We have been entertained these past few days by the busy bustle of spring among the birds in our garden: a blue tit has found a hole in the sandstone wall and flies back and forth carrying nesting material, disappearing inside what should be a safe and warm shelter for its chicks, while a pair of magpies sift through the flower beds and fly off with beaks laden with twigs and leaves. Continue reading “Spring again, and our neighbours are restless”
A fine piece in today’s Guardian Country Diary by Mark Cocker. In a poetic column about the departure of swifts from the skies above his Norfolk home as they head south on their long migration he writes, ‘Surely more than anything else in British nature, swifts symbolise all of life, and it is all here now in the line of that curve. It has the certainty of a steel blade. It is shaped like a strand of cobweb weighted with dew. It has the line of the Earth’s own rim mid-ocean, and a memory of it hangs momentarily in the air like breath on a winter’s morning.’
Rooks at Buckenham Carrs (from East of Elveden blog)
Light thickens, and the crow
Makes wing to th’ rooky wood.
– William Shakespeare, Macbeth
At this time of year, as the afternoon light begins to fade, the open fields in Sefton Park gradually fill, first with a handful and then hundreds of rooks. As the sun sets and the sky darkens, groups will rise and settle on the tops of nearby trees. This is a small-scale example of the phenomenon of the rooks’ night-time roost that Mark Cocker has spent the best part of the last decade observing, and which he writes about in his book I read recently, Crow Country: A Meditation on Birds, Landscape and Nature.
The goings-on in Sefton Park underline the fact that Crow Country is to be found just about everywhere in Britain. But whereas the display in our local park is a pretty intimate affair, Cocker is drawn to the stadium performances in which this spectacle involves tens of thousands of birds. He’s travelled Britain to the places where the most dramatic gatherings can be seen, though most of his observations have been made near his Norfolk home, where, at Buckenham Carrs in the Yare valley, he has seen as many as 40,000 rooks and jackdaws gather to roost.
For me, the most characteristic trait of rooks or crows (hard to tell apart, even for experienced birdwatchers) is their casual insouciance: approached by human or dog they will lift off lazily at the last minute and descend after a few desultory wing flaps a few yards further on, those always maintaining an alert and possibly amused watchfulness with those eyes like deep, dark pools.
But what has impelled Mark Cocker to pursue his obsession with rooks and to write about it with the same sort of passion that nurtured another Norfolk bird book, J A Baker’s ecstatic paean to The Peregrine? The answer for Cocker would seem to consist of several elements: one the one hand, he admires rooks as migrants, their behaviour embracing a spirit of freedom and community. He quotes a passage from ‘I Love, I Love the Free’ (1840) by Eliza Cooke:
The caw of a rook on its homeward way,
Oh these shall be the music for me
For I love I love the path of the free.
At the same time, Cocker concludes that studying the life of another living creature in depth and with total engagement is ‘a way of being intensely alive, and recognising that you are so’. Towards the end of his book, he writes:
It is a form of valuing life and of appreciating the fundamental tenet of all ecology: that every thing is connected to everything else. So I would argue that rooking isn’t merely about a single raucous black bird. It is about the whole world – the landscape, the sunlight, the very oxygen we share – all that lies between myself and the bird.
Cocker’s style differs in certain respects from JA Baker’s: he is more of a scientist, more the expert and more informative. Early in the book, Cocker notes that although crows are widespread they are mightily misunderstood, often to the extent of being confused with rooks and other corvids. He suggests that an easy way to distinguish crows from rooks at a distance is to count their numbers: a crow, he says, ‘passes its life as one of a pair isolated from neighbours by a fierce territoriality . . . Rooks, by contrast, live, feed, sleep, fly, display, roost, fall sick and die in the presence of their own kind’. Hence the old East Anglian adage ‘When tha’s a rook, tha’s a crow; and when tha’s crows, tha’s rooks’.
Despite its title, the book celebrates rooks in particular. His opening chapter is a rapturous account of how watching ‘a long ellipse’ of several thousand rooks and jackdaws head for their evening roost fills him with ecstatic delight:
I am awaiting the arrival of night and all that it means in this landscape. Ahead of me lies a great unbound field of stubble sloping gently down towards the hamlet of Buckenham in the Yare valley. At the settlement’s southern margin is a tiny railway station, where I stepped down from a train more than thirty years ago on one of my earliest expeditions to this part of the Norfolk Broads. Beyond that steel line is the flat expanse of the Yare’s flood plain proper, and from my position on this upper northern slope I gain a sense of the entire valley, the whole flow of its contours, the way that the land dips down then rises again on the far shore like a shallow saucer, like a natural amphitheatre, fit for the spectacle about to unfold.
As day draws into its final hour, our own falling star has dwindled to a lens of brightness on the southern horizon resting in its own bed of lemon and rose light. I watch the clouds being pushed towards it by a biting northerly. They loom overhead like icebergs in an ocean of cold winter blue, and through this interplay of light and darkness arrive the birds I’ve come to watch. A long ellipse of shapes, ragged and playful, strung out across the valley for perhaps half a kilometre, rides the uplift from the north wind directly towards my location. The birds, rooks and jackdaws heading to their evening roost, don’t materialise gradually – a vague blur slowly taking shape – they tunnel into view as if suddenly breaking through a membrane. One moment they aren’t visible. Then they are, and I track their course to the great skirt of stubble flowing down below me.
Along the margins of these fields stand rows of stately ivy-clad oaks, where the birds that have already arrived clothe the bare canopy, creating a heavy foliage of black. The whole effect of animal and vegetation reminds me momentarily of the great flat-topped acacias of the African savannah. In the failing light they are mere silhouettes and even the birds that have landed on the ground, wandering among the jagged stalks of stubble, create a simple, fretted chiaroscuro of pale and dark.
My attention cannot rest on the perched birds for long because I’m drawn back inexorably to the drama of the fresh arrivals. The long cylinder of birds, perhaps a thousand in total, has started to coil and circle the sky above the landing ground. They wind up into a single swirling vortex that breaks apart as small groups fling themselves to Earth. It is an extraordinary performance. I am so mesmerised by the flock’s sudden and convulsive disintegration that I fail to absorb the trajectory followed by any one individual. But all cease briefly to resemble birds. They become wind-blown rags or scraps of paper. The best I can think of is a moment I saw once in Jaipur, India. Above the city’s white-washed skyline floated a thousand small multi-coloured kites all at play in the hot desert gusts on that Rajasthani afternoon. The rooks and jackdaws acquired the same brief power of wild movement, straining against gravity and wind in equal measure.
Even this dramatic show holds me just a matter of seconds because each new development seems more compelling than the last. From the east, from rookeries that I know intimately around the village of Reedham, comes an even larger flock. Perhaps 4,000 birds arrive in a single river of movement and then perform the same wheeling downward plunge of the previous group. All the while that the visual drama intensifies, their accompanying vocalisations become ever more voluble and excited.
In this description of the process by which the rooks gather and settle on the fields, Cocker is merely describing the prelude to the main event – the sudden lift-off to settle in the trees and roost for the night:
It begins almost casually. A single concentrated stream of birds breaks for the trees, the stands of trees that have remained almost unnoticed until this point. Inconsequential while the drama built all around them, the woods known as Buckenham Carrs have grown steadily darker with the onset of night. Now that they have moved centre stage they have become a brooding cavity in the landscape. The birds pour into the airspace above it in ever- growing numbers, and they mount the air until there are so many and the accompanying calls are so loud that I instinctively search for marine images to convey both the sea roar of sounds and the blurry underwater shapes of the flock. It becomes a gyroscope of tightly packed fish roiling and twisted by the tide; it has the loose transparent fluidity of a jellyfish, or the globular formlessness of an amoeba – one that spreads for a kilometre and a half across the heavens.
Cocker compares this vision to ‘black dust motes sinking steadily through the gentle oil of sleep’ but admits that he is at ‘the limits of what my mind can comprehend or my imagination can articulate.’
Whilst many a mingled swarthy crowd —
Rook, crow, and jackdaw,—noising loud,
Fly to and fro to dreary fen,
Dull Winter’s weary flight again;
They flop on heavy wings away
As soon as morning wakens grey,
And, when the sun sets round and red,
Return to naked woods to bed.
– John Clare, from ‘The Shepherd’s Calendar – January’ (1827)
Crow Country draws in autobiographical elements as well observations of bird behaviour. Cocker describes how he and his family moved from a city life in Norwich to make a home in the deep country of the nearby Yare valley. He writes about this move as an act of migration which is bird-like because he senses that it is driven by instinct. As he settles into the new landscape, he discovers that rook-watching charges ‘many of the things I had once overlooked or taken for granted . . . with fresh power and importance’. The birds, he says, are ‘at the heart of my relationship with the Yare . . . my route into the landscape and my rationale for its exploration’.
He recalls how, waking in their new home, he heard the rooks each morning, ‘the notes clattering on to the road and the rooftops of the village like flakes of tin’. Then he would see them in the evening, a long silent procession of birds heading north. He began to follow them to what seemed to be their roost, assuming that once they had settled on the hedges and trees that would be the end of the matter. But it was not:
It was virtually dark. There was so little light, I was barely sure if my binoculars were focused or not… Suddenly birds started to fly up in a purposeful jet of black shapes spurting for the trees. The movements of some seemed to act as a detonator on the others. Before I knew what was happening the whole host was airborne and swarming towards Buckenham Carrs.
When the flock was centred over the wood it began to swirl and twist. The birds were wrenched back and forth as if each was caught by the same conflicting impulses. When portions of the flock turned in unison through a particular angle the entire surface of the wingspan… was reduced to a single pencil line. The net effect in the quarter-light of dusk was that whole sections vanished and reappeared a split second later. It was as if a tonne of birds was being conjured and re-conjured from thin air.
He explains the distinction between the birds’ roosts and the rookeries where they breed from late February to June in the nesting season, and contemplates the sense of community endeavour that seems to underpin their behaviour:
In the nesting season, the abundant supply of worms is the key to the rook’s success. The onset of the breeding cycle in earliest spring is timed to coincide with the maximum availability of prey for the chicks. But the food items aren’t spread evenly, they’re clustered randomly…It’s thought that rooks have evolved to share resources and capitalise on the shifting and temporary abundances by pursuing a feeding strategy of follow-my-leader…. Each bird discovering a food hotspot faces the disadvantage of competition from neighbours, but it is more than compensated by the opportunity, on all occasions when it is less successful, to share the good fortune uncovered by others.
Roosts, by contrast, are located elsewhere and inhabited from October through to February. They are usually in the middle of woods, even though these are birds that feed in grasslands (they often fly up to 25 miles to feeding grounds for the day), and Cocker suggests that protection from weather and predators are an important part of the roosting behaviour. But the biggest advantage for rooks in gathering together in huge numbers in roots or rookeries is, he concludes, the spread of information about food sources.
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.
– Edward Thomas, ‘Thaw’
Cocker quotes other writers who have been entranced by rooks: Thomas Browne and Andrew Young, John Clare and Edward Thomas. There’s no mention of Ted Hughes and his Crow poems, but I think that’s because Hughes’ conception of a bird with violent, rapacious and disorderly qualities doesn’t quite fit in with Cocker’s rather more sublime vision. Thinking of Hughes, I came across this poem by Sylvia Plath, ‘Black Rook in Rainy Weather’, which seems inspired by the iridescent, purplish-blue glossy sheen of the bird’s plumage: ‘a rook/Ordering its black feathers can so shine/As to seize my senses’. Not simply black, but ‘Tricks of radiance/Miracles’.
On the stiff twig up there
Hunches a wet black rook
Arranging and rearranging its feathers in the rain –
I do not expect a miracle
Or an accident
To set the sight on fire
In my eye, nor seek
Any more in the desultory weather some design,
But let spotted leaves fall as they fall
Without ceremony, or portent.
Although, I admit, I desire,
Occasionally, some backtalk
From the mute sky, I can’t honestly complain:
A certain minor light may still
Out of kitchen table or chair
As if a celestial burning took
Possession of the most obtuse objects now and then –
Thus hallowing an interval
By bestowing largesse, honour
One might say love. At any rate, I now walk
Wary (for it could happen
Even in this dull, ruinous landscape); sceptical
Yet politic, ignorant
Of whatever angel any choose to flare
Suddenly at my elbow. I only know that a rook
Ordering its black feathers can so shine
As to seize my senses, haul
My eyelids up, and grant
A brief respite from fear
Of total neutrality. With luck,
Trekking stubborn through this season
Of fatigue, I shall
Patch together a content
Of sorts. Miracles occur.
If you care to call those spasmodic
Tricks of radiance
Miracles. The wait’s begun again,
The long wait for the angel,
For that rare, random descent.
This poem, by Norfolk writer Martin Figura, was written in response to Mark Cocker’s Crow Country:
‘Rooks: for Mark Cocker’
Their broken voices call against the hard ground
of a day’s work. They are the dark coming home
in dissonant scores until this field of stubble
is soft-black with them, the telephone wires
thick and bowed. Ten thousand grey tongues
honour the dusk, the Lowestoft commuter train,
the woods of Buckenham Carrs.
Thrown like muck from a wheel until the sky
is blind with them, they are the exact opposite
of stars. And here they come, all bluster,
their ostentatious flight across the moon
to the hierarchy of branches, to the rough
belonging of bark in their claws.
Rooks going to roost on a Winter evening in Norfolk
To finish, I like these words by Matt Sewell on the Caught By The River site:
It’s almost as if they shouldn’t belong to the Crow family; sociable and generally vegetarian, Rooks are just out for a laugh really. With a clownish, daft face and a shaggy, dishevelled appearance, these croakers aren’t out to cause mischief like their cousins. In fact, when not in their rookery, they spend most of their time in fields not being scared by scarecrows (maybe if all the farmers got together and changed the name to ‘scarerooks’, that would work better). But farmers should just leave them alone as they eat as many pests and crop-eating bugs as they do seeds. Good old Rooks.
Walking across the field by the Palm House today, the swallows and martins still made their presence known, swooping and diving for late afternoon insects, despite the falling temperatures and gales of the past few days. You’d think they would have got the message by now: it’s over, time to head south for the warmth and the sun.
This morning in The Guardian, Mark Cocker writing from Norfolk of last week’s storms in the Country Diary, also notes the incongruity of the swallows as the season turns:
It was hard to square the swallows with this place. Three or four of them swooped low across the river Yare, and were almost blown back with the force of the opposing airstream. Somehow they picked out narrow fissures in that cold bluff of wind, and slowly reached the other side. They then arced down over the fields, flying almost sideways, as if resting on one wing, using the left briefly as a flail to paddle against the blast. By the time I’d turned for home the sun had gone. Rain started pounding down in diagonal sheets. Against the collar of my coat, which I raised to protect my glasses, it made a brittle sound like snapping twigs. When I got home I was completely soaked, cold trickles of water running down my shins. I thought finally of those blue birds. They weigh about 22g (less than 1oz), which works out roughly at one gram of wing muscle and sinew and hollow bone for every 450km of their forthcoming journey.
Less than an ounce! Coincidentally, Stephen Moss in the same newspaper’s Birdwatch was fascinated, too, by the mystery of migration, focussing in this case on wheatears:
The wheatear is one of more than a dozen kinds of migrant songbird, including flycatchers, chats and warblers, which pass through our parish at this time of year. They don’t hang around for long: once they have built up their energy reserves – in some cases doubling their weight – they will leave under cover of darkness, taking advantage of following winds and clear skies to help them on their way.
They navigate by means of the Earth’s magnetic field, the position of the Moon and stars, and natural landmarks such as rivers. But however much I learn about their incredible journeys, I remain in awe: how can a bird weighing less than an ounce travel so many thousands of miles, especially when, like this young wheatear in front of me, it has never done the trip before?
Of all the writers who contribute to Country Diary, I most appreciate Paul Evans, whose missives usually concern the countryside around Wenlock Edge. Last week’s was an outstanding piece, beginning with autumnal apple falls and the impending storm, before concluding with a powerful sense of the strangeness of a land where ‘mile after mile, village after village, there was no one working in the fields or gardens or walking the byways, only traffic on the roads…’
When ripe apples fall and no one picks them up, then this is a strange land. Chiff-chaff, riff-raff, mis-hap, go-back, this was the last day the chiff-chaff called from Windmill Hill. Summer was being blown like straw from a lorry-load of bales and the chiff-chaff, clinging to an ash tree, waited for the coast to clear and the wind to die down before striking out on his southern journey. There was a storm coming and the air was electric. Rags of cloud, agitated and spectre-grey, churned around the sky, leaving a bright blue eye-patch overhead. Far hills were misted out when a band of swallows flipped in as fast as peas off a spoon from The Wrekin in the north. Half a wingbeat above ground and catastrophe if they touched anything, the swallows slipped by under the wind and death’s radar.
A pocketful of hazelnuts lay on the path. Each nut had been hollowed out through a neat hole cut into its shell. This gave the empty nuts the feel of artefacts – painstakingly crafted using skills passed down over millennia. These were made like gifts, precious beautiful things, the work of dormice. In the dark, up in the arching hazel boughs, the dormice ran their invisible paths collecting nuts, cutting through and hollowing out, feasting on their harvest and dropping these empty shells in the same place. In daylight they would be asleep somewhere in the trees, wound up in their tails inside a nest of dry grass, deep in their dreams. What did these ginger elfin rodents of the woods dream? Did they imagine this land, where no one seemed to stir?
Mile after mile, village after village, there was no one working in the fields or gardens or walking the byways, only traffic on the roads. Where was everyone? The chiff-chaff was leaving, ripe apples had fallen from a tree on to the roadside and no one was going to pick them up. What a strange land this was.
I don’t know what it was about Mark Cocker’s Country Diary in The Guardian today that seemed so compelling. With London burning, stock exchanges crashing and a whiff of Armageddon in the air, maybe it was the sense that when everything finally grinds to a halt, nature will forge on, whatever. Here’s his piece:
We were logjammed for several miles on the eastbound lane. Yet it was striking how soon after we’d halted that a spontaneous air of holiday broke out along the carriageway. People were on their mobiles getting updates. They climbed out of their cars to stretch or smoke. From one vehicle came a snatch of Test Match Special. A Mr Whippy driver climbed out but realised he was missing a trick and soon we were all queueing for ice-creams.
You could actually feel the air clear of fumes, but I suspect it would only have been from some spot about 150m above the motorway that you could have appreciated fully how this great vale of brutal noise was so quickly turned into silence. Out of the unaccustomed quiet drifted a buzzard, its note high, long-drawn, and faintly melancholic. There were some grasses and common orache in the central reservation and most striking were the spikes of fat-hen standing proud of the barrier. They had all the usual architecture and leaf shape of fat-hen but the whole was shrink-wrapped in a black skin of exhaust residue.
Then I noticed, on a plastic fragment from a lost wheel flap, field grasshoppers exactly like those in my garden. One hopped down and led my eye to the others. There was a whole colony trapped here in this no man’s land of violent car roar and speed. These particular insects may never have been heard or seen by anyone for decades.
And there it was unmistakably – the quintessence of an English summer – the terse melody of their love song, a low-pitched stridulation of less than a second repeated in sequences of two. Occasionally if rival males embark on a kind of musical duel they will chirp alternately, and sound like some busy gnome working a tiny pair of bellows. Just for a few minutes these lost insects were reunited with their wider world and enjoyed a little passage of ordinariness in their extraordinary lives.
I’ve loved the paintings of Kurt Jackson since discovering him on a holiday in Cornwall some years back. Cornwall – and most especially the far western lands of West Penwith is a favourite place, and the place that Jackson has made his home and his primary subject since 1984, when he settled near St. Just.
Jackson paints in mixed media, drawing inspiration from the Cornish landscape around Penwith and elsewhere in the British Isles and abroad. His paintings frequently carry small commentaries on the scene depicted and show a fascination particularly with the detail of plants and animals within the overall ecology and evoke a calm, spiritual sense of the landscape, the result, no doubt, of his practice of immersing himself in the location, spending hours painting plein air. Kurt Jackson has said of his work:
In Cornwall my subjects are mostly places I know well, that I visit over and over again – certain areas of coast, moorland and valleys. I tend to work on projects, usually over a year, which are based on a particular aspect of Cornish culture or a distinct tract of countryside. Capturing a fleeting impression doesn’t interest me. In all my paintings the aim is to convey my feelings and sense of awareness in that particular environment.
Over the last decade Kurt Jackson has followed many rivers from the source to the sea, including the Avon, Tamat and Thames. He records the experience of these journeys at the riverbank in a variety of ways including on canvas, on paper, in collage, and in words. Today, in Truro, Jackson has a new exhibition opening, of paintings made on the River Dart in Devon – from source to sea. In the exhibition catalogue he says, ‘All rivers have their own inherent narratives’. But the Dart tells a special tale for him.
Kurt Jackson, The Dart
Kurt Jackson explains:
I grew up with stories about my father’s evacuation, age 12, from the East End of London to Dartmouth and the rural chapter of his life that he spent there. When I asked him about it he wrote me a kind of diary about having a wonderful childhood by a river, fishing, crabbing and generally playing in the sun. He also wrote about the war in Dartmouth with the town being full of commandos doing daring raids across the water and the excitement of being a young lad and witnessing all that and being able to meet and talk to them. 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.
Kurt Jackson was born in 1961 in Blanford, Dorset. The son of two artists, and was encouraged from an early age to paint and draw. He grew up exploring the hedgerows and streams of his surroundings, often sketching the animals he observed. His parents were active in the peace movement and he was taken on many political demonstrations. By his late teens he had developed strong affiliations to libertarian politics and environmental issues. He has been Artist in Residence on the Greenpeace ship Esperanza and at the Eden Project.
Kurt Jackson, On Botallack Head, 6pm, 24.4.99 strong sun and strong westerly winds
In a piece for Granta magazine in 2008, Mark Cocker wrote:
There is an ecological relationship between Jackson and his paintings that makes them fascinating not merely to a lover of art, but also to a naturalist…[There is] a deep connection between Jackson’s art and the landscape he occupies…
‘Hear that?’ he asks me as we search for a seat among the rocks. In the Cornish language it’s called mordros. It’s the only language, along with Greek and Polynesian, I think, that has a word for the sound of the sea.’ […]
There are two mental scenes before me. There is the Atlantic and the rock. And over Jackson’s shoulder, I glimpse its twin: the painting of the grey-turquoise sea-slump, calm and expansive, just behind the a frenzy of white spume careening into the basalt’s blackness. It is the mordros made visible – a thing of colour and elemental contest and of beauty.
Kurt Jackson, The Cape
I first encountered Kurt Jackson’s paintings in August 1999, when we were in Cornwall for the total eclipse of the sun on the morning of August 11th. He had an exhibition at The Great Atlantic Map Works Gallery in St. Just, called crossing the peninsula…painting the path of totality. The paintings on show were the result of three days spent walking across the Cornish peninsula following the path of the centre line of totality.
Kurt Jackson, Carfury Standing Stone, May
I have two beautiful books of Kurt Jackson’s paintings, Kurt Jackson – Paintings of Cornwall and the Scillies (1999) and The Cape (2002), which features paintings of land- and seascapes around Cape Cornwall and nearby Priest Cove, with additional text by the poet Ronald Gaskell.
The works in this collection are all based on Jackson’s experience of Priest Cove, near where he lives in West Penwith, in the far west of Cornwall. These huge collaged paintings embody Jackson’s powerful and personal response to his environment, his thoughts, feelings and memories which are the culmination of nearly fifteen year’s experience of working in this particular cove. Jackson’s work has a strong documentary element, depicting what he sees, but he also translates into paint that mysterious, intuitive inner response that captures the essential spirit of time and place. This is how the book begins:
From the farm the fields slope down gradually, then climb again to a rocky headland that juts into the Atlantic. The sea trembles, vivid in the early sunlight.
At the summit of the cliff a chimney of warm brick, weathered by wind and rain, has stood for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Otherwise the mine has left few relics. It was never a large one, most of the workings were under the sea, the engine house has long since gone.
Where the land falls away, granite and killas drop steeply to the waves. Hardly possible, it seems, that anything should grow there. Yet the upper slope is rough with heather and bright with wild flowers.
Always the flight and cry of birds: gulls, fulmar, gannets, oystercatchers, shags. Roar and swash of the waves. A seal pokes its snout up in the bay.
Kurt Jackson, Cape Cornwall
Last year, Jackson produced a series called Enesow, an exploration of the islands of Cornwall – Samphire Island, Gull Rock, Crane Island, St Helen’s, St Michael’s Mount, Nornour, Short Island, Long Island, St George’s, the Moules, Ganilly, the Brisons. There’s a great account of the project in this Western Morning News report. Jackson explained his fascination with these places:
When I look out of my studio window humped along the skyline is Scilly – a series of small bumps: St Agnes, St Mary’s, Samson, Bryher,Tresco, St Martin’s,Round Island – read from left to right like a line of punctuated marks. If I walk down to the cliff edge, I look down on the Brisons – Brisons Vean and Brisons Veor – two black peaks of a reef ‘floating’ a mile off shore. Almost anywhere off the coast of Cornwall these places exist – sometimes small rocky outcrops, sometimes larger inhabited places. I am fascinated by these island communities – whether peopled or not – the fauna and flora living semi-isolated in its own little world.
Kurt Jackson, Brisons Vean
Kurt Jackson, Full Moon Rising over the Gump, 1.2.99
In July 2007, Kurt Jackson was presented with an honorary degree from the University of Exeter. Professor Christopher McCullough, in his oration said:
[…] When asked in an interview if he viewed nature as benign, as hostile to human beings, or as indifferent to them, his reply gives a clue as to the depth of thought and feeling in his paintings: ‘I think there’s a lot of claptrap spoken about what is “natural”.The actual landscape has evolved as a result of human use of it over the centuries from the neolithic period through to the industrial revolution … how you view nature depends on how you see yourself fitting into it. For good or ill, we cannot be divorced from the physical landscape.
Kurt Jackson is one of the very few painters who maintain, as a central principle of their work, the ecological dilemma of our lives and the possibilities for a more sympathetic relationship with the earth. Kurt’s fight is with all that is conspiring to ruin the world.This fight is exemplified by the self-supporting lifestyle he and his family have achieved at their home in north Cornwall, right through to the concept that, as he states, ‘an ecologically principled lifestyle is in no way élitist or escapist.’ Kurt’s commitments are international: he is actively engaged as a campaigner with Aids Relief in Africa, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam, Survivors International and Water Aid. Nationally, he has raised money for the Cornwall Wildlife Trust, homelessness, as well as Surfers Against Sewage, which is now an international movement.
Kurt was brought up in a family of artists (his father is a Quaker) whose non-consumerist ideology was matched by their strong work ethic. His childhood, while creative in its exposure to the practice of the visual arts, was also spent running wild in the countryside playing with his friends in water meadows, bird watching, looking for beetles or catching wild animals.There does seem to have been a splendid synergy between his love of taking home his findings – flowers or a bird’s feather – and making sketches of them with notes describing the object. […]
His superb draughtsmanship combined with the overwhelming sensuality of his brushwork is born out of his intense desire to pursue his own journey. This journey has led him and his family ever westward into Cornwall to where they now live and work outside St Just. Kurt is as much part of the communities in Cornwall, as he is at one with the landscape, no matter what form that may take. He does not compartmentalise his life: his family; his art; his belonging to the community; his strong commitments to international movements are all one, they form the man. […]
He works predominantly out of doors starting with exhaustive and intimate explorations of his chosen field: sensing the environment viscerally. His work may be epic – he has remarked that one of the true wildernesses around Cornwall is the sea with no land visible – producing the extraordinarily evocative seascapes for which he is well known; but even here he does not lose sense of the political dimension that informs his reading of a land (sea) scape. His telling observation is, ‘You can look out to the Atlantic and there is no visible sign that we have done anything to it, although we know we have.’ Alternatively, his work is also intimate when he retreats to patches of briars painting them from the inside, so to speak, or peering into the bottom of a blackthorn hedge.
Whatever the site chosen for a day’s work, it will be out of doors, and his working methods demand the physicality, commitment and passion of a dancer. Often as not, the large canvas will be stretched out on the ground pinned down by rocks. His whole being, physical and emotional, is engaged in the action of painting as he shifts the horizontal band of the skyline and the foreshore up and down the canvas seeking the right point that will serve as the foundation to capture the mood and tone of the landscape at that moment. At the end of a day’s work he will have reached a state of physical exhaustion.
Kurt often inscribes his paintings with comments about the weather, or as a means of enhancing the sense of place. Because he finds titling paintings awkward and artificial, he began to write on them while on site as a form of final mark or full stop.This has led him to the technique of making rubbings of signs that are part of the landscape and transferring them to the paintings, either a means by which to enhance the sense of place (sometimes he achieves this with found objects attached to the painting), or to alert the viewer to the inappropriateness of signposts that intrude into the landscape. Where a word or phrase is required to intrude upon an image to create a necessary tension, it will be employed. […]
- Kurt Jackson landscapes: slideshow at Granta magazine
- Granta 102: The New Nature Writing: includes Mark Cocker’s essay on Jackson (purchase online)
- Enesow: an exploration of the islands of Cornwall: flipbook presentation at Lemon Street Gallery
- Kurt Jackson: the Cornish Hedge. Paintings and essay
- Kurt Jackson: The Avon Project: flipbook
- Kurt Jackson: The Thames project
- Kurt Jackson: The Tamar