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 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
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, 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.


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.