My 2019 painting ‘Moonlight Shadow’ mocked up as a cover for Miriam Darlington’s Owl Sense. I grew up on a council estate that stopped dead at the edge of former mining works, an abandoned farm and, beyond that, untold acres of woodland. Sadly, most of that’s now gone, buried under housing estates and the M621 motorway, but as a kid I remember being out in the woods and catching fleeting glimpses of barn owls, vespertine spectres in the smokey dusk, looking – just as J.A. Baker exquisitely described them – like “burning snow.” Here’s the original painting:
The soul throbs like the sea for a larger life. No thought which I have ever had has satisfied my soul.
Richard Jefferies, The Story Of My Heart
My 2017 painting ‘Lover’s Day, mocked-up as a cover for Richard Jefferies’ The Story Of My Heart. As a typical memoir of a man’s life, it doesn’t work, but it’s not supposed to. Instead, Jefferies – who died young, at the age of 38 – sustains a prolonged rumination over the – for want of a better term – spiritual void that he found could only be addressed by a deep immersion in wild nature. The prose is reminiscent of J.A. Baker’s at his most expressive, but lacks any real thematic structure as Jefferies’ thoughts are blown like leaves in the wind. Some people love the book (Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, allegedly kept two copies by her bedside), others find it frustrating and annoying. Treat it as the prose poem it is and you won’t go far wrong.
Here’s the original painting, probably my favourite of my own landscapes:
I’ve been working on this painting since November 2018. Progress had been interrupted by other projects earlier this year, but now I’m putting all my energies into getting this one finished. It’s destined to hang in our living room, a blaze of light and colour to replace the dark and foreboding lanscape currently hanging there. Landscape paintings are, as I’ve learnt, really just self-portraits, reflecting the mentality of the artist at the time. You’ve only got to look at Gaugin and Van Gogh’s paintings of the same cafe in Arles – one is bright and full of cheer and bonhomie, the other looks like a depiction of Dostoevsky’s hell as a room with a chair in it. The scene I’m painting here was a bright and balmy Autumn afternoon, the birds were singing, and the troubles of the world were, for a time, held at bay.
I remember that I’m invisible and walk softly so as not awake the sleeping ones. Sometimes it is best not to awaken them; there are few things in the world as dangerous as sleepwalkers.
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
My 2010 painting ‘Rock Bottom Riser’, mocked-up as a cover for Ralph Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man. Below is the original painting, which has been tucked away under my bed for almost a decade, hidden away, much like the protagonist of Ellison’s novel.
“So what do you want?”
“Nothing but thunder.”
Michael Ondaatje, In The Skin Of The Lion
Finally, it is finished. As with all paintings, I had reached the point where I was just going over the same bits again and again, and the painting itself told me to stop. I decided to settle on the first title I considered, back when I was still pencilling it up, using the above quote from Ondaatje’s novel. Below is the full timeline of the painting’s progress from beginning to end:
30 June 2019
I’ve just finished reading this. There’s too much ‘nature writing’ these days, and most of it is, frankly, piss poor, and too often cranked out by London burn-outs who retreat to ‘The Regions’ (“the bit of Britain that isn’t London”, as George Shaw defines it) and cheer themselves up with a spot of birdwatching. None of which describes Neil Ansell, who has lived an interesting life, often going out of his way to get out of the way, wandering alone across most continents of the earth. In his first book, Deep Country, he documents the five years he spent living in an abandoned farmhouse in the Welsh hills, the place he decided to cease his wandering in. That’s a good book. Subtle, understated, but suffused with a knowledge and understanding of the non-human world that can only be gained by walking the walk. The Last Wilderness finds him returning several times to the North Bounds, a remote part of the western Highlands of Scotland, battling illness and the slow retreat of his auditory perceptions, to go out in all weathers, looking for…well, he never says what, but it’s clear he’s looking for something. The relentlessness of his pursuit reminded me of Roger Deakin’s “mad enough” quest to swim through the British Isles, as documented in Waterlog, but Ansell is a less effusive presence, exuding a zen-like calm and a wounded reverence for the natural world he sees slowly unpeeling before him. Elegiac in tone, his love for the land and the things that live in it is inspirational. Highly recommended.
Above is a mock-up cover for the book, using my 2017 painting, ‘All Heads Turn When The Hunt Goes By’: