“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’:
Nature knows that people are a tide that swells and in time will ebb, and all their works dissolve … As for us: We must uncenter our minds from ourselves. We must unhumanize our views a little and become confident as the rock and ocean that we are made from.
My 2017 painting ‘The Falconer Cannot Hear The Falconer’ (below), mocked-up as a cover for this collection of Robinson Jeffers’ prose and poetry. Jeffers was a fascinating character, a contemporary of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, a fierce intelligence who took a Blakean stance against the relentless advance of modern civilzation and retreated to the California coast that inspired so much of his writing, where he built his own home: Tor House and Hawk Tower. Largely overlooked for decades, his work is now being “rediscovered”, mainly thanks to the efforts of Stanford University Press who published both this anthology and James Karman’s insightful biography of the man’s life. Jeffers’ poetry is often inscrutable and requires repeated readings to even begin to glean a meaning from it, but, as Galway Kinnell (another poet who I suspect was inspired by Jeffers) said: “That’s the way it is with poetry: only when it is incomprehensible to seems profound, and when you understand it is is only ridiculous.”
Here’s another quote from Kinnell that I like, and one that very much echoes Jeffers’ most fervently-expressed sentiments:
“Perhaps poetry will be the canary in the mine-shaft warning us of what’s to come.”
I stumbled across this in my “digital archives”. I completely forgotten I’d painted it. Knocked off over the course of a weekend in 2017, this was just me trying to shatter the “mind forged manacles” I sometimes shackle myself with when it comes to my working methods. Rather than depict a specific and recognisable landscape, I went for a ‘meta space’ instead, and the fact that this painting no longer exists tells you how much I regarded the finished results. I was quite pleased with the wolf though. The title, as is so often the case with me, came from a Mogwai song:
My 2013 painting ‘The tiger’, mocked-up as a cover for William Stolzenburg’s Where The Wild Things Were. The title tells you all you need to know. First published in 2008, it painted an alarming picture of the state of collapsing ecosystems across the entire planet. And that was ten years ago. The situation has got much much worse in the subsequent decade. We are now living in the sixth mass extinction event that we know of in this planet’s history. Past extinction events were triggered by cataclysms such as comet strikes. This one is down to us.
There is an ecstasy that marks the summit of life, and beyond which life cannot rise. And such is the paradox of living, this ecstasy comes when one is most alive, and it comes as a complete forgetfulness that one is alive. This ecstasy, this forgetfulness of living, comes to the artist, caught up and out of himself in a sheet of flame; it comes to the soldier, war-mad in a stricken field and refusing quarter; and it came to Buck, leading the pack, sounding the old wolf-cry, straining after the food that was alive and that fled swiftly before him through the moonlight.
Jack London, The Call Of The Wild
My 2011 painting ‘Jim Cain‘ mocked up as a cover for Jack London’s classic adventure tale. Reading this along with White Fang at an early age put me on the path I pursue to this day.