Last Autumn I completed an excellent online course - Inspired by Nature with Tara Axford. One of the course elements involved using a gelli plate to produce mono prints. This is a process which enables very fine detail and textures to be created. I have made prints from some of the objects and textures found along the shore.
Rather than faithfully reproducing a particular view, my aim has been to capture the essence of the place as I have experienced it during the winter months. The resulting prints therefore become infused with memories and emotions.
Some of the prints have been selected and placed into small books. I have chosen the concertina structure as it is sympathetic to the subject matter. The books are tactile objects where the folding and unfolding pages mimic the movement of the water and tides.
The estuary is indeed a dynamic place. Having walked the same path for a number of weeks, no two days have been the same. The walks have covered the period of Lockdown,- from midwinter through to the Spring equinox. The soft light, and subtleties of winter are already starting to change as the days lengthen. I see these works as being firmly routed in this particular time.
"Here the land, water and air meet; here we have the ebb and flow of the ceaseless tides...of such eternal change - the struggle and competition for existence"
Joseph Conrads description of the Thames estuary (from Heart of Darkness)
"Always the edge of the sea remains an elusive and indefinable boundary. The shore has a dual nature, changing with the swing of the tides, belonging now to the land now to the sea."
The Edge of the Sea Rachel Carson
The strand line is a freshly drawn mark stretching away into the distance. Refreshed and redrawn each day by the new tide. It often consists of a line of pebbles, broken up with dark bladderwrack. Usually larger stones rest on one side, while lighter pebbles tumble down the shore as if they are unsure whether to stay on land or retreat with the tide. It would seem their journey hasn't concluded just yet.
Textures are all around. Lower down the beach are scoured channels etched in the sand by water filtering its way through the grit. All these beautiful textures come into their own in low light when the deepening shadows reveal their subtleties.
These images were created last summer when exploring Keats life and connection to St Thomas Hospital. I have selected a few to share today to mark the bicentenary of his death. His life and work continue to resonate and inspire, offering a rich seam I intend to continue to explore.
"I almost wish we were butterflies and liv'd but three summer days- three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain".
Keats letter to Fanny Brawne written July 3 1819.
"The spring was always inchantment [sic] to me- I would get away from suffering- in watching the growth of a little flower, it was a delight to me - it was part of my very soul - perhaps the only happiness I have had in the world has been the silent growth of flowers"
A response Keats made a few weeks before his death Keats to Severin's report of the first signs of spring returning. (here)
"...then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think,
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink"
John Keats The Terror of Death. 1817
"That queen of secrecy, the violet."
John Keats Blue Eyes 1815
"Great spirits now on earth are sojourning:
...And other spirits there are standing apart
Upon the forehead of the age to come;
These, these will give the world another heart,
And other pulses - hear ye not the hum
Of mighty workings in the human mart?
Listen awhile ye nations, and be dumb."
John Keats To Benjamin Robert Haydon 1816.
"Stop and consider! Life is but a day;
A fragile dewdrop on it's perilous way"
John Keats From Sleep and Poetry, 1816
"After dark vapours have oppress'd our plains,
For a long dreary season, comes a day
Born of the gentle south, and clears away,
From the sick heavens all unseemly stains"
John Keats After Dark Vapours, 1817.
February 23rd 2021 marks the bicentenary of John Keats death. During his brief life he wrote a series of much loved poems that still resonate today. Keats House has organised numerous online events (here,) and on the 23rd February the Poetry Society have organised a gathering of poets and Keats scholars for an evening of poetry, thought and discussion on Keats legacy and place in our imaginations. (here) Furthermore the Keats Foundation has made a series of excellent videos with Mathew Coulton reciting the Odes from Wentworth Place. (here)
Following on from the work I made last summer (see entry The Summer of Lockdown - Herbarium & John Keats, 7/11/2020 ) this small tribute to his Ode to a Nightingale, will feature in the 'Herbarium' exhibition celebrating World Book Night at the Bower Ashton Library 20th April - 30th June 2021. it is one of a series of ten mono-prints inspired by the line
"fast fading violets cover'd up in leaves
And mid May's eldest child,
The coming musk rose, full of dewy wine"
Utilising a letter fold structure from the early 18th Century, the piece unfolds to reveal the fifth stanza from the poem and a small silhouette of Keats. The Exhibition aims to spread some cheer and hope following such a difficult year.
Lockdown restrictions have meant staying local, so I have chosen to walk the same route over a number of weeks. This has offered an opportunity to specifically focus on my local stretch of estuary. I live within walking distance of the seafront where the river Thames meets the North Sea.
My walk takes me east toward the North sea and the rising sun. It is interesting to see how the sand and pebbles have shifted in this short time. In places steep shelves have begun to replace the gentle sandy slopes, and slipways have accumulated ever increasing piles of shells and sand. It serves as a reminder of how quickly water can alter the shore line, encroaching ever closer to the sea wall.
The coast here consists of a wide open expanse of mudflats. When the tide recedes it disappears over a mile but when it turns, comes in very fast. For the unwary, it can easy cut you off from the shore leaving you stranded on shrinking sand banks. Essex has sometimes been seen negatively in comparison to other areas of the British coast, but I love it, and agree with Ken Walpoles's statement
"some people would call it desolate but the fact that you have got the sea and the sky in a dynamic relationship with each other makes it pretty magical"
The wide horizons, and changing skies offer a variety of views. The low light of winter is especially beautiful. The mudflats attract plenty of winter visitors. I especially love watching the Sanderlings as they scurry along the edge of the water. They are a joy to watch when they take flight. Skimming low across the water their undersides flash white as they turn in unison, like a string of lights across the surface. Another winter highlight has been watching a curlew feeding just off shore. Having heard it call for several days, it was great to finally spot it wading in a shallow channel of water.
Dotted all along the seafront are distinctive poles. They become beacons for the crows, and seagulls. Capped with green cones, they warn of obstructions below the surface. To my mind they are like arrows sometimes pointing to the heavens, while on still days, ambivalent they point both up and down as their shadows are reflected in the water. Cemented in place the water continually eats away at the base causing some to lean askew, as if the task has become too much.
It is a timeless view which has seen so many travellers arriving and departing.
"The tidal current runs to and fro in its unceasing service, crowed with memories of men, and ships it had borne to the rest of home or the battles of sea."
from Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad )
The third piece of work in this 'summer' series is titled 'Hortus Domesticus" (Domestic Garden). It continues in a similar manner to Mr Treen's Botany Book. The content is once again inspired from observations in my garden. the work is partially bound - each signature consists of two pages of drawings or text which is inserted between pressed plant specimens. These fifteen signatures are wrapped in a vellum-like paper cover. The completed work is then contained within a dark ivy- clad box.
The restrictions of the summer have highlighted the importance of our domestic surroundings, and the role nature plays in maintaining our well being. while it has had its difficult moments, shielding has created an opportunity to explore what Robert McFarlane describes as 'the undiscovered country of the nearby". It has provided an opportunity to focus closely on the same small area over a period of time, thereby revealing details often by-passed for more distant horizons.
The plant specimens vary and are a mixture of commonly found weeds which seed themselves everywhere. Taking time to look at their structures shapes and textures reveals intricate root systems and finely threaded veins. As well as plants, an array of insect and animal life has visited the garden. Sadly not many small birds but I think this is in part due to the abundance of magpies - at times I have counted seven or eight all jostling for position in the neighbouring conifer. I observe a strict hierarchy within the conifer - crows dominate the top branches, under them the magpies cackle, while pigeons skulk in the lower branches.
As the flowers fade, and butterflies disappear we move into what Keats calls "The season of mist and mellow fruitfulness". Berries replace fruits and the garden is taken over by golden orb spiders constantly spinning fine webs across the the space. Perhaps this is the beginning of another book?
This wonderful book cover was found inside a set of very old encyclopaedias I bought. several years ago. I have been waiting to do something creative with it and this summer provided the opportunity to finally make use of it. I had initially thought about drawing on the cover but remained hesitant about changing its charm and character. I finally settled on retaining the original cover but making a new insert.
My attempts to find out about Mr Treen have been difficult - he remains elusive. The closest link was to a head gardener in Liverpool called William Treen. while the time line was accurate, there was not enough information to confirm if the two gentleman were related.
It is fascinating to think this simple brown cover has survived for over a hundred and fifty years. By way of an introduction I began with an imaginative letter addressed to Mr Treen inquiring about plans he may have held for the start of the a new year in 1878. Taking my cue from his title - Botany Book, I have created a new insert. The internal pages comprise of a mixture of drawings and plant specimens gathered from my own garden during the period of national lockdown March - June 2020.
While tidying the garden, I am constantly pulling up unwanted seedlings either weeds or various self sown plants 'growing in the wrong place'. Having noticed their delicate root systems, I started to remove them more carefully. Close inspection reveals the beauty of their structures. Therefore rather than discard them, I decided to preserve them. I appreciate there is nothing new in this - plant collecting has a long well documented history. However, it set me wondering about how and why others had felt the compulsion to gather pressed flowers.
My own purpose for saving specimens was initiated by aesthetics and curiosity. When examined closely each plant becomes a 'miracle of nature'. I found a new respect for these 'everyday' plants in their ability to grow in the most barren places for example in the cracks between concrete paving slabs.
Approaching the experience of being in lockdown with a mindset of opportunity rather than restriction has sparked several ideas for new work. The first "Herbarium' brings together inspiration gained from a visit to The Old Operating Theatre, and Herb Garrett at St.Thomas Hospital, London earlier in the year.
Having learnt John Keats once worked at St Thomas Hospital, and was a qualified apothecary, I wanted to make a piece of work which celebrates the connection between nature and healing. Keats made a decision to give up surgical training to concentrate fully on writing and poetry. He turned away from what must have been a brutal profession in the early 1800's, to find solace, and meaning in the natural world. His poems explore themes of life, death and transience.
I feel this idea of looking for something more meaningful resonates with our currently situation - with national lockdowns and self isolation due to Covid -19. Being confined to our homes has provoked many to reflect on the benefits we gain from nature, and to question what is really important in our lives.
'Herbarium" pays homage to Keats. It consists of two unique books contained in a paper cover. The first book uses a Concertina structure. One side of the book depicts the outline of various shaped apothecary jars. Each of the eight bottles contain fragments from 'Ode to A Nightingale. While the reverse of the book is filled with with silhouettes of 'Love-in-a-Mist'.
The second book comprises 15 unbound pages. They are taken from a one hundred year old edition of Palgraves Golden Treasury. Pressed pants found in my garden during Lockdown have been placed alongside Keats poems. Attached using beeswax, this has the added bonus of making the paper translucent Text form the reverse page seeps through giving the impression of several voices on one page. It is akin to a process of becoming, or of uncertainty, echoing the sentiment that life is transient - sometimes we can only partially glimpse meaning.
This work is one of several responses to the visit by the group Bookscapes. Others members of Bookscapes work can be seen here.
Back in January, I met up with fellow artists from Bookscapes Our purpose was to visit several London Museums. As we all share a common interest in Museum collections, our intention was to find a collection that inspires us to make new work for a group show. Our first stop saw us arrive at Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields, and then in the afternoon the Old Operating Theatre and Herb Garrett at St Thomas Hospital.
Sadly despite best intentions, our plans have been put on hold due to the subsequent impact of Covid-19. It is highly unlikely we will have a chance to make any further Museum visits for a while and the likelihood of being able to put on an exhibition seems remote. However as we all responded favourably to the Herb Garrett, we have decided to go ahead and make work inspired by this first visit. We will now show the work on line.
As with all new projects ideas abound and research just throws more ideas into the mix. In condensing all this information and inspiration, my initial thoughts returned to the healing potential of plants and the arts. Having worked as an Art therapist for many years, I am a firm believer that creativity and the arts can aid healing. This will be my starting point.
The restriction imposed by lockdown has offered an opportunity to closely observe and explore what's happening close to home in my own 'doorstep' environment. I have found the garden has much to offer. I have been enjoying photographing the variety of shapes and textures of some 'simple' everyday plants. They have their own exotic qualities.
One of those stand out plants has to be Love in a Mist. As it kindly self seeds, I usually have a wonderful display every year. It is definitely a 'value for money' plant as it will tolerate neglect, growing anywhere, even in very dry poor soil. It has fine feathery foliage, a beautiful flower, and an equally beautiful seed head.
The Pasque flower is another plant that has a beautiful seed head.
Detail of a Jasmine plant, although it suffered this past winter, has none the less produced a mass of beautifully scented flowers. Meanwhile the dying stems create beautiful sinuous silhouettes in the sun.
I am also part of Bookscapes Collective.
Bookscapes is a group of six artists that have developed a group practice specialising in site specific interventions and exhibitions.