Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight

During the 1950s, the small harbour town of St Ives in Cornwall played host to an astonishing group of painters that included some of the leading modern artists of the time. Among them were Alan Davie, Terry Frost, Patrick Heron – and Peter Lanyon. Of them all, only Lanyon was actually Cornish.

He died too young – a fact underlined by Soaring Flight, the superb exhibition currently showing at the Courtauld Gallery which gathers together a considerable number of his paintings inspired by gliding, the pastime which ended up taking his life.

Continue reading “Peter Lanyon: Soaring Flight”

Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place

Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place

The genesis of Philip Marsden’s latest book, Rising Ground, was his acquisition of an old, decaying and overgrown Cornish farmhouse. It is subtitled ‘A Search for the Spirit of Place’, and a few pages in, Marsden explains how, after writing a series of books cataloguing journeys he had made to distant lands he came to write one which follows him as he sets out on foot from his new home. Continue reading “Rising Ground: searching for the spirit of place”

Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again

Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again

Recently I was presented with a beautiful gift – a book by Dominick Tyler called Uncommon Ground: A word-lover’s guide to the British landscape. The book is the product of a year that Tyler spent travelling the length and breadth of the British Isles to photograph specific features of the natural world. Continue reading “Uncommon Ground: learning to read our landscape again”

Total eclipse: darkness and light

Total eclipse: darkness and light

In anticipation of tomorrow’s great astronomical event, I have been recalling the last (and only) time I witnessed a total solar eclipse.

In Cornwall on 11 August 1999 we saw the last total eclipse that was visible over the UK (though, last time, totality was only fully visible along a limited path that crossed northern France and Cornwall). Typically, being Britain, the skies were cloudy, and we didn’t get to see the disc of the moon passing across the sun.  But, at 11 minutes past 11 in the morning, standing on the cliffs above Sennen Cove in Cornwall, it did go spookily dark – not total darkness, but the dark of deep dusk.  And we did see the moon’s shadow advancing towards us from the west, and the receding to the east. Continue reading “Total eclipse: darkness and light”

Kurt Jackson’s sketchbooks: the soul of a place

Kurt Jackson’s sketchbooks: the soul of a place
Fog, mist
Fog, mist, mizzle, sunshine, mist fog, rain, sunshine, mizzle. 25 February 2011

In my previous post, writing about John Constable’s oil sketches, I noted how he would make meticulous notes of the weather conditions at the time he painted. I remarked that this reminded me of Kurt Jackson, who does exactly the same thing – often including the observation in the title of a painting, and sometimes inscribing the annotation on the painting itself. (In the example above, he does both.)  The day before seeing the Constable exhibition at the V&A I had been to the Redfern Gallery in Cork Street where, downstairs, there were the remnants of a display mounted by the gallery to coincide with the publication of Kurt Jackson Sketchbooks, in which – interestingly in the light of the V&A’s exhibition of oil sketches from Constable’s sketchbook – Jackson asserts that his sketchbooks should be regarded as seriously as his paintings, prints and sculpture – as a body of work in their own right.

The book draws on a selection of twenty sketchbooks, all of them from 2007, and offers a rare insight into the mind of one who I regard as the most important living British landscape artist.  Compelled to draw every day, Jackson would never contemplate travelling without pens, pencils, paints and some kind of sketch book.  Indeed, in the first chapter we accompany Jackson on several train journeys as he guides us through the drawings, paintings and collages that he makes as he travels – some of his wife Caroline sitting opposite.

We begin to see how Jackson’s sketchbooks are vital to the development and completion of his paintings. A hastily drawn image helps him to work out what he wants to achieve on canvas, or simply captures something when there isn’t enough time to paint or draw properly. Like many other artists, Jackson regards his sketchbooks as an invaluable visual diary of his life (the book opens with a quotation from van Gogh: ‘My sketchbook is a witness of what I am experiencing, scribbling things whenever they happen’).

Raindrops
Raindrops are falling on my head, sunshine is falling at my feet, November 2010

The book consists of a series of narratives written by Jackson in which he guides the reader through sketches made on journeys that have yielded several series of paintings – from the Scilly Isles and the Cornish coast to the Glastonbury Festival, the river Dart, Jura and the Ardnamurchan peninsula in Scotland, France and a grand voyage by train to Greece.

As a long time admirer of the many and varied seascapes that Jackson has painted at Priest Cove, near his home in West Penwith, I was particularly struck by his atmospheric account – in ‘Cornish coast’, the second chapter – of how those paintings have come to be:

I’m sitting outside the boathouse, my hut on Priest Cove. It’s a tatty, ethnic vernacular shed constructed out of driftwood, beach stones and corrugated iron, one of a series of similar buildings terraced up the cliff and around the foreshore of the cove, built by and for generations of fishermen. I use it as one of my studios, damp and full of rodents and wrens and ferns, but providing me with shelter from the harshest of elements and the most curious of visitors. I sit on a green plastic suburban garden chair, and stare out at the horizon and the glare of the Atlantic. My pencil follows the skyline, straight as a ruler, which joins Land’s End’s distant promontory, then drops down onto Carn Gloose’s jagged lion’s head of a granite cliff, before dropping into the cove. I continue along the foreshore with its round, dinosaur-egg boulders and pebbles and those angular rocks, bisected by the straight-edged, man-made slipway. A continuous line of pencil that leads the eye semicircularly from sky to water’s edge.

A thousand drawings and doodles have happened here, a thousand paintings over the last twenty years or so. Sketchpads full of my time invested in this one place; days and days pressed between the hand-worn covers. This place has become the focal point, the muse for a lot of my work, with the seasonal, tidal and diurnal changes and subtleties; the local fishing activities, the visitors, the fauna, the flora: Porth Juste Cove, Priest Cove, ‘the cove of St Just Cove’.

distant faint oystercatchers call
marks the low-watermark,
the sea’s Cornish murmur
the sea beat,
Cornish spleenwort,
rock pipit,
sea beet
thrift,
an optimistic gull

I turn over the page; my pencil follows the edge of an incoming wave, rolling into and across the cove then playing with the water’s surface – a tracery of lines – the sea’s surface, the light reflecting off it, the patterns formed by the foam’s backwash and swell, swash and wash, the agitation and effervescence, the stripes and streaks, squares and circles. There’s the constant motion of the water the persistent wind, the clouds drifting in from the Atlantic; then there’s a pair of crows rooting together amongst the rock pools. A crying gull sweeping past and a brief visit from a family of excited, excitable choughs, squeaking like a kiddie’s toy. All this is woven into my tangle of lines, strokes and marks some spontaneous, some careful and following detail, an observation, and my intimate awareness of this place.

Bees buzz in the vetch, grammersows crawl over my feet, sea beet and spleenwort move in the breeze.

Another page, another medium. A splash of watercolour, the pooling and puddling of clouds; a sweep of the Atlantic, some drips and dribbles off the palette to locate and define the water’s rocky edge; paper-white breaking surf. I pick up some scraps of paper, the remains of my previous visits from off the floor of the huts stained with the ochre earth of Cape Cornwall and the rainwater and seawater seeping and dripping into my semi-porous hut. Collaged onto the page, they replicate the geological textures and forms out there in front of me. Granite, greenstone, mudstone, basalt, veins and lodes of ores and quartz; recently sea-broken and exposed rocks, sea-worn and smoothened stones. Erosion and … so much information, so many other processes – an ecology of interlocking worlds and times how can this all be put on one page; captured and celebrated, noted and described? Ink, pastel, crayon, pencil, glue, gouache, acrylic, watercolour and collage; an eclectic diversity a desperate scramble and scrabble to attempt to reign in this diversity around me, into and onto my page. A plethora of seaweed greens and browns, communities of tinted shellfish, rock pools of intensity and sparkle, dots and dashes of pure-earth pigment. Glassy basalt, vivid orange granite, dull mudstone; gunmetal grey ocean, marine blue, sea green. Pipit tweet oystercatcher scream, raven honk. Sea whisper, murmur, mordros. This most ordinary of coves has slowly and gradually fixated my attention, fascinated and taken hold of me to become a place that’s extraordinary, rich and full, an inspiration a source. It has stamped its personality on my work, and I in turn have added my signature to its bottom right-hand corner.

chough flies by
grammersows crawling in the paint
wren singing to me

Snow, hail
Snow, hail, rain, sun, gales, sun, November 2010

The chapter is illustrated with examples of the sketches Jackson has made at Priest Cove – several, as shown here, inscribed with details of the weather conditions prevailing at the time.  One, made on 11 March 2011 is inscribed, ‘And on the day that the tsunami hits the Pacific you watch the incoming tide here on the Atlantic with a shiver of bated breath’.

Priest Cove 11 March 2011
Priest Cove, 11 March 2011

In an informative introductory chapter, ‘Between Artist and Place’ Alan Livingstone discusses key aspects of Jackson’s working practice and his approach to his art.  He notes that, like many artists, Jackson is very particular in his choice of sketchbooks (interestingly, some are square – the format of very many of his paintings).  Livingstone observes that, in addition to drawings and paintings, the sketchbooks also contain mixed-media collages that include materials such as menus, tickets and scraps of newspapers, glued in with Pritt stick: the ephemera enhancing Jackson’s record of the moment.

For Jackson, drawing is of central importance, and Livingstone notes the deep pleasure that the artist takes in constantly honing his drawing and observational skills.  The book contains many examples of the clarity and economy of Jackson’s line drawing, ranging from a minimalist drawing of White Island in the Scilly Isles – comprising no more than half a dozen lines in coloured crayon over a watercolour wash – to drawings of his wife made on a train journey, and the detailed observation of a water shrew discovered dead in his garden. Amongst the many fine rapid impressions is this one, of Orwell’s old hideout, Barnhill, on Jura made in May 2011.

Barnhill
Barnhill, Jura, May 2011

Livingstone discusses what is perhaps the most striking characteristic of Jackson’s work – his marked emotional response to ‘place’. Consistently and over a long period of time, he has shown an affinity with a number of favoured locations – the far west of Cornwall, but also English rivers (such as the Dart, the Stour and the Avon), and places in France and Greece to which he has returned repeatedly.  The sketchbooks reveal drawings of the same place, recorded at different times of the day, under variable weather conditions.  There may be scribbled notes on particular trees, hedges, or birds.  As Livingstone observes, nothing is too small to escape the close attention of an artist with a degree in Zoology.  Like John Constable who believed that ‘art is to be found under every hedge and in every lane’, Jackson works outdoors, going to nature at its source to record changing weather patterns and every small detail of the local environment.  Livingstone compares his attitude to that of Andy Goldsworthy, who believes that his work is ‘so rooted in the history and soul of a place that it cannot be separated from where it is made’.

Two paintings on show when I visited the Redfern Gallery demonstrate this aspect of Jackson’s work.   And a touch of Autumn zooms in on a section of Cornish hedgerow, portrayed as a patchwork of colours, while Sunshine seed time, with it masses of grasses, seed heads and umbelliferae reminded me of Durer’s study of a clump of turf.

Kurt Jackson - And a touch of Autumn
And a touch of Autumn, September 2012
Kurt Jackson - Sunshine seed time
Sunshine seed time, 2002

Priest Cove, says Livingstone, is the perfect environment for Jackson:

Wild, ever changing and remote.  ‘The relationship between artist and place is unflinching, with no quarter asked, no quarter given. Working from his boatshed studio. he finds endless challenges in recording the extreme variations in the dramatic conditions that affect this primitive Celtic landscape. Determined to record the highs and lows of each visit, Jackson believes it is fundamental that his response is honest and totally derived from the experience of ‘being there’.

A good example of the art that emerges from such a commitment might be Squall, a painting that, suitably, is now in the possession of the Met Office.

Squall
Squall

Given that so many of Jackson’s paintings are seascapes that, almost uncannily, capture the sea in its ever-changing aspect – its myriad surface textures, colours and effects of light falling on water – it is interesting to read Livingstone assessment of this central aspect of Jackson’s work:

Endlessly fascinated by the complex visual effects generated by light fleeting across water, Jackson has persistently ‘confronted’ the sea and attempted to record and glorify the timeless mystery of sky and sea coming together on the horizon. In formal terms, the seascape provides a limited range of timeless compositional options. In addition to the size and shape of the canvas, the key artistic decision relates to the proportionate horizontal split between sea and sky. Jackson’s constant experimentation with these proportions, and therefore the positioning of the horizon, heightens the drama of the scene and challenges the spectator to assess and reassess their viewpoint.

To illustrate what Livingstone says, take these two paintings, featured in the latest collection of Jackson’s work – Kurt Jackson: Recent Work – published by the Redfern Gallery:

First Day of Spring, March 2011
First Day of Spring, March 2011
The chough welcome me into the cove, February 2011
The chough welcome me into the cove, February 2011

Livingstone writes that Kurt Jackson is aware of the critical prejudice that is attached to landscape painting, but observes that for Jackson his artistic practice is rooted in his values and beliefs concerning the environment and the need to live a sustainable lifestyle: ‘the beliefs that drive him, including the intellectual centrality of place, the need to understand and respect that place and the importance of living in a sustainable way’.  This is how Jackson expressed his beliefs when introducing a recent exhibitionThis Place – consisting of paintings of the place where he lives, St Just in West Penwith:

Over the last 20 years or so my work has evolved into ‘projects’ – each a body of work that explores and is inspired by a particular route [a river, a prehistoric track way], a workplace [quarry, mine, fishermen, farmer], a group of fauna or flora [the crows, the trees] or as in this exhibition, a particular place. A dedication to and celebration of the environment is intrinsic to both my politics and my art and a holistic involvement with this subject provides the springboard for everything I make. My practice involves both plein air and studio work and embraces an extensive range of materials and techniques.

This project is about the place where I live – in the far West of Cornwall. This is the most Westerly town in Britain and the furthest town from London outside of Scotland. It is a wild place, a place on the margins; geographically isolated and battered by the elements. It is a post-industrial town in a post-industrial landscape, with a fading fishing industry, a struggling farming community and an expanding population. Nevertheless, it is a beautiful place, a landscape of granite in the transitional space between the Atlantic cliffs and the Cornish moors.

This place stands as a microcosm for the world at large (Local = Global). As any place it is defined by the complex interactions between the human inhabitants, the flora and fauna, the geology, the elements, the culture and history and the resulting evolution of a community (the psychogeography). With ‘This Place’, I chose to engage with a number of pertinent local issues to illustrate these interactions, for instance, sustainability – I accompanied Cape Cornwall fishermen on their boats to produce a series of spontaneous mixed media works covering their small-scale fishing practices, the work was relevant to Greenpeace’s ‘Defend Oceans’ campaigns, and was used by them to launch their latest campaign, then biodiversity awareness – through a series of works, and with support from Cornwall Wildlife Trust, I celebrated local indigenous species, including the Cornish Moneywort – an extremely rare plant found only in this region. And finally post-industrialism – St Just is a town founded on tin. […]

Like all of my artistic practice I approached these issues from an environmental perspective – I feel that successful environmentalism stems from a need to source from, and be faithful to the local community and the surrounding biodiversity.

At the Redfern Gallery, there were several still lifes, made last autumn, which reflected Jackson’s commitment to detailing the local environment through the changing seasons- with an additional touch of humour.  Sprigs of brambles adorned with blackberries were a focus of Jackson’s attention last autumn, and he painted several inserted into empty Marmite jars.

Kurt Jackson - Evening, Autumn September
Evening Still Life, September
Kurt Jackson - A touch of Autumn, September
A touch of Autumn, September

Jackson works in several media, and there were several bramble works created in bronze, tin or copper. Kurt Jackson added this note for the exhibition:

When the blackberries appear you know that summer is coming to an end; when the blackberries have been spat on by the devil, you know winter is on the way. Along with the leaves changing their colour they are the archetypal sign of autumn. Being the last wild food still gathered by everyone they symbolise that contact, that connection with the seasonal rhythms of the countryside still hanging by a thread here in Britain. With their vivid unripe scarlet and crimsons contrasting with the indigo and black ripened berries; the viridian leaves in their repeating threesomes and those off white almost pink delicate petals framed and protected by the crisscrossing lattices of briar and bramble – this is where the whitethroats nest and the bees buzz; so much to be drawn into, so much to paint.

Kurt Jackson - The Bronze Bramble
The Bronze Bramble, 2012

See also

Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light

Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light

Kurt Jackson paints: seascapes in which every glitter of reflected light on the water’s surface is detailed; rivers in their varied moods and waterside shades of greenery; and trees in their many forms and patterning of light and shade.  His paintings are meticulous in their observation of the details in a landscape, yet they are, simultaneously, abstractions as expressive as the most crystalline poetry. Continue reading “Kurt Jackson: Catch the Light”

John Surman: Songs from the West Country

John Surman 2

Not much time goes by in our household without the music of John Surman being played; this week we’ve been listening again to a couple of albums he recorded in the 1990s that share a distinctive West Country ethos: Road to St Ives and A Biography of  the Rev. Absalom Dawe.  These albums epitomise how Surman, who was born in Tavistock, Devon in 1944, has often been inspired by his West country roots in the music that he has created since the 1970s.

Surman can be a difficult artist to pigeonhole: he’s a jazzman, obviously, but his compositions have drawn on folk, choral and other traditions, too.  As his official website puts it, ‘John Surman is one of the key figures in a generation of European musicians who have crucially expanded the international horizons of jazz during the past thirty years or so’.  Surman is also a multi-instrumentalist, playing saxophone, clarinet and keyboards, and most renowned as a master of the bass saxophone.  He has produced solo albums (such as the first two of my featured trio) on which he plays all the instruments, but has also collaborated with jazz musicians of renown from America and Europe, especially those who  record for the ECM label, for which Surman has mainly worked since the 1980s.  He plays in all kinds of settings, from small group to big band, and has produced albums that involve collaborations between himself and church organ (Proverbs and Songs, 1998 and Rain on the Window, 2008), with Jack de Johnette on drums and percussion (Invisible Nature, 2002), with a string quintet (The Spaces In Between, 2007) and with tenor John Potter singing 16th century compositions by John Dowland (In Darkness Let Me Dwell, 1999).

Road to St Ives is a set of gentle, lilting compositions, entirely a one-man effort, with Surman writing all the compositions and producing every sound heard on the album, building layers of sound as he plays melodies on bass clarinet and soprano and bass saxophones over a keyboard and percussion wash.

The album is inspired by the landscape and spirit of Cornwall, and while drawing on the English folk tradition, remains clearly in the jazz tradition. On the CD sleeve, Surman explains:

Most  of the  music  on  this  recording  has been inspired by the landscape and history of the county of  Cornwall in England.  I am not  Cornish.  My birthplace lies just to the east of the river Tamar, which forms the border between Devon and Cornwall.  However,  ever  since  my  first  visit  to  Land’s End, the county has held a special fascination for me. Its early inhabitants are traceable back to Paleolithic man. It has a language of its own, which remained in use up until the nineteenth  century.  With a rich fund of  folklore and legend in addition, I’ve found much to inspire me. The pieces are not intended to be musical  portraits of particular places or events, the titles being simply a collection of some of  the intriguing  place-names found on and around the road to St. Ives.

Surman’s soprano sax shimmers on this on the recording, lending tracks such as ‘Kelly Bray’ and ‘Perranporth’, with its sense of birdsong and birds wheeling and circling in flight, an ethereal air. In contrast, ‘BodminMoor, anchored by a bass figure on the piano, has a brooding air, but again with the saxophone suggesting wind, long views and birds in flight.  The most immediately memorable track is ‘Piperspool’, with its electronic noodling and breathy bass saxophone. The closing track, ‘Bedruthan Steps’, opens with synthesised notes that sound like distant church bells chiming.

In 1998 Surman produced a chamber orchestra version of Road to St. Ives. The work was commissioned and performed by the Bournemouth Sinfonietta.

Like many others, I regard A Biography of the Reverend Absalom Dawe as being John Surman’s most perfect achievement.  The album’s title refers to Surman’s great-great-grandfather, a country parson, and though there are no strings or vocals on this album, the form of many of the pieces is rooted in the English choral tradition, one of the musician’s earliest enthusiasms.  As a choirboy, and before he’d heard any jazz, he sang in West Country churches, and since the 1980s Surman has been reinvestigating these roots, especially on albums such as Proverbs and Songs (with organist Howard Moody and the Salisbury Cathedral Choir) and In Darkness Let Me Dwell, an album of songs by John Dowland performed by Surman and tenor John Potter.

On A Biography of the Rev Absalom Dawe, Surman once again plays bass saxophone as well as soprano sax, alto and bass clarinets, and keyboards. The electronic elements are limited and unobtrusive, and the keyboard’s bright tones are a good match for the fluid, breathy sounds of the wind instruments. The music is ethereal and atmospheric and the sound is crisp, the result of Surman recording each instrument separately and then mixing individual units into the whole. The compositions leap musical boundaries, with elements of contemporary classical composition, jazz, and European folk all being present.

The album opens with ‘First Light’, an atmospheric clarinet solo.  This leads into the beautiful, lilting melody of ‘Countless Journeys’. On ‘Twas but Piety’ a lyrical clarinet passage leads into a central section in which a jazzy saxophone improvisation begins over a funereal synthesised drone  before spiralling into a a passionate solo. ‘Wayfarer’ harks back to the sound of Road to St Ives, with a moody, reflective baritone sax solo played over a keyboard figure.

John Surman’s music transcends familiar boundaries. A deep love of the jazz tradition runs throughout his work, and he is equally affected by the melodic qualities of choral music – as a one-time choirboy – and by English folk music:

If I look back to what turned me on about music, it is what I heard before I ever came across jazz.

Much of his work is powerfully resonant of the landscape and tradition of the West Country, perhaps most especially on these two albums.

Peter Lanyon: Over the Jasper Sea

Peter Lanyon: Over the Jasper Sea

I called today, Peter, and you were away.
I look out over Botallack and over Ding
Dong and Levant and over the jasper sea.

Find me a thermal to speak and soar to you from
Over Lanyon Quoit and the circling stones standing
High on the moor over Gurnard’s Head where some

Time three foxglove summers ago, you came.
The days are shortening over Little Parc Owles.
The poet or painter steers his life to maim

Himself somehow for the job….

– WS Graham, opening lines of  The Thermal Stair (in memory of Peter Lanyon)

Lanyon’s Last Flight this week on BBC Radio 4 was about the Cornish artist Peter Lanyon.  The programme gave a survey of Lanyon’s creative journey, focussing on his passion for gliding which, in the early 1960s, strengthened his love for the landscape of his native Cornwall and pushed his art towards new frontiers. Then, in August 1964, aged 46 and on the cusp of international recognition, Peter Lanyon died as the result of a gliding accident. He had enjoyed successful shows in New York, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Mark Rothko, and his work was being eagerly sought. Today he is recognised as one of the most innovative painters in 20th century British art.

Peter Lanyon, Thermal, 1960

Lanyon was born in St Ives in 1918. In 1939 he met established artists Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Naum Gabo, who had moved from London to St Ives on the outbreak of war. Lanyon received private art tuition from Nicholson, and became part of the astonishing coterie of artists who gave St Ives its noteworthy place in the history of 20th-century art – Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost.  Of them all, only Lanyon was actually Cornish.

‘He considered himself the host to all the other artists who came to Cornwall’, Lanyon’s son Andrew, himself an artist said in the radio programme.  ‘Many of them were his close friends, but he felt they were only painting a veneer of the place. For him there was so much more going on behind and beneath all that, sometimes literally, like the tin miners who he identified with very strongly’.

Perhaps that is why he soon fell out with Nicholson and Hepworth. South of St Ives, on the Cornish coast path, is the wall of a house that once belonged to Ben Nicholson. Against this, according to legend, Peter Lanyon would relieve himself every time he passed – in the hope that the building would eventually fall down. In 1950 he had resigned from the Penwith Society of Arts, mainly over Ben Nicholson’s attempt to divide artists into two groups, ‘abstract’ and ‘representational’, a division which would have undermined Lanyon’s own artistic project, which fell within both camps.

Michael Bird, the programme’s presenter, traced Lanyon’s inspiration in places that were crucial to his art, like the ruined tin mine at Levant and the cliff-top airfield near Perranporth from which he flew. He talked to Lanyon’s sons, who each shed a different light on their father’s complex personality.

Of all St Ives artists, no-one transferred the rough textures and airy exhilaration of Cornwall onto canvas in quite the way Lanyon did. He talked about exploring vertiginous edges: in his own words, ‘the junction of sea and cliff, wind and cliff, the human body and places’. Lanyon descended below ground to explore old tin mines, testing out the limits of his claustrophobia, just as in gliding he pushed the limits of his vertigo.

Peter Lanyon, St Just , 1953

St Just from 1953 (above) , which was discussed in the programme, was Lanyon’s response to the Levant mining disaster of 1919 in which 31 men from the mining village of St Just near Land’s End lost their lives. Conceived as a crucifixion in honour of the miners, the tall painting is dominated by a black forked form that represents the mine shaft down which the workers crashed to their deaths.

This Tate Shots video was made as an introduction to the Peter Lanyon exhibition at Tate St Ives. In it, the exhibition’s curator Chris Stephens explores two of Lanyon’s most famous works: The Yellow Runner and St Just.

After 1959, when he began gliding, Lanyon’s work began to expand into a new flowing style, reflecting the influence of Abstract Expressionism. With the experience of gliding, Lanyon’s paintings became looser and more ethereal as he attempted to capture the rush of air and movement, the sense of floating between states of atmospheric pressure that are invisible to the naked eye. He had created his own path to abstraction through his pursuit of the Cornish elements.

Interviews in the programme drew a portrait of Lanyon as intoxicated by speed and danger.  ‘He would have liked to have been a racing driver’, his son says in the programme. ‘He loved speed. He wanted to get into the elements, to fly into the storm’. We learn that gliding is far from being a serene experience – there is constant noise as the craft is buffeted and torn as it rides the thermals.  It also highly dangerous, with few means to control passage through the air.

His painting Thermal (top) is one of many that grew out of Lanyon’s passion for gliding, and its vivid abstract forms and resonant colour express his lifelong attempt to create a visual language for his intense experience of the environment – his quest for an art of what he called ‘placeness’.

Peter Lanyon, Soaring Flight, 1960
Peter Lanyon, Soaring Flight, 1960

Lanyon said that ‘the whole purpose of gliding was to get to a more complete knowledge of the landscape … to explore the region of vertigo and of all possible edges where equilibrium is upset and I am made responsible by my own efforts for my own survival.’

Peter Lanyon Inshore, 1961

He spoke of landscape painting as ‘a true ambition – like the mountaineer who cannot see a mountain without wishing to climb it or a glider pilot who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them. These things take us into places where our trial is with forces greater than ourselves, where skill and training and courage combine to make us transcend our ordinary lives.’

Peter Lanyon, Solo Flight, 1959
Peter Lanyon, Solo Flight, 1960

Solo Flight was one of the first paintings completed after Lanyon had learned to fly over the Cornish coast in his glider. Talking about this picture, he explained: ‘The red is the track of something moving over the surface of the painting, and, at the same time, the track of the aircraft moving over the ground below. Blue air merges with the land. I wanted to get the sense of something far away and down below inside the red track’.

Peter Lanyon died on August 31st, 1964, after a gliding accident at Dunkeswell airfield in Devon.  It appears, from the evidence of a witness to the crash interviewed in the programme, that one wing of Lanyon’s glider clipped trees as he approached the runway. Lanyon was not seriously injured and was only kept in hospital because of a comparatively minor back injury.  He died suddenly three days later when a blood clot, formed at a bruise on his leg, reached his brain.

Tony O’Malley’s painting, Hawk and Quarry in Winter In Memory of Peter Lanyon (below), was his own response to the loss of his close friend and supporter, and was painted shortly after Lanyon’s death in the gliding accident in 1964.

Tony O’Malley: Hawk and Quarry in Winter, In Memory of Peter Lanyon 1964

In the radio programme we also heard the poet W.S. Graham reading ‘The Thermal Stair‘, his powerful and moving elegy to his artist friend, which concludes:

Uneasy, lovable man, give me your painting
Hand to steady me taking the word-road home.
Lanyon, why is it you’re earlier away?
Remember me wherever you listen from.
Lanyon, dingdong dingdong from carn to carn.
It seems tonight all Closing bells are tolling
Across the Duchy shire wherever I turn.

Links

  • The Thermal Stair: full text of the poem by WS Graham, plus archive recording of the reading used in Lanyon’s Last Flight

Ben Nicholson’s Cornwall

BBC4’s documentary, The Art of Cornwall, explored how the small colony of artists in St Ives became as important as Paris or London during a golden creative period between the 1920s and 1960s. The central focus of the film was on Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson – the latter first visited St Ives in 1928 when he discovered the mariner and primitive painter, Alfred Wallis.  The programme also examined how a younger generation of artists, such as Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, were also influenced by the Cornish landscape.

Nicholson and Hepworth were central figures in the thriving modernist art scene in 1930s London. Nicholson had begun his career painting landscapes and still lifes, but inspired by Mondrian, gradually turned to abstract art.  With the outbreak of war in 1939, recently married to Hepworth and with three young children, Nicholson reluctantly decided to leave London for the safety of Cornwall.  As the couple drove to the end of their road in Hampstead, they noticed Mondrian standing on the corner. They pulled over, rolled down the window and begged him to join them. He refused: he hated the countryside and anything green. Nicholson once recounted how Mondrian, noticing the leaves of a chestnut tree just visible through the skylight of Nicholson’s Hampstead studio, shook his head in disapproval and said: ‘Too much nature’.

When he first arrived in Cornwall, Nicholson went on with the white reliefs that he had been making in London.  They were made in the spirit of quietness and composure that Nicholson had admired in Mondrian’s studio. In St Ives, however:

Outside his Cornish studio the world must have seemed exceedingly disorderly: most days the sky going by at a ttremendous pace; the sluicing of waves and exploding of breakers, that endless pitiless tugging at the headlands by the sea; prevailing winds, quoits and stone hedges; the underworld of tin lodes; the hardship of it all, generastion after generation; harbours, like churchyards, bobbing with coffins.  Only very slowly did this have an effect on what he was doing.
– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

But the landscape did have an effect, modulated through his abstraction.  In addition, the film suggested, Nicholson turned to landscapes in order to earn a living during the war years. Paintings from the 1940s often show a landscape observed through a window with still-life elements in the foreground (below and top).

Landscape by itself is meaningless, but it works on our feelings in profound ways, arousing in us a sense of ourselves in relation to the outside world. What does it feel like to stare up at the night sky or to confront a mountain?  A picture which mimics the appearance of natural phenomena will miss the point, not just of their essential nature, but of ours too.  Instead, some equivalent has to be found: an equivalent of the way in which they act upon our sensibilities.
– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape

In 1943-45 (St Ives, Cornwall) below, the still life of cups and vessels of the foreground interact with the far-reaching landscape stretching away towards the distant sea.  This work was completed in 1945 with the addition of the union jack as a gesture to celebrate V.E. Day and the end of the war.

These landscapes, with their primitivist style, reflect the influence of Alfred Wallis, whose work Nicholson had first encountered in St Ives in 1928. With fellow-artist Christopher Wood, Nicholson had chanced upon Wallis, seeing him painting through the open door of his cottage. As Nicholson later described it, they:

passed an open door in Back Road West and through it saw some paintings of ships and houses on odd pieces of paper and cardboard nailed up all over the wall… We knocked at the door and inside found Wallis.

Alfred Wallis had spent most of his working life as a fisherman. He claimed to have gone to sea aged nine and was involved in deep-sea fishing, sometimes sailing as far as Newfoundland in Canada. In 1890 he moved to St Ives where he became a marine scrap merchant. He began painting at the age of 70 ‘for company’ after the death of his wife.  Wood and Nicholson saw in his unconventional paintings an authentic, expressive vision, and a freshness and immediacy they aspired to in their own work.

Wallis regarded his paintings as memories, recollections or expressions of his experiences – he said he painted ‘what used to be’. His principal subjects were ships at sea, especially the working sail ships that had disappeared during his lifetime, and the St Ives townscape and the countryside immediately surrounding the town.  He didn’t use traditional linear perspective, instead arranging his subjects in terms of relative importance – the main subject of a painting would be the largest object, regardless of where it stood in physical relationship to its surroundings.

Wallis painted seascapes from memory, in large part because the world of sail he knew was being replaced by steamships. As he put it, his subjects were ‘what use To Bee out of my memery what we may never see again…’ [Wikipedia].   Having little money, Wallis improvised with materials, mostly painting on cardboard ripped from packing boxes using a limited palette of paint bought from ships’ chandlers.  Two Boats (above) is painted on the back of a Selfridges box lid, while The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach (below) was painted on the back of a printed advertisement for an exhibition.  It is a view of St. Ives in which the elements are rearranged so that they depart from strict topographical accuracy. It shows the promontary at St. Ives known as ‘The Island’, part of Porthmeor Beach (one end of which adjoins the Island), and Porthmeor Square.

After the war, though Nicholson returned to abstraction, he continued to paint the Cornish landscape. Window in Cornwall and November 11 (Mousehole) (below) were both painted in 1947.

The two etchings of St Ives rooftops (above) were made in the 1960s, overworked by hand by Nicholson in pencil and gouache.   June 11 1949 (Cornish Landscape) (below) is one of a small group of compositions depicting farms near Halsetown, above St Ives. The building in the work is Chytodden Farm, near Towednack. An inscription written by the man who came to dominate the St Ives group in the post-war period, Patrick Heron, on the back of the composition – ‘Towednack’ – confirms the location of the view that Nicholson captured.

At the close of the programme the presenter, Dr James Fox descended into the bowels of the Tate where an assistant hauled out from storage the huge Patrick Heron painting, Cadmium with Violet, Scarlet, Emerald, Lemon and Venetian (above) – perhaps the most arresting moment in the documentary.

Patrick Heron was born in Leeds in 1920 into a family of uncompromising nonconformism. His father was an art lover, socialist and pacifist who had been a conscientious objector in the First World War, while his mother, too, was a pacifist and of fiercely independent spirit, with a passionate eye for the natural world.  Heron was a lifelong socialist and pacifist, a founder member of CND, and an active conservationist. He hated with a passion the Tory governments of the 1980s and 1990s, and refused a knighthood when it was offered by Margaret Thatcher.

In 1925 the Heron family moved from Leeds to Newlyn, where Patrick’s father ran a textile business. Patrick’s early years in Cornwall were idyllic: he was influenced deeply by the light, colour and landscape of what he called the ‘sacred land’ of his childhood. He never forgot childhood holidays that the family spent at Eagles Nest, the house above Zennor.

Patrick Heron The Boats And The Iron Ladder, 1947
Patrick Heron: Boats at Night 1947

In 1956, Heron was able to buy Eagles Nest, and moved in with his wife Delia and their young family.  From that time on, the house was the centre of his imaginative existence:

This is a landscape that has altered my life, the house in its setting is the source of all my painting.

Though his work now became non-figurative, it remained profoundly influenced by the landscape of West Penwith.  Among his first works of the period were the garden paintings, meshes of colour streaked and dribbled vertically on to the canvases.

Azalea Garden [below] was one of the paintings made in the first months at Eagles Nest… I referred to the series as ‘garden paintings’, since they certainly related in my mind to the extraordinary effervescence of flowering azaleas and camellias which was erupting all over the garden, amongst the granite boulders, at Eagles Nest when we moved down to begin our lives here. …The well-known crisis which confronted many British painters of my generation – I mean the moving over from overt figuration, however abstract, to overt non-figuration – overtook me at about this time.

‘The ancient valid response of the painter to the world around him is one of delight and amazement, and we must recapture it.’

The wild landscape around Eagles’ Nest inspired the floating boulder shapes and promontories of the large, Matisse-like abstract canvases that followed in the 1960s and 1970s – acrylics and prints on paper, based on bright, interlocking abstract shapes.

Patrick Heron and his wife Delia are buried in the churchyard at Zennor.  This photo was taken when we visited in 2006.

Patrick Heron designed the huge stained glass window that was installed in the entrance hall of the Tate St Ives gallery when it opened in 1993.

Patrick Heron Window for Tate Gallery St Ives 1992-93 (detail)

See also

Morwenstow’s eccentric vicar

Before we left Cornwall we visited the Norman church at Morwenstow, situated on a wild and remote stretch of the north Cornwall coast, on the track of one of the lovable eccentrics that the English seem to treasure.

Simon Jenkins captures the atmosphere of this place in his England’s Thousand Best Churches guide:

…a no-man’s land of cliffs, windswept fields and isolated farms.  To the west lies only America.

Even today, as Jenkins writes, the place is infused with the spirit of one man, Robert Hawker, who wrote of his parish,

So stern and pitiless is this iron-bound coast that within the memory of one man upwards of 80 wrecks have been counted within a reach of 15 miles, with only here and there the rescue of a living man.

From 1834 to 1875 the vicar at Morwenstow was the eccentric, outstanding Oxford scholar and poet, Robert Hawker.  Hawker’s parishioners must have seemed to him as wild as the coastline: smugglers, wreckers and Dissenters.  He, by contrast, was very High Church, converting to Roman Catholicism on his deathbed. But the locals recognised in him a deep compassion: he insisted on giving Christian burials to shipwrecked seamen washed up on the shores of the parish. Prior to this, the bodies of shipwrecked sailors were often either buried on the beach where they were found or left to the sea. In the church is the figurehead of the ship ‘The Caledonia’ which foundered in September 1842. The figurehead once marked the grave of nine of the ten-man crew (a replica stands there now). The single survivor, a French-speaking Guernsey sailor, wept at the burial service for his comrades and Hawker later wrote that the cry of the stranger was ‘the touch that makes the whole world kin’.

Nearby stands a granite cross marked ‘Unknown Yet Well Known’, marking the mass grave of 30 or more seafarers who Hawker insisted should be buried in the churchyard.  The epitaph on the tomb (above) is inscribed with the quotation, ‘They came in paths of storm, they found this quiet home in Christian ground’.

Much of the original Norman church survives – there are Norman beasts in the doorway (above) and the font is the oldest known Norman font (below), with a cable decoration around the waist.  Simon Jenkins describes the hollowed bowl as being like ‘an open hard-boiled egg’.  The church is dedicated to Saint  Morwenna, an early 6th century Cornish saint who had a cell at Morwenstow.  She was the sister of Saint Juliot, who had a cell and founded the church near Boscastle that we visited yesterday.  Hawker wrote:

Welcome, wild rock and lonely shore!
Where round my days dark seas shall roar,
And thy gray fane, Morwenna, stand
The beacon of the Eternal Land.

A path leads from the church down to the cliff edge where the National Trust’s smallest building, ‘Hawker’s Hut’ is built into the face of the cliff. Here, Hawker spent many hours in contemplation, looking out to sea towards the island of Lundy, writing poetry, and smoking his opium pipe. He entertained guests here, including Alfred Tennyson and Charles Kingsley (whether they joined him in a drag on the opium pipe is unknown).

Other eccentricities included dressing up as a mermaid and excommunicating his cat for mousing on Sundays. He dressed in a claret-coloured coat, blue fisherman’s jersey, long sea-boots, a pink brimless hat and a poncho made from a yellow horse blanket. He talked to birds, invited his nine cats into church and kept a huge pig as a pet. He married twice, the first time a woman twice his age; then, after her death, a Polish woman a third his age.

The view from Hawker’s Hut

Inside Hawker’s Hut

Hawker’s Hut

Hawker built himself a remarkable Rectory (above) next to the church, with chimneys modelled on the towers of the churches in his life.

Hawker is also renowned as the author of  ‘The Song of the Western Men’, also known as ‘Trelawny’. He wrote the song in 1824, telling of events that took place in 1688, when James II, used the royal prerogative to suspend the operation of legislation directed against those who did not worship in accordance with the rites of the Church of England by issuing a Declaration of Indulgence towards Catholics and ordering it to be read in every church.  The song was inspired by the story of Jonathan Trelawny, one of  seven bishops who refused to read out the Indulgence and who  were  imprisoned in the Tower of London.  Hawker played around with the historical truth: the march on London described in the song only reached Bristol, before Trelawny was acquitted by a jury in London and released.

A good sword and a trusty hand!
A faithful heart and true!
King James’s men shall understand
What Cornish lads can do!

And have they fixed the where and when?
And shall Trelawny die?
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men
Will know the reason why!

And when we come to London Wall,
A pleasant sight to view,
Come forth! come forth! ye cowards all:
Here’s men as good as you.
‘Trelawny he’s in keep and hold;
Trelawny he may die:
Here’s twenty thousand Cornish bold
Will know the reason why

By the end of Hawker’s time as vicar the church was in a ruinous state of disrepair.  The wooden roof was rotten and let in streams of water.  The pillars were green with lichen and the side of the tower bulged.  Storms had torn out the glass in the windows.  Before his death, Hawker had tried, unsuccessfully, to raise enough money for repairs.

Later, back in the churchyard, I pondered the nature of this man, Oxford-educated and culturally far-removed from his parishioners, who came to this wild and isolated place and dedicated himself to the lives of the villagers and the souls of shipwrecked sailors.

There are only two buildings in the vicinity of the church – the Rectory and the 13th century Rectory Farm, which is now a tearoom where everything is homemade.  We sat in the garden enjoying the unexpected warm sunshine while a wedding party assembled at the church across the road.

St Juliot: Thomas and Emma

St Juliot: Thomas and Emma

St Joliet church

St Juliot church

After seeing the Kurt Jackson exhibition in Truro, we drove back towards Crackington and stopped for lunch in Boscastle, now fully recovered from the devastating flood in 2004.   The Pixie House, where we had lunch, has been completely rebuilt in its original unique style and the harbour-side showed many signs of the regeneration work that is now complete.  A new, less flood-prone bridge (below) has replaced the one swept away, and the car park is now resurfaced to better absorb any future floodwaters.

The Pixie House dates from the 16th century; it was bought by the present owner in 1957 for £71 6s 6d when it was a piggery.  In the 2004 flood a camper van, one of multitude of cars swept down from the car park as 440 million gallons of water cascaded down the main street at 40 miles an hour, clipped the corner of the building and the slate-roofed cob structure – made of a mixture of sand, straw, water and earth – collapsed.  As my photo shows, it has been restored to its former glory, though on slightly higher ground.

The Pixie House at Boscastle

From midday on 16 August 2004, torrential rain fell on an area of North Cornwall from Tintagel to Bude, with unprecedented heavy rainfall concentrated around Boscastle. More than two inches of rain fell in under two hours and the three rivers that converge on Boscastle burst their banks at around 4 pm.

Trees were ripped out of the ground, cars, vans and caravans were carried away in the churning waters that raged towards the harbour from the burst banks of the River Valency, which today ran tranquilly alongside the Boscastle car park. In the wall of water, debris and mud, vehicles were hurled over the road bridge and down the sides of the harbour towards the sea. The devastation was quick: the wavy-roofed three hundred year old Pixie House was washed away completely by the force of water and debris pounding it. Fifty cars were carried out of the car park by the raging waters and into the harbour.

After lunch we set out on the coast path, climbing up above the harbour, a natural inlet protected by two stone harbour walls built in 1584. It is the only significant harbour for 20 miles along this rugged coast. As well as being a fishing harbour, Boscastle was once a small port importing limestone and coal and exporting slate and other local produce.

Out on the coast path, views of Beeny Cliff soon appeared in the distance.  Below Beeny is a waterfall that cascades from a high shelf above the rocky beach at Pentargon, a grey scar brutally slashed into the green of the coastline.

Both these places have associations with Thomas Hardy.  As we walked, Rita explained the background to me, since I was unaware of Hardy’s Cornish connections.  As a young architect, Hardy came in 1870 to restore the church of St Juliot. His work brought him into contact with the rector’s sister-in-law, Emma, who lived at the rectory.  Despite a conventional upbringing, she was a lively free-thinker, vivacious and eager to escape her life in the vicarage. They fell in love and married in September 1874.

Hardy’s early novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, although place names are disguised, is steeped in the atmosphere of this area and his love for Emma. However, their marriage was a strange and unhappy one. With the publication of Jude the Obscure, Emma was outraged at what she took to be his attack upon the sanctity of marriage and feared that people would consider the novel to be autobiographical.  Their lives grew apart, with Emma living alone on a separate floor at Max Gate, the house that Hardy built in Dorchester, while Hardy had flirtatious relationships with other women.  On the morning of the day she died in 1912, her maidservant reported to Hardy that Emma was not well, but he did not go to see her.

You arrive at St Juliot church after following deep, winding lanes with grass growing up the middle.  The place seemed extraordinarily isolated, set amidst a sweep of fields with no evidence of the human habitation that must have led to the establishment of a church in a parish in the 14th century.

When Hardy arrived here in 1870 he found the church in a parlous condition, with the 14th century tower in a ruinous state, and the whole building in ‘irredeemable dilapidation’. Emma herself recorded that ‘the carved bench ends rotted more and more , ivy hung gaily from the roof timbers and birds and bats had a good time unmolested. No one seemed to care’.

In the process of renovation, the northern transept was destroyed, along with much of the old woodwork and a Jacobean Pulpit. Hardy himself regretted later that so much had been destroyed. There is a memorial tablet (below) recording Hardy’s association with the church,  installed in 1928.

Thomas Hardy: A Dream or No

Why go to Saint-Juliot? What’s Juliot to me?
I’ve been but made fancy
By some necromancy
That much of my life claims the spot as its key.

Yes. I have had dreams of that place in the West,
And a maiden abiding
Thereat as in hiding;
Fair-eyed and white-shouldered, broad-browed and brown-tressed.

And of how, coastward bound on a night long ago,
There lonely I found her,
The sea-birds around her,
And other than nigh things uncaring to know.

So sweet her life there (in my thought has it seemed)
That quickly she drew me
To take her unto me,
And lodge her long years with me. Such have I dreamed.

But nought of that maid from Saint-Juliot I see;
Can she ever have been here,
And shed her life’s sheen here,
The woman I thought a long housemate with me?

Does there even a place like Saint-Juliot exist?
Or a Vallency Valley
With stream and leafed alley,
Or Beeny, or Bos with its flounce flinging mist?

After Emma’s death, Hardy was consumed by remorse which resulted in some of his most beautiful poetry, in memory of the love they had once shared.  Later, he had a memorial stone commissioned and placed on the north wall of St Juliot Church (below).

Thomas Hardy:  After A Journey: Pentargon Bay

Hereto I come to interview a ghost;
Whither, O whither will its whim now draw me?
Up the cliff, down, till I’m lonely, lost,
And the unseen waters’ ejaculations awe me.
Where you will next be there’s no knowing,
Facing round about me everywhere,
With your nut-coloured hair,
And gray eyes, and rose-flush coming and going.

Yes: I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
Through the years, through the dead scenes I have tracked you;
What have you now found to say of our past –
Viewed across the dark space wherein I have lacked you?
Summer gave us sweets, but autumn wrought division?
Things were not lastly as firstly well
With us twain, you tell?
But all’s closed now, despite Time’s derision.

I see what you are doing: you are leading me on
To the spots we knew when we haunted here together,
The waterfall, above which the mist-bow shone
At the then fair hour in the then fair weather,
And the cave just under, with a voice still so hollow
That it seems to call out to me from forty years ago,
When you were all aglow,
And not the thin ghost that I now frailly follow!

Ignorant of what there is flitting here to see,
The waked birds preen and the seals flop lazily,
Soon you will have, Dear, to vanish from me,
For the stars close their shutters and the dawn whitens hazily.
Trust me, I mind not, though Life lours,
The bringing me here; nay, bring me here again!
I am just the same as when
Our days were a joy, and our paths through flowers.

Thomas Hardy: Beeny Cliff

O the opal and the sapphire of that wandering western sea,
And the woman riding high above with bright hair flapping free –
The woman whom I loved so, and who loyally loved me.

The pale mews plained below us, and the waves seemed far away
In a nether sky, engrossed in saying their ceaseless babbling say,
As we laughed light-heartedly aloft on that clear-sunned March day.

A little cloud then cloaked us, and there flew an irised rain,
And the Atlantic dyed its levels with a dull misfeatured stain,
And then the sun burst out again, and purples prinked the main.

– Still in all its chasmal beauty bulks old Beeny to the sky,
And shall she and I not go there once again now March is nigh,
And the sweet things said in that March say anew there by and by?

What if still in chasmal beauty looms that wild weird western shore,
The woman now is – elsewhere – whom the ambling pony bore,
And nor knows nor cares for Beeny, and will laugh there nevermore.

The Thomas Hardy Memorial Window in St Juliot Church (above) was commissioned by the Thomas Hardy Society to mark the millennium.  The window seeks to illustrate three of Hardy’s poems. The central light symbolises Hardy’s journey from Dorset to Cornwall in 1870 and contains lines from the poem ‘When I set out for Lyonnesse’; the left-hand light illustrates the incident by the stream in the Valency Valley below the church where, picnicking, Hardy and Emma lost a drinking glass in the stream, an incident which Hardy recalls in ‘Under the Waterfall’; and the right hand illustrates the poem ‘Beeny Cliff’, a couple of miles west of St Juliot.

Kurt Jackson’s Dart exhibition

Spent an absolutely brilliant morning at the Lemon Street Gallery in Truro, viewing The Dart, the new exhibition by Kurt Jackson.  The show charts Kurt’s progress, following the river from sea to source, and was accompanied by an illuminating documentary filmed throughout the journey by his wife, Caroline.

On show were three floors of Kurt’s work on show, including paintings, sculpture and pottery. The highlight, though, was the surprise of finding the artist himself was present in the gallery, and taking the opportunity to briefly discuss his working methods with him.

The exhibition begins with a poem by Kurt Jackson:

Indian Dart 2009

And I walked along the Dart
scribbling and striding dustily
(towards Wistman’s Wood)
around and past
that crouching clenched squat copse
and then across the ling, cotton grass and bog
to search for the river’s source
in an Indian summer.

And I painted up the Dart
among the many happy Two Bridges sheep
their shit mixed with my paint
and the meadow pipit’s song,
following those riparian meanders
to lead the eye from moor to tor to blue horizon
in an Indian Summer.

And I swam down the Dart
on my Hexworthy birthday
drifing over the trout,
gasping with the golden cold sunlight,
under lipstick-berried rowan and watchful oak,
in an Indian summer.

And I stared into the Dart
eager to glimpse the salmonid pilgrims
of Buck – fast – leigh’s slow – dark – depths
through the jewelled sinking –  sun – spangles
and swimming monks’ reflections
in an Indian summer.

In the gallery basement a film of Kurt painting by the river was being screened.  It revealed the methods that Jackson employs and lengths to which he goes in creating his images, working plein air.  When working on the larger canvases, he does not – as I had imagined – work at an easel.  The canvas is spread on the ground, and Jackson may splatter the paint across the canvas in a manner rather like Jackson Pollock; or he may walk across it, or scrape his muddy boots on its surface.

I had a chance to speak to Kurt, and asked him about his method: I was curious how a process of random-seeming paint splattering could result in an image that seemed far from abstract, controlled, almost recognisably ‘photographic’ (though I realised later, on reflection, that this is entirely the wrong word to use, since no photograph could ever the sense of place, time, weather, light that you experience looking at one of his paintings).  Is there much re-working back in the studio?  He responded that, though he does sometimes make final adjustments in the studio, often most of the refining and re-working of the image is completed at the location.

What is really striking about his approach is the way in which he immerses himself totally in the environment.  We see him swimming in the river. He often records details of weather and the sights and the sounds around him in handwritten notes on the paintings themselves.  He endures the midges, and in one extraordinary scene in the film he is seen sitting on a snowy bank in December, icicles hanging from bare branches overhead, visibly shivering with the cold. He told me that the paint was freezing as it touched the canvas and he achieved the effect he was seeking by scraping the paint surface with a metal box-lid because his brushes had frozen solid.

In other paintings there are strands of grass, clumps of earth, his own footprints, and there’s an ink sketch created with a freshly- picked reed.

The show also includes several simple yet beautiful  still lifes of flowers from the banks of the Dart – either paintings or etchings.  Two of my favourites were this painting of a dandelion, a primrose, and a few daisies: and the etching of ransoms – wild garlic.

There are also work by Jackson in other media – including pottery and metalwork.  A beautiful example is this piece – ‘ The river is surrounded by oak and sycamore with a granite bed’ – constructed in pewter, tin, copper,granite and oak.

The inspiration for the Dart project were the wartime memories of  Kurt’s father, Alan, who was evacuated, aged 12, from the East End of London to Dartmouth. He would tell Kurt stories about having a wonderful childhood by the river, fishing, crabbing and generally playing in the sun. Kurt continues:

For me the stories and the material in them were very powerful and so I decided to go first to that place to see if for myself and then to trace the river back and find out where it came from.

I knew that the Dart ended her forty-seven mile journey in ‘my father’s estuary’, flowing between Dartmouth and Kingswear before entering the sea, and that she originated somewhere on the Dartmoor wilds, but where did she go after pouring off those moorland flanks?

A brief day trip in 1999 on a freezing mid-winter’s day, suffering with the side effects of a doctor’s back medicine didn’t help.Wistman’sWood briefly revealed its unique beauty and magic, but the Dart was only the briefest of glimpses tumbling along the valley bottom. I had already immersed myself inTed Hughes’Dart-based poetry; then came Alice Oswald’s prize-winning ‘Dart’ poem to entice me further. Richard Long’s Dartmoor ramblings, Seth Lakeman’s ballads, Chris Chapman’s photographs and maybe even Widgery’s watercolours all seemed to gradually demand for my own engagement with the Dart.

And what did I learn after my brief few years exploring and scribbling up and down that watercourse? I could see why a small London boy would find comfort and adventure in this paradise, removed from the horrors of war and the city, but I also discovered that this Eden, the Dart, is not just extraordinarily beautiful, but that it is a meandering string of jewels – a chain of very special plant and animal communities, many that are now extremely limited in their habitats and distribution.A haven of biodiversity,with moorland and blanket bog, valley mire, acid grassland, ancient woodland, gorges, flower meadows, mudflats and salt marsh.

Ring ouzel, high brown fritillary, southern damselfly, bog hoverfly, marsh fritillary, Dartford warbler, southern marsh orchid, goshawk, salmon, spotted heath orchid, lamprey, marsh violet, hen harrier, sea trout, otter, osprey, eel grass, cornish moneywort, blue ground beetle, nightjar, small-leafed lime, wood warbler, greater horseshoe bat, red grouse, alder buckthorn, keeled skimmer, wood ant, goosander, cirl bunting.

– Kurt Jackson, 2010

Kurt Jackson summed up his journey along the Dart in these words:

I’ve walked the river, swum in it, snorkelled it and boated on it. I’ve tried to become as intimate with it as possible. It was a very fruitful experience and actually a true delight.

Jackson refers in the essay above to Alice Oswald’s poem, Dart, a book-length poem that seamlessly integrates the voices of the people who live and work on the Dart that Alice Oswald recorded in conversations  over several years.

Dart: Excerpt

Who’s this moving alive over the moor?

An old man seeking and finding a difficulty.
Has he remembered his compass his spare socks
does he fully intend going in over his knees off the military track from Okehampton?
keeping his course through the swamp spaces
and pulling the distance around his shoulders

and if it rains, if it thunders suddenly
where will he shelter looking round
and all that lies to hand is his own bones?

tussocks, minute flies,
wind, wings, roots. ..

He consults his map. A huge rain-coloured wilderness.
This must be the stones, the sudden movement,
the sound of frogs singing in the new year.
Who’s this issuing from the earth?

The Dart, lying low in darkness calls out Who is it?
trying to summon itself by speaking…

An old man, fifty years a mountaineer, until my heart gave out, so now I’ve taken to the moors.
I’ve done all the walks, the Two Moors Way, the Tors, this long winding line the Dart

this secret buried in reeds at the beginning of sound I
won’t let go of man, under
his soakaway ears and his eye ledges working
into the drift of his thinking, wanting his heart

I keep you folded in my mack pocket and I’ve marked in red where the peat passes are and the
good sheep tracks

cow-bones, tin-stones, turf-cuts
listen to the horrible keep-time of a man walking,
rustling and jingling his keys
at the centre of his own noise,
clomping the silence in pieces and I,
in the pit of his throat, I
summon him just out of earshot

I don’t know, all I know is walking. Get dropped off the military track from Oakehampton and
head down into Cranmere pool. It’s dawn, it’s a huge sphagnum kind of wilderness, and an hour
in the morning is worth three in the evening. You can hear plovers whistling, your feet sink right
in, it’s like walking on the bottom of a lake.

What I love is one foot in front of another. South south west and down the contours. I go slipping
between Black Ridge and White Horse Hill into a bowl of the moor where echoes can’t get out.

Listen,
a
lark
spinning
around
one
note
splitting
and
mending
it

and I find you in the reeds, a trickle coming out of a bank, a foal of a river

one step-width water
of linked stones
trills in the stones
glides in the trills
eels in the glides
in each eel a fingerwidth of sea

in walking boots, with twenty pounds on my back: spare socks, compass, map, water purifier so I
can drink from streams, seeing the cold floating spread out above the morning,

tent, torch, chocolate not much else.

Which’ll make it longish, almost unbearable between my evening meal and sleeping, when I’ve
got as far as stopping, sitting in the tent door with no book, no saucepan, not so much as a stick
to support the loneliness

he sits clasping his knees, holding his face low down between them,
he watches black slugs,
he makes a little den of his smells and small thoughts
he thinks up a figure far away on the tors
waving, so if something does happen,
if night comes down and he has to leave the path
then we’ve seen each other, somebody knows where we are.

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