Following the successful completion of ‘The Hill Of Summer‘, I’ve started a new painting and here’s the initial pencils, completed this evening. This one already has a full back story, a long lost of influences and a title, all of which I’ll reveal when it’s completed.
I’ve mocked-up this cover, using my recently-completed painting ‘The Hill Of Summer‘ as the basis for the design. Clarkson’s book is a forgotten classic of ‘nature writing’, published in an era before there was even such a bandwagon for publishers and writers to jump on. My dog-eared Arrow paperback edition is from 1975, when I was 7 years old and dividing my time between Marvel Comics, TV21 annuals and books like Kes and Tarka The Otter. The former things have indeed passed away, but I still read books about birds of prey and remote windswept places with a sense of awe and yearning. The Arrow edition featured pen and ink illustrations by Victor Ambrus, whose line work has a Steadman-esque scratch and splatter about it.
The drawings seem to have been informed by the same sense of simmering fury that Clarkson sustains throughout the book as he witnesses the damage done to his beloved Peregrine Falcons…
…”always in the background there is man… with his guns, his traps, his poisons, and his blind, unthinking talent for destruction.” Clarkson was writing in the early 70’s, when the fate of the Peregrine in Britain still hung in the balance. J.A. Baker has already written a eulogy for the species in the late 60’s, and it’s extinction on This Septic Isle seemed an inevitability, so it’s a strange feeling to read this in an era when the species is making a resurgence, expanding its territory in towns and cities. We should not be complacent, but it is a lesson in the endurance ‘nature’ has, especially when we learn to leave it alone and do what it does best. If this book ever gets republished (and with the current fad for ‘nature writing’ it seems to me like an ideal candidate for “rediscovery”) I would love to do the cover and the internal illustrations.
Between the wood and the hill, there is the shallow valley of a small winding stream, dark with alder, then silvery with sharp-leaved willow. The unchecked growth of many summers, rising and declining, has lessened the penetration of the light in way one rarely seen in farmland now. The hazed-over raggedness of sky above these lush, neglected fields gives a sense of mystery, of something rare and wild that has run away to hide, of something infinitely regretful fretting at the edge of the light, like a big moth fumbling at a window. This is a place where the last of the persecuted may for a time find refuge and seclusion. In the amber of the sunlight that lies between the high hedges, there is preserved an air of the past, the presence of an older summer. Under the surface of the visible world I can always hear the soft wolf-stride of the rapacious world beyond.
J.A. Baker, The Hill of Summer
It is finished. A new painting, that took exactly one month from first pencils to final brush stroke to complete. I’ve painted kestrels before (‘Kestrel for a Knave’ (2014) and ‘Against the Sky’ (2018)) and try not to obviously repeat myself but, inevitably the same influential images and experiences come through, and this painting is no exception. Last summer (2017) I was back up north visiting family and friends, and that weekend the north of England was in the midst of an unexpected heatwave. One afternoon I went to the fields behind the estate I grew up on, hoping to find some faint breath of wind as relief from the overwhelming heat. Those fields are the site of a former colliery, long since grassed over, that drop away steeply to former farmland that’s been left fallow for the past 30-40 years. Beyond there’s the roaring torrent of the M621 and, past that, farm fields and woods all the way to the horizon. To anyone else it’s a nondescript scrap of land, but for me it has a powerful pull on my emotions and my imagination. The fallow fields are bisected with telegraph poles, preferred perches for hunting kestrels, but on this day one of them was on the wing, hovering on what faint breath of wind there was gasping out of the west. With minor shifts of its wings or tail, it managed to hold its position as if it were pinned to the sky, every atom of its attention focussed on something down there in the long gross. I watched this air dance for I don’t know how long, and something about that experience with the crickets buzzing and the long yellow grass hissing and the heat rising into the cerulean blue sky fixed it in my mind as something of personal import, to be filed away and recalled as required. Reading the above passage from J.A. Baker’s The Hill of Summer always takes me back to that afternoon which in turn takes me back to similar afternoons in my youth. Layer upon layer of memory and meaning, bound with foraged scraps of nostalgia like a bird’s nest. This painting, with the hazy green light, is my attempt to capture the essence of that afternoon. Here’s how the painting progressed, from beginning to end:
Other influences that went into the painting were James MacDonald Lockhart’s Raptor, Alex Preston & Neil Gower’s As Kingfishers Catch Fire, and there was one song I kept playing over and over again that really seemed to capture what I was trying to express in paint:
Patience (After Sebald) is a film full of ponderous ruminations about a book full of ponderous ruminations. That book is The Rings of Saturn, by the German academic and author W.G. Sebald. It’s one of those rare kind of unclassifiable works that defy easy categorisation or explanation, which goes some way to explaining their enduring appeal. You don’t know what it is about the book, but you keep being drawn back to it, even though it really is just a mildly-depressed man wandering around the arse-end of England and writing down the things he sees and the thoughts that drift through his mind as he trudges along. Some even fall so far under its melancholic spell that they feel compelled to repeat the same protracted perambulations throughout Suffolk that Sebald undertook in the early 1990’s, a compulsion that seems to be driven by a desire to understand the enigma at the heart of the book: why did he do it? Plenty of damaged people have wandered off to try and sort their heads out. The walk as healing act is one deeply ingrained in British Romanticism, but it’s the ideas he brought with him on that walk – everything from silkworm cultivation to the Nazi holocaust – that make it such a uniquely personal exercise, as he scatters his ideas under the wide East Anglian skies, scrying the landscape in search of a pattern that might make some sense of it all. The film ends up being just as odd as the book that inspired it, with contributions from the likes of Jonathan Pryce, Robert MacFarlane, Rick Moody, Iain Sinclair, Chris Petit, Marina Warner, Tacita Dean, Andrew Motion and others. The imagery is grayscale, funereal, haunting and simmeringly apocalyptic in its cumulative effect, which is altogether unsurprising when you understand that the director’s previous work includes 2008’s Joy Division. I find it to be a useful antidote when the idiocies of the evening TV schedules (‘Eat Well For Less!’ being my current bete noire ) get too much. Turn off the film’s audio, put on Unknown Pleasures and Closer and you’re in for quite an evening.
Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life.
W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Photograph taken at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, July 2018.
All travellers to wild places will have felt some version of this, a brief blazing perception of the world’s disinterest. In small measures it exhilarates. But in full form it annihilates.
Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places
Photograph taken at Woodchester, Gloucestershire, July 2018.
Further to previous posts, this painting is almost finished. This is how I got with it as of last night, and I’ve just got a few more hours of fine detail to complete and then it’s done. The target for completion is next Sunday, when I’ll unveil the finished work and give full details of the title, the influences that went into it’s creation, and how to buy it.