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.
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.
Sadly the last few months have been dominated by the Covid -19 pandemic. Now as the UK gradually lessens the restrictions we find ourselves adjusting to new circumstances and making adjustments to manage the continued risks.
As I have been unable to use my studio during this time I have been working at home predominately in sketchbooks. New projects are underway with thoughts and ideas gradually taking shape. Everything has been moving at a gentle pace.
One of the consequences of this lockdown period has been to watch Spring merge into Summer. Not being able to go out, has meant the garden has figured more prominently in my daily life. Beside offering a calm counter balance to the all the stressful news, I have had time to notice smaller details and to fully appreciate this patch of ground on my doorstep. The afternoon light has been a delight. Watching the garden wakeup from winter and gently close in the space with various greens, purples and beautiful textures has been a real 'tonic'.
I certainly feel people living in flats must have had a particularly tough time over the three months, having no outdoor space to escape to.
Textures and details figure high on the things I am particularly enjoying. These have sparked ideas for work which I am in the process of developing which I will share in due course. .
I am delighted to have contributed a few pieces of work to the new exhibition Bugs at the Groundworks Gallery, Kings Lynn. The gallery seeks to engage viewers with environmental issues through art. Director Veronika Sekeles has created a wonderful space where artists show work alongside a varied and creative programme. These workshops look at how art facilitates discussion helping us to respond to these crucial issues and enabling us to shape the future.
One of the pieces I have submitted - 'A Dangerous Idea' was made in response to an Italian reliquary diptych (1300 - 1350). This beautiful medieval work is on view in the V &A Museum, London (Medieval and Renaissance Gallery, Room 10, case 16). The original work (above) depicts a tempera painting of the Virgin and Child with Saints Blasius and Nicholas; Saints Bartholomew, Mary Magdalena, Urban, Agatha, and Anthony.
The work is small and portable consisting of two panels which open and close like a book. The central area contains several holy relics still in their original wrappings. It was this 'booklike' quality that initially caught my attention. I began to wonder what a more modern interpretation might contain. Religious iconography is less evident in todays world and no longer has that central position it once had. My first thoughts turned toward science and in particular to Darwin.
Using this structure, my response reflects the changing attitudes of the nineteenth century, and the emergence of science. The painted panels of the original diptych have been replaced by the inclusion of On the Origin of Species'. Darwin revolutionised our understanding of the natural world and our place within it. An image of Darwin peers from beneath the bunt pages of his text, while on the opposite panel the inclusion of a mirror brings the viewer into the work. Various natural objects surround the text. A 'spent' match becomes a symbol of this pivotal moment when these theories 'set the world alight', forever changing our understanding of the world.
Also included in the exhibition are four smaller works titled 'Relic". These are a comment on the massive decline of many butterfly and moth species. The central butterfly image was not based on any one species but rather stands as a symbol representing all of those species which once so abundant, are now extremely rare. The butterfly rests on a circular book - part index of the world - its burnt edges a reminder of the destruction of vital habitats around the world. Each piece is contained in a box and slipcase.
The final work consists of two artist books. A triptych structure folds together enclosing a hand painted image. The first book's central panel has a 'scar' cutting through the page. It is suggestive of a world in the process of being torn apart; darkness spills out across the smaller panels leaving an impression of an empty devastated world.
The second book opens to a central panel in which the 'scar' has a number of nails placed along the fissure. Referencing the Japanese attitude of Kintsugi - the idea that breakages and cracks can be repaired with an honesty which remains visible, the panel offers a suggestion of potential and renewal.
The outer panels of Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights depicts the creation of the world. I have created a textured dark cover, with stitched fragile heartbeat. This wraps around enclosing the entire book.
Staying optimistic in the face of such serious climate challenges is no mean feat. However all change starts with a small gesture. Multiplied, these small changes come together as a greater force. If we hold this in mind, and value collaboration over competition, hope continues to have a chance.