Directed and produced by David Cobham, The Goshawk is a film adaptation of T.H. White’s memoir of his life spent training and living with a goshawk. The narrator, Duncan Carse, also appears in the film as a stand-in for the figure of White, and the music was composed by Carey Blyton, nephew of Enid Blyton. It harkens back to a time when the BBC’s nature documentaries were not hyped as major media events, replete with “stunning” photography, and instead just showed you the reality of things, without sentiment or manufactured ‘drama’.
It is finished, my most recent painting. Having said that, it’s true that a painting is never really finished, it’s just abandoned. The trick is to pay attention and recognise when the painting is telling you it’s had enough of your meddling and just wants to be left alone to be what it is. Here’s the story of it’s progress, from beginning to end:
I didn’t have a title for it, until this morning when – as usual – I went through song titles and lyrics, looking for something that felt right. You won’t believe some of the titles I considered, even if it was just for a fleeting second, before ‘sanity’ prevailed, until I settled on a song from The Icicle Works’ 1986 album If You Want To Defeat Your Enemy, Sing His Song. We often get long-tailed tits in our garden, and with all the grim shit going on in the human sphere, they’re a reminder that there’s another world entire from all that, one in which its inhabitants are for the most part utterly oblivious to that which we place so much import in.
I first heard about Steve Dilworth, whose work was discussed by Robert MacFarlane in his book The Old Ways. Anyone described as a “demi-magus” is going to get my attention, and a quick online search confirmed that, yes, here was someone doing work worth paying attention to. Not that he looks anything like the impression you might be forgiven for assuming just by looking at his work. Dead animals, bleached bones, horns, twigs, rock, stone, grass – all props that throw out an aura of oo-ee-oo and everything a wild-eyed moonstruck shaman would be expected to be playing with, and yet the man in person looks like a kindly University lecturer. From Hull.
This short (15 min) film gives an informative overview of his life and work, starting with the hanged man sculpture that first made his name in the early 80’s, but placing appropriate emphasis on where he’s at now, living on the Isle of Harris in the Hebrides, in a stone house that faces out to the sea. His workshop is full of unbelievable stuff, looking like the contents of a failed taxidermist’s business and a medieval ossuary have been dropped into a builder’s yard.
From out of this detritus comes some of the best sculpture I’ve ever seen. It’s a medium I’ve had little tolerance for, believing that it’s been a conduit through which utter charlatans and lazy bastards who can’t be bothered to learn how to draw or paint have conned themselves into the status of ‘contemporary artist’. As the painter Jock McFadyen says: “I don’t want to be an artist. I want to be a painter. The man in the street might think you make art out of dirt and string. It is embarressing to be an artist.” The irony is that Steve Dilworth does use dirt and string to create things that the man in the street might not understand, but could not deny the skill and artistry that’s gone into their creation. I also feel it resonates with Ted Hughes’ best work, that sense of animal spirits coming out of the shadows to cajole or console us, to remind us of our animist heritage and to recognise that civilization is a flimsy veil behind which lies what Spike Milligan called “a mad darkness.” As Ted wrote in a letter to his brother Gerald: “Also, remember that the skull of a tiger costs about £35. That’s with teeth, of course. Even without teeth they are still desirable objects, in my tribe. Eagle’s feet still wanted.”
Iain Sinclair, long an admirer of Steve Dilworth’s work, appears in the film, confirming the man’s “unnerving sense of integrity.” That really comes across in the work itself – which has clearly not just been thrown together around a flimsy conceptual excuse of an idea, but is, rather, fashioned with patience, passion and a calm intensity. That sense of integrity and purposefulness is evident in the way he explains his motivations for making the work in the first place, which seems to be a way of repairing broken connections with the land itself that modern civilisation has all but severed. Sculpture, as its often presented in modern art galleries, is just crap scooped up off the urban streets and presented within the anodyne context of a white-walled gallery. The natural materials that Steve Dilworth uses sound the echoes of deep time and demand that they be regarded with a kind of reverence. There’s certainly something being communicated, but it’s a language that operates on a subconscious level, and can’t easily be understood and comfortably integrated into a commonplace understanding of the world. That’s often the kind of art I respond to most strongly, and Steve Dilworth’s work has certainly made a deep impression on me. Highly recommended.
An update on previous posts. This painting is almost finished. Almost. I’ve allowed myself this weekend to finish the berries and the background, which is proving trickier than I thought it would be at the outset. Not that it should be easy. I’ve always been suspicious when the work come too easily, because experience has taught me that the more challenging a work is to make, the more of yourself you have to put into it, and the more ‘power’ – for want of a better term – the painting has as a result.
And I still don’t have a title for it.
I’ve written about Adam Scovell several times before. He’s an interesting film-maker and observer of culture, and February 2019 sees the release of his first novel Mothlight. Inspired by the author’s acquisition of a box of old photographs – collected by an elderly woman in his native Merseyside – the novel explores a relationship of sorts with a deceased lepidopterist and the young man who cares for her up to her death, and beyond. Key details such as the main characters, the locations (Merseyside, North Wales, south London) are drawn directly from Scovell’s own life, and I don’t think it’s too much of a supposition to suggest that in the book’s writing he was processing his own griefs and sense of dislocation from the familiar. The box of photographs he inherited becomes a kaleidoscopic scrying glass through which to view, and perhaps better understand, the past.
Published by Influx Press, the promotional campaign for the novel has already started. There’s a short film that explores the premise and themes of the book, one that’s well worth 6 minutes of your time, especially as it includes some exquisite shots of the old woman’s house:
There’s also a launch event in LunDun, and you can pre-order the book here. Scovell’s an interesting character, and from what I’ve seen of his film-making and online writings the last thing I expected from him was a novel, so there is the sense that this was something he had to do, which makes it all the more intriguing.
Absence is not vacancy. Vacancy has no voice. Vacancy is empty and banal and atheistic. Absence, on the other hand, is a fertile ground where loss and love coalesce around memory to create ghosts that live among us. Absence is alive with energy.
Photograph taken in Downend, Bristol, December 2016.