artist's works will go on display at a gallery in Bethnal Green this week.
They include depictions of scenes from a court room, a prison and crimes being committed, and one has taken 29 years to complete, longer, the artist says, than his son has been alive.
Thirty Years by Jack Murton is at The Brick Lane Gallery, from Wednesday to Sunday (July 14-18).
To see more of Jack's art, click here.