Alone together

April 1, 2020

Larksong - text by Jeremy Hooker, artist's book by Liz Mathews

Larksong  (artist’s book by Liz Mathews, poem by Jeremy Hooker)

Greetings for April and all good wishes from Potters’ Yard in these sad and difficult times. I’m working at home as usual with my partner Frances in our shared studio, so apart from how very quiet it is, and an unusual interest in food shopping, our working life is not much different from our normal daily routine. But the exhibition I was preparing for, which was due to open in early May, has now been postponed until next year, and all the other events I have scheduled for this year are cancelled, suspended or postponed in the uncertainty. And of course these things that I’d normally think of as major disasters are the least of our worries.

One of the things I’ve found most comforting and uplifting in these last few weeks has been the extraordinary blossoming of goodwill that has turned our society into a true community, with people doing their utmost to contribute to the good of their fellow humans. And it’s a good thought that though we’re alone in our homes, isolated from physical contact and proximity, we can still be together in social ways, keeping in touch and sharing things that bring us together virtually. I love this inspiring video forwarded by my friend Priscilla in America (and originally sent to her by artist, calligrapher and musician Jan Owen), showing musicians from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra playing Appalachian Spring together – though they are each in their own homes.

Spring  (artist's book by Liz Mathews) words from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde

So I’m aiming to do as much online as possible, to focus on spring and share some rainbows of hope and flashes of light – and bring you here on this online galleryblog Daughters of Earth some private views in the next few weeks, for viewing at home, away from the ebb and flow of the outer world:

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This paperwork is called Prism II, and it’s on handmade paper (70cm x 50cm approx), lettered in acrylic paints applied with a pen improvised from a wooden clothes-peg. I love to use odd lettering tools – bits of driftwood, sticks from trees – and I like to choose something appropriate to the text. Here Winifred Nicholson is talking about a happy home environment – the words are from her article called ‘I like to have a picture in my room’ – and the clothes-peg has very domestic, almost intimate connotations, some of which can perhaps be transferred into the letters as they’re formed. It’s a nice tool to use for this purpose too, as the flat, absorbent top edge of the peg makes a great italic nib, but without the control of a ‘proper’ pen. And without the little dip in the nib that helps regulate the flow of the ‘ink’, you get a much more free, irregular ink-flow – in fact the ink does what it wants to, rather than what you think it should. I like the materials I’m using to contribute their own life to the work we’re making together, and here, this irregularity lets a lot of light into the form of the letters – soft broken edges on the absorbent paper, no hard edges or straight lines. And light through colour is the essence of the rainbow, the prism breaking up the lightwaves into their constituent hues.

ROYGBIV by Liz Mathews

I’m still working on the last few paintings and drawings for my exhibition, now re-scheduled for next April – so the pressure’s off, but the structure of my working week is keeping me sane, so I’m sticking to it. The exhibition – at London’s lovely Burgh House – was to have been called The Prospect of Happiness – and it’s now known as Postponed The Prospect of Happiness – which is almost too poignant. So I’m trying to inject a note of optimism and hope into the artworks I’m making:

The Prospect of Happiness  (text by Frances Bingham, paperwork by Liz Mathews)

This is The Prospect of Happiness, on handmade paper (about 70cm x 50cm) with watercolour paints mixed with Thames water, and lettered with a Thames driftwood stick. The words are from Frances Bingham’s novel The Principle of Camouflage, and the ‘prospect’ is the view from high on Hampstead Heath, down across London, to the downs on the south side – a view very familiar to us both from our local walks – especially on a clear spring day. The ‘tree-crowned hill’ is perhaps Boudicca’s barrow – which features in Frances’ most recent book London Panopticon as the end of a pilgrimage – the view then being at twilight. I like to think that though it’s not so easy to get to the actual place at the moment, this view and all it contains and represents is ever-present in our minds.

Blake's London  - text by William Blake from Jerusalem, paperwork by Liz Mathews

This is Blake’s London, a paperwork I made last week for the exhibition. I’ve been thinking about this piece for a long time, and it has finally come together. It’s on handmade paper (approx 30cm x 42cm) and the words are from Blake’s Jerusalem – not the great anthem we sing (And did those feet…) – that’s from his Milton, but from his later weird and visionary poem Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion which the poet Southey got a quick preview of in 1811, and ungratefully described as:

“a perfectly mad poem called Jerusalem” (from Kathleen Raine’s William Blake for Thames and Hudson).

It seems that Blake worked on writing, designing, engraving and printing this book for over a decade, beginning perhaps in 1804 and continuing to add to the poem until 1820, and he illuminated only one copy, which he did not sell but was still in his possession on his death. Kathleen Raine gives us a way of understanding the work:

Blake’s ‘visions’ do not belong to time, but to the timeless; they are related as parts to a whole, but as parts of the surface of a sphere, all equidistant from the centre, rather than in the time sequence to which in this world we are normally confined. Like dreams they came to him in single symbolic episodes, or images; there is some attempt at chronology, but the material does not lend itself to this order, any more than would a series of vivid dreams, all relating, perhaps, to an unfolding situation, but not forming a consecutive narrative.

(How much this reminds me of the ‘unfolding’ situation now – and how prescient Blake’s vision, how all-encompassing!) And about his over-arching vision for the work itself:

A single inspiration informs words and decoration alike.

It is this unity of inspiration, and integrity of text and image that has always been my highest aim for my own work. I chose these particular words because they celebrate our patch – the area of London that is home for me and my partner – and because they seem to represent the most harmonious aspect of the city – benign and beautiful architecture on a human scale gracing fields as a natural evolution, rather than urban nightmare obliterating wasteland with ‘development’.

As I was making Blake’s London for my exhibition in the context of visions of London, including portraits of historic London houses and writers’ London landscapes, I wanted a very particular image to set the words within – an image that would be an embracing vessel for the text. I chose for this to draw Euston Arch – built in 1837, just ten years after Blake’s death, as the grand entrance way to the new Euston Station, gateway to the north – and embellished in 1870 with the letters E U S T O N cut into the architrave in letters of gold – and demolished in the new London of the 1960’s to the distress of many soulful Londoners including John Betjeman. I drew the arch from a contemporary photograph.

Liz Mathews drawing Euston Arch

I thought that the arch’s golden pillars could here stand for the beautiful trees of Euston Grove, that wonderful green space surviving in front of the dark and dowdy Euston station. These huge trees are now over 200 years old, contemporary with Handel’s great plane trees of Brunswick Square, and have survived not only the bombs of the Blitz but the more insidious erosion of the constant traffic of Euston Road, the most fume-laden air in London – and played their part in protecting us Londoners from those fumes. And yet these trees are now threatened with demolition themselves, much to Londoners’ distress, to make way for HS2 building works. So the final lines stand as a plea, a spell, an invocation of Blake’s spirit to aid the hopeful vision of a future in which this particular green and pleasant bower may be spared the fate of Euston Arch.

I referenced Blake’s own design for the poem in making the work, composing the text layout inset into the image in little clouds, and the lettered font itself from one of the pages of Jerusalem in Blake’s own finished and illuminated copy:

Page 160 from Kathleen Raine's William Blake (Thames & Hudson)

And I followed the design for the starry sky in one of Blake’s watercolour drawings from his Illustrations of the Book of Job, in which The Morning Stars Sang Together, balanced like wing-walkers along God’s outstretched arms:

detail from The Morning Stars Sang Together, watercolour by William Blake c.1821, from Kathleen Raine's Blake biography (Thames and Hudson)

I like to think of those angelic morning stars shining through the branches of the great plane trees at Euston, still singing for us all.

Blake’s biographer the poet Kathleen Raine and the visionary painter Winifred Nicholson were great friends, so it seems appropriate to bring them together in this post, and finish with Kathleen Raine’s own view of the time and the city:

Blake's Graffiti by Liz Mathews (poem by Kathleen Raine)

This is Blake’s Graffiti, a ‘banner-book’ made from driftwood, the ‘pages’ made from shards of a broken wooden wine-box we found washed up on the Thames foreshore near London’s Southbank Centre. The pages were first dried out, then bound together with linen book-binding tape and handmade paper, then painted and lettered with acrylic paints mixed with Thames water. The text is from Kathleen Raine’s poem What Message from Imagined Paradise; she could be writing it about today’s news – but I feel the message is perhaps ultimately comforting. Let’s focus on the delight as much as we can, and both hope and pray that we can ensure things change for the better after all this.

What message from imagined paradise

Can bring hope to us, whose daily news

Is of polluted forests, poisoned seas

Of the polluted air, the clouds

Laden with sour vapours from our furnaces;

What can we hope or pray for that can heal these

Mortal wounds to our brief beloved earth?

 

Implicit in each beginning is its end:

What poet can write

Of beauty truth and goodness in these days

(Or say rather, of what else?)

And yet I feel delight

As I look up into today’s blue skies

Where the sun still gives light

And warmth (wisdom and love, Blake says)

And on this doomed decaying city rise

On the last days as on the first

These marvels inexhaustible and boundless.

 

Kathleen Raine

 


Eight artist’s books by Liz Mathews

February 18, 2020

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Paper Wings

55 love poems by Maureen Duffy set to paper by Liz Mathews

A contemporary illuminated manuscript in the form of a double-sided concertina book, setting 55 love poems by Maureen Duffy with one poem to each page of handmade paper (30cm x 42cm). The dazzling variety of the poems, and their recurring themes and motifs proved inspirational for the use of vibrant and diverse materials and tools in making the book. Materials include handmade papers, acrylics and watercolours mixed with honey, wine, blood, snow-melt and rain; lettered with diverse tools including reed pen, Japanese brush, driftwood stick, clothes-peg and swan’s feather quill. The book was originally exhibited (before construction) as an installation flying overhead in the London gallery of Enitharmon Press in 2014.

Book measurements: 31cm x 22cm x 7.5cm closed: opens to 11.5m long x 31 cm high. (Portfolio slipcase 33cm x 23cm x 8.5)

One-off original in slip-case £4000

(A half-size facsimile of this book copy – 1 in a special facsimile edition of 5 – is currently on display in the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, in a new exhibition of the work of 17 contemporary book artists – all women.)

 

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Tatter’d colours

Text by Anne Finch from The Soldier’s Death (17th century)

Eight flag-pages made from French linen canvas, bound with a continuous length of linen bookbinding tape, to be read as a book or hung in the form of regimental colours. I came across this poem by Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, in AP Wavell’s Other Men’s Flowers (Jonathan Cape 1944), and found its appalled pacifist-Jacobite overtones both astonishing and inspiring within the Field-Marshall’s collection of favourite poems, known to him by heart. I too am a pacifist (probably also an ‘appalled pacifist-Jacobite’ in fact), and much of my work has been concerned with conflict, and, like this poem, with the effects of war on the individual. (For more on this, see The Dunkirk Project, and my artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk.)

Materials include linen thread and bookbinding tape, acrylic ink and paints, charcoal, soot, ash, chalk, clay slip, mud, tea and acid-free matt varnish, the text lettered with a driftwood stick and large Japanese brush. Contained in a kitbag/cover made from English cotton duck, linen thread and tape, and acrylic paints, with materials and instructions for hanging and restoring to book form lettered on the flap of the kitbag case.

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Tatter’d colours (artist’s book by Liz Mathews) exhibited at The Forum, Norwich, and photographed by Gary Florance

‘To hang Tatter’d Colours, remove book from kitbag cover and unroll to flat book form. Unthread the long end of the tape binding the pages at top left, and hang from hemp ropes or beams in diagonal sequence as illustrated on the kitbag flap, fixing each flag with twine through the loops at the top. To rebind into book form, fold pages into sequence, aligning top edges with care, and thread the long tape back through the top left loops in the order indicated on the kitbag flap.’

Measurements: each page 70cm high x 40cm wide, book opened to hand extends up to 4m including the interval tape linking the flag-pages. Kitbag measures 47cm x 14cm x 11cm

One-off original  £1000

Tatter'd colours by Liz Mathews (detail of kitbag/cover)

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Sir Orfeo

Text by Maureen Duffy from her epic poem Sir Orfeo (published in Past Present, Pottery Press 2018)

Artist’s book made from a single huge sheet of handmade paper. The paper is painted, lettered, folded and torn into 12 double pages, but still retains its ability to be restored to the whole image – in keeping with the text, a contemporary retelling of the Orpheus story in an English medieval romance about a king who loses his queen and his position and identity, almost his life, and then by great good fortune and his own goodness, regains everything. This restoration to wholeness is echoed by the form of the book.

The whole sheet is lettered with Sir Orfeo’s name; the large letters then form the framework of the design for the individual pages, where the story is told and reflected in a semi-abstract design of watercolour and handmade acrylic inks. This book was originally shown as the stage backcloth to the first public performance of this bardic poem by the poet, accompanied by jazz pianist and composer Dorian Ford and world singer Vimala Rowe, performing Dorian’s original settings of words from the text (at Burgh House in Hampstead, London, 2017). After the performance, the backcloth was folded into the form of the book, but can easily be restored to the single sheet. I am particularly interested in this tension between duality and integrity of form in my books, especially where it reflects some aspect of the text itself.

Measurements: whole sheet of paper 200cm x 70cm high, book closed 25cm x 28cm x 2.5cm. Contained in portfolio slipcase made from handmade papers 33cm x 29cm x 3cm

One-off original £800

 


 

Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

Singing the Year

Lines from Vita Sackville-West’s English epic poem The Land.

In the form of a double-sided concertina book with 12 pages, one page for each month, Singing the Year is constructed so that the December page can be attached to January, and the year flows in a seamless cycle, repeating and renewing, like ‘patterns on a scroll unwinding’. I have kept the design simple to allow the vibrant colours, sounds, sights and atmosphere of the text describing the organic seasonal cycle to speak for themselves.

Materials include various handmade papers, watercolours and handmade acrylic inks, acid-free adhesive, and the book is lettered with driftwood sticks and a wooden clothes-peg. In the ‘May’ page shown below, the blue beehives are made with little stacks of paper, the swarm with a scrap of russet gold paper attached to the page with honey mixed into the acid-free adhesive, and the warm golden colour of the lettering also has honey mixed into the paint, lettered with a little wicker stick.

Each page 42cm x 30cm (approx), opening to a circle with maximum diameter of about 5 metres

One-off original in slip-case  £1200

May page from Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

February page from Singing the Year (text by Vita Sackville-West)

 


 

Version 2

The Seasons Alter

Text from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the 1623 First Folio version, with original spellings and renderings.

This book is made from a single sheet of handmade paper 52cm x 72cm, painted, lettered, folded and torn into a sequence of pages which draw the text continuously across both sides of the paper, creating a double-sided painting which folds to a book with 24 pages in sequence. The text is from Titania’s prescient Act 1 speech in which she warns of climate chaos and the dissolution of the cosmic order as a consequence of conflict, exploitation and reckless violation of the natural world. The colours and brushwork reflect the flowing sequence of the text and present the confusion of the seasons swirling to an inescapable vortex, mixing the gentle, traditional and predictable characteristics of each season with violent disruption and discord.

Materials include handmade paper and acrylic paints mixed with mud, rainwater, icicle-melt, so that the weather has a material presence in the work; it was air-dried in winter sunlight, and first shown in an exhibition in Norwich Millennium Library. In slip-case made with the same materials.

Measurements: double-sided single sheet of handmade paper 72cm x 52cm

One off original £1200

 

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Swallows on the Thames (text by Matthew Arnold)

Swallows on the Thames

Lines by Matthew Arnold from The Scholar Gypsy

Another book made from a single sheet of paper, setting Arnold’s lines in a painting made with acrylic paints mixed with water from the Thames, and lettered with a Thames driftwood stick. The single sheet is made up of 12 pages that flow across the sheet ‘as the ox ploughs’, in a continuous unending sequence, and fold down to a book 20cm x 20cm x 1cm (approx), and the work can be read page-by-page as a book, or framed for display on the wall. This dual nature can perhaps reflect an imaginative idealisation of a mid-summer reverie, an afternoon’s shady lazing on the river in its country-mode, which contrasts strongly with its urban manifestation in the following book, Strand of the Thames.

Measurements: sheet opens to 72cm x 52cm, and the closed book is 20cm x 20cm x 1cm (approx). Contained in portfolio slip-case made with the same materials.

One-off original £700

Swallows on the Thames (page 5)

Swallows on the Thames (page 6)

Swallows on the Thames (detail) text by Matthew Arnold

 


 

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Strand of the Thames

Text by Virginia Woolf, from her Diary (1939)

Artist’s book in the form of a 1930’s photograph album: a setting of Virginia Woolf’s diary record of a Thames-side walk, set in 15 grisaille watercolours of the actual sites where she’s walking; watercolour paint mixed with Thames water and the text lettered with a Thames driftwood stick. This book lent itself particularly well to a small edition; I took monochrome photos of the watercolours for each page, and constructed each volume for the edition in the same way as the original/prototype, as a concertina photo album on black handmade paper, fixing the photos in with acid-free photo corners. (All materials in both original and edition acid-free.)

The one-off original is now in the permanent collection of the British Library.

Measurements: original 42cm x 31cm x 5cm (approx); limited edition 15cm x 12cm x 1.5cm

Signed and numbered limited edition (of 20) £40

Read more about this book on the British Library’s blog in a guest article by me: Virginia Woolf’s Haunted Walk

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Rag – Luideag

Text by Ruaraidh MacThomas/ Derick Thomson; book by Liz Mathews

I was inspired to set this extraordinary poem (in the original Gaelic as well as the poet’s own translation to Scots English) by the moving poignance of the idea, and by how surely the words describe the fragility of the language, surviving shredded and scattered, clinging to sharp rocky headlands, used only by ‘ragged children’, exposed to the wind and weather, sounding with the sea in its voice.

I set the lines in both languages, one like a shadow or reflection of the other, on 8 clay pages, scraps torn from a single sheet of stoneware clay, the words scratched into the surface of the clay, so that they are ‘written on the rocks’. The hard sharpness of the fired clay shards reflect both the harshness and fragility of the poem’s atmosphere and meaning.  The clay pages are tacked with linen thread to a rough cotton cloth, ripped and wind-torn to a ragged softness. The scruffy cloth is distressed with a mixture of paint, charcoal and soot, strong tea and Scotch whisky, and finished with an acid-free sealant. Contrasting in texture with the stony clay, it wraps the shard/pages to protect them when the wall-hanging is folded down to a book. The closed book is contained in a box made from recycled cardboard and handmade papers, tied with a rough cotton and linen strap, like an old cardboard suitcase.

Measurements; box 30cm x 16cm x 13cm; book opened to wall hanging approx 120cm x 70cm at widest

One-off original  £1600

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Liz Mathews with young visitors to turnthepage artists’ book fair, Norwich

 


Journeys of imagination

February 18, 2020

New from The Pottery Press

F4C7B535-6A9A-403D-BACC-5466C2EC7DEAWanderer by Maureen Duffy

New poetry by ‘one of Britain’s foremost writers’ (Guardian), and ‘a unique literary talent’ (Sarah Waters)

We travel with Maureen Duffy on the Wanderer’s terrifying voyage, on exploratory passages to India and Ravenna, on a very English train-ride, to concerts and galleries (and on the journeys of imagination they stimulate), through the gardens and street-markets of London, and to the junkshop of the remembered past. Maureen Duffy describes one of these poems as ‘a kind of elegy to life and love’, the ultimate theme of this brave and passionate collection.

Maureen Duffy’s published some 34 works of fiction – since her first novel That’s How it Was came out in 1962 to immediate acclaim – and at least 10 collections of inspiring poetry including her wonderful Collected Poems. Then there’s her non-fiction including biographies of Henry Purcell, Aphra Benn and Britain itself. And then she’s written some 16 plays for stage, screen and radio, including Rites at the National Theatre, and recently Hilde & Virginia at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre, with Sarah Crowden. Maureen’s play Sappho Singing has recently been adapted as a film, to be premiered on International Women’s Day (8th March) 2020 at the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. And Paper Wings, lettering artist Liz Mathews’ artist’s book setting Maureen Duffy’s love-poem cycle Songs for Sappho is currently on show in the British Library’s Treasures Gallery.

Wanderer, Maureen Duffy’s new collection, is as inspiring as ever. Brave, truth-telling, passionate and tough, these poems speak vividly of the cosmic and the local, and how the two are connected. Intimate, entertaining, yet characteristically engaged with the dark troubles of humanity, they are drawn from her London life, her East End roots, and her lifelong themes and empathies, confirming her local alliegiancies and her citizenship of Europe and the world in multi-coloured words.

’Tough poems, made of the rough substance of real lives… a beautiful answering back against the worst.’ (David Constantine)

Wanderer by Maureen Duffy

Pottery Press pamphlet 5, 48 pages with 31 full-colour images setting the poems by lettering artist Liz Mathews

ISBN 978-0-9930171-5-5

£9.99

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3B868791-9A27-4E1C-8DBD-077971230311London Panopticon by Frances Bingham

Today’s the day. Sometimes it seems that this day, today, whichever day it is, might be the last chance to – do what? – something essential, yet unnameable, before the deluge. Seize the moment…

Blue makes a London pilgrimage from the Thames up to Hampstead Heath, walking through time and the city, meeting Londoners past and present on the way. A litany of London voices – irascible Jeremy Bentham, Wose the tree-guardian, Virginia Woolf street-haunting, Fletcher the sacked banker and innumerable others – sing their city incantation: protest song, lament, celebration.

London Panopticon also draws on a Londoner’s perspective, on a visionary journey within this heartland. Frances Bingham, like Maureen Duffy, writes across the literary spectrum, and has published fiction, poetry, non-fiction and plays, most recently Comrade Ackland and I for BBC Radio 4. She has rediscovered the neglected poetry of Valentine Ackland in Journey from Winter (Carcanet 2008), her acclaimed critical edition, and her definitive biography of Ackland is forthcoming next year (2021). London Panopticon really defies categorisation, encompassing short-form fiction, lyrical prose-poetry and play-script; the narrator Blue makes a journey through the day and the city, and encounters places and people at the heart of the city. I’ll just call it an urban Under Milk Wood, inspired by London itself.

‘London Panopticon is more than a pamphlet. As sparkling and all-encompassing as the city itself, it is a vision, a love song, a pilgrimage, a perfect union of image and word. And it takes one’s breath away!’  Mimi Khalvati

London Panopticon  by Frances Bingham

Pottery Press pamphlet no 4, 80 pages with 28 b/w images by lettering artist Liz Mathews

ISBN 978-0-9930-171-4-8

£9.99

Both books available from The Pottery Press, or to order from your local bookshop.


Memories in clay

March 14, 2019

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There’s a lovely article by Mark Palmer in this week’s Country Life about my work making small-scale house portraits in clay, and my aim to capture the spirit of the place –  the heart of a house – by means of a meticulously detailed likeness. The whole edition is devoted to ‘Smaller country houses’, so my miniatures fit charmingly. I’ve been making these little sculptures for 30-odd years now – I made my first in 1986 – and I’ve been lucky to have hundreds of fascinating commissions, each one for a portrait of a place that’s individual, interesting, and loved. And not just people’s homes: I’ve also made portraits of churches, theatres, log-cabins, pubs, shops, schools, hospitals, banks, restaurants, town halls, Greek temples, a library, a fire-station, and (only once) a dry-cleaners – all special for one reason or another – oh, and some grand National Trust houses too. As for beloved homes, I’ve done a gypsy caravan, one or two log-cabins, terraced town-houses and Elizabethan manor houses, some thatched cottages and the odd castle, and always it’s the detail that I love – the quirkiness and the unique characteristics that each subject brings. I haven’t yet done a lighthouse or a windmill – but I do enjoy a challenge, so who knows…

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I’ve often exhibited these little sculptures – I showed a dozen or so in my first ever exhibition about a hundred years ago it seems, all portraits of houses and buildings local to the show in the Wisbech and Fenland Museum – including one of the museum itself – and I’ll be continuing the tradition in an exhibition next year (2020) in Hampstead’s beautiful Burgh House. There I’ll be showing a collection of portraits of London’s small historic houses – among them, of course, Burgh House itself, celebrating again the beauties of the vernacular. But for now, I’m looking forward to my next commissions – and who knows, maybe even that windmill.

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There’s a gallery of some of my favourite commissions on my website Potters’ Yard House Portraits – as well as information about commissioning. And you can read more here on Daughters of Earth, on the page called Architectural reliefs and house portraits.


Snow in feathers

January 23, 2019

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Last evening we had a beautiful snow storm here in North London – huge snowflakes like swan’s feathers, and not just a flurry – a real blizzard, though it didn’t settle except on the icy grass of the gardens, and in drifts on the shed roofs. But in the darkness of the early evening on our street, the flakes swarmed round the lamp-posts and fell thick and fast, though the word heavy didn’t fit the scene – it was more a complex dance of thickly-falling lightnesses through the dark. We watched from the window for ages, warm indoors while people passed by on the snowy pavement, some hunched and hurrying, some snow-strolling in pleasure, and two little girls dancing along with their mouths open to taste the great feathery snowflakes. The scene reminded us of John Clare’s opening poem in his great cycle of the year The Shepherd’s Calendar, called January, A Winters Day:

Withering and keen the winter comes

While comfort flyes to close shut rooms

And sees the snow in feathers pass

Winnowing by the window glass

Clare evokes (with his usual idiosyncratic spelling) the feeling of a snowy afternoon, and the way everyone responds, starting with the farmer hanging out in the pub reading the paper or ‘old moores almanack’, which he believes every word of, as he believes his Bible:

Puffing the while his red tipt pipe

Dreaming oer troubles nearly ripe

Yet not quite lost in profits way

He’ll turn to next years harvest day

And winters leisure to regale

Hopes better times and sips his ale

– while the labourer still goes to work, ‘and braves the tempest as he may’, including the thresher, who’s ‘shuffling through the sinking snows/ Blowing his fingers as he goes’, to cut the hay from the stack and throw it in piles on the snow for the hungry cows. The shepherd in his great coat, with his dog sheltering from the wind behind his heels, ‘Takes rough and smooth the winter weather / And paces through the snow together’, while the lonely unused plough, like the horses idling in field and yard ‘pass time away / In leisures hungry holiday /…/ Dreaming no doubt of summer sward’.  

Clare’s sympathetic, observing vision shows us men and women at work and at enforced  leisure or unemployment, cows and dogs and hogs, cats, moorhens and geese, as well as schoolboys ‘never at a loss for play / Rolling up giant heaps of snow’ and ‘Making rude things’ until they’re ‘numbd wi cold’ and go off to find ‘hotter sports’ to play – kicking their football over the frozen ground or sliding the hours away on the ice and skating on the meadow lake. And the robin ‘picking the trifles off the snow’ thrown for him by a kindly woman, and perching on the windowsill to find the little hole in the window pane he remembers from last winter, to creep into the cottage warmth.

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For a moment yesterday evening it certainly did feel like winter in earnest, though our snow didn’t last (sadly no ‘crumping underfoot’). I made this paperwork on a sheet of handmade paper (30cm x 40cm) with beautiful deckle edges, mixing the watercolour and acrylic paints with snow-melt to give the painted snow a real material presence, and lettering the text with a little winter twig, before scattering and splattering the snow-melt snow at random over the whole scene, words and all. The words are from John Clare’s poem Snow Storm, which paints a picture of a familiar world transformed by winter:

Domestic spots near home & trod so oft

Seen daily – known for years – by the strange wand

Of winters humour changed…

Trees bushes grass to one wild garb subdued

Are gone & left us in another land

There’s something so engaged and so engaging about the clarity and recognisable truth of this vision that the reader stands beside Clare now, seeing with his eyes that magical transformation. Snow Storm was part of a huge collection of his poems that Clare fair-copied in c.1832 as The Midsummer Cushion, mostly written in the late 1820’s and early 1830’s, though many of the poems were still not printed on his death in 1864, and the collection wasn’t published in its entirety for over a century until 1979. It has been one of my bibles for the last 20 years, one of those books I turn to for truth, enlightenment, revelation, stimulation, inspiration, and solace in troubled times. Perhaps I could call it a complex dance of thickly-falling lightnesses through the dark. And sometimes things seem very dark.

Back in our January day in 2019, we were sorry not to wake this morning to a transformed world, ‘another land’, but maybe all we can do, with our ‘troubles nearly ripe / Yet not quite lost’, is hope for better times and sip our ale, like John Clare’s farmer. After all, there are weeks of possibility before the end of March.

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The Shepherd’s Calendar by John Clare (ed. Eric Robinson & Geoffrey Summerfield, OUP 1964)

The Midsummer Cushion by John Clare (ed. Kelsey Thornton & Anne Tibble, Carcanet 1979)

Winter Snow  Paperwork by Liz Mathews with text by John Clare from Snow Storm, 30cm x 40cm, watercolour/acrylic on handmade cotton rag paper  For sale £250 unframed


Frost, stars and the consolations of art

December 4, 2018

December nights

December nights: after work yesterday evening we listened to David Attenborough’s heroic and stirring speech to the Climate Change Conference just before we went to a live screening for the first night of the Nutcracker from Covent Garden. Walking to our local gorgeous Art Deco Odeon, our minds and talk were full of the crisis, but once inside we were soon enchanted by the exquisite set designs, the moving beauty of Tchaikovsky’s music, the grace and athleticism of the Royal Ballet’s dancers, the glamour of the event. Loved it, every minute, and it felt very joyful – the beginning of the festive season. In the interval a little girl practised her ballet steps in the cinema aisle, and afterwards, a group of older women in the audience danced out of the cinema, pirouetting up the corridor with much laughter. On our walk home there was frost on the parked cars and stars in the London sky shining like fairy lights in the winter trees – and even the pavements were sparkly, as though the magician’s sequinned dust had floated out of the cinema and into the streets.

December nights detail

December Nights

Text by Helen Waddell   Paperwork by Liz Mathews: silver enamel lettered with a driftwood stick, under acrylic watercolour on handmade paper 30cm x 40cm

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John Clare’s green hours

July 13, 2018

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Today – 13th July 2018 – is the 225th anniversary of the birth of the poet John Clare on 13th July 1793, a poet whose words have inspired so much of my work. And this afternoon, I unpacked from the kiln a bowl – just cooled from Wednesday’s glaze firing – with lines from his poem ‘Love lies beyond’, that seem to embody peace and loving memory. On a day when the heavens’ eternal blue has been disturbed (in London at least) by military helicopters carrying powerful people to and fro on their relentless business, and earth’s green hours are more threatened than ever before by humanity’s heavy tread, perhaps it’s a good moment to hear Clare’s gentle voice and his faith in the enduring power of love.

The bowl was commissioned to celebrate a special mother, whose favourite lines these were, and decorated at midsummer, like John Clare’s midsummer cushion, with cornflowers, lavender, thyme and forget-me-nots.

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Love lies beyond

The tomb, the earth, which fades like dew –

I love the fond,

The faithful and the true.

 

Love lies in sleep –

‘Tis happiness of healthy dreams.

Eve’s dews may weep,

But love delightful seems.

 

‘Tis seen in flowers

And in the even’s pearly dew

On earth’s green hours

And in the heavens’ eternal blue.

 

‘Tis heard in spring

When light and sunbeams, warm and kind

On angel’s wing

Bring love and music to the wind.

 

And where is voice

So young, so beautiful and sweet

As nature’s choice

Where spring and lovers meet?

 

Love lies beyond

The tomb, the earth, the flowers and dew.

I love the fond,

The faithful, young and true.

 

John Clare, 1793 – 1864  

 


Under the Quarry Woods

April 26, 2018

9780993017131Under the Quarry Woods by Jeremy Hooker is the third in our series of pamphlets from The Pottery Press. Quarried from journals written over 16 years at his home in a Welsh former mining village, these new prose poems by the eminent poet and critic are alive with observations, impressions, memory and dream.  Forming a meditation on a place and its people, they reveal an industrially- scarred landscape in which the writer finds himself to be at once a stranger and at home – and his response is powerful, moving, lyrical and humane.

As a lettering artist I’ve been lucky to work with Jeremy Hooker’s words for many years now, setting his lines and poems in an on-going collection of artist’s books, many of them in my Singing the Year series of contemporary Books of Hours, and in an artist’s film The moment that holds you.  I found this new sequence as inspiring as ever – subtle, deeply felt, closely observed, visually arresting word-pictures that reveal more than they say.  The harshness of the scarred landscape is illuminated by glimpses of natural beauty and by possibilities of regeneration for the land and its fractured communities – and shadowed by some impossibilities too.

These juxtapositions and contrasts in texture, colour and tone were very stimulating for me as an artist – and for the design of the book cover I looked for an image that combined darkness and light, destruction and tentative regeneration, drawn from the deep woodland landscape.  I chose a photo I took a few years ago of a lightning-struck oak tree in the middle of the woods, surrounded by small oak saplings sprung from its acorns, all under a lowering sky of heavy cloud; dark layers of woodland and cloud-cover, with the small new growth determinedly emerging. Lightning oak with saplings.

For the colour images within the book, I chose a poem from the heart of the sequence:

As I wait in the car four seagulls fly over the supermarket carpark, crying.  For an instant I smell the sea and hear the swash of waves on shingle, curling over and withdrawing.

Distance returns, restless as the tides.

My memory is salt with longing.

I made an artist’s book setting this poem with a sheet of handmade paper the colour of sand and shingle, folded and torn into a sequence of pages, but readily restored to the whole image – and then I painted the image with watercolour and gouache mixed with salt-water, lettering the words with a small driftwood stick and a wooden clothes-peg. The book is called Salt wave, and it’s contained in a portfolio slip-case, shown here first:

saltwave cover

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Under the Quarry Woods is available from The Pottery Press at Potters’ Yard Arts for £5.

ISBN: 978-0-9930171-3-1

Contact studio[at]pottersyard.co.uk


A Triptych from The Pottery Press

April 26, 2018

Past Present by Maureen Duffy  9780993017124.jpg  9780993017131

The Pottery Press is celebrating its first three pamphlets, with the publication of the third: Under the Quarry Woods by Jeremy Hooker on 23rd April 2018. The Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town London hosted a packed celebration for us on the day of the launch, with a lot of Prosecco, book-signing and partying, and all three writers reading from their books for a very enthusiastic audience.

[A little background: The Pottery Press is a micro-press set up by Potters’ Yard Arts (artist+writer partnership Liz Mathews and Frances Bingham based in Tufnell Park, North London) to publish limited edition artists’ books and text/image collaborations.  I’m the artist half of The Pottery Press, which we set up in 1999 – last century – with our first publication MOTHERTONGUE in 1999, an artists’ book with a narrative poem by my partner Frances, and images by me. Fifteen years later, the second Pottery Press book was Paper Wings, an edition of my artist’s book with Maureen Duffy, setting to paper her inspiring 55-love-poem cycle Songs for Sappho. Both of these books are in the British Library’s artist’s books collection and the National Poetry Library – and we still have a few copies of each available to buy from The Pottery Press.]

For our first pamphlet, Past Present, we’re very proud that Maureen Duffy again entrusted an extraordinary text to us – in fact two: Piers Plowless and Sir Orfeo. Maureen read first for us in the celebration, followed (hard task) by Frances with The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney – and then we were very happy that Jeremy Hooker allowed us to lure him from his Welsh rock for a rare London appearance, to read from the third pamphlet, Under the Quarry Woods, which we’ve just published. I’ve been lucky to work with the words of all three of our writers – and more inspiring words for a lettering artist to set would be hard to find. These pamphlets continue our tradition of making fusions of word and image – and beautiful books.

So, to begin with Maureen: she hardly needs any introduction from me, having published some 34 works of fiction, at least 9 collections of poetry, non-fiction including acclaimed biographies of Henry Purcell, Aphra Behn and Britain itself, and 16 plays for stage, screen and radio, most recently Hilde & Virginia at London’s Jermyn Street Theatre earlier this year. As though this were not enough, she’s also a tireless activist and pioneering campaigner for writers’ rights, President of Honour of the British Copyright Council and the ALCS, Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature, and what’s more, an inspiring collaborator and encourager of the work of others. She writes across the literary spectrum, and in the words of a recent TLS article:

‘Maureen Duffy has inspired many other writers and proved that the English novel… can be fantastical, experimental and political. Perhaps it is her poetry, though, that most fully captures her range, as she presses on like a medieval troubadour across barriers of genre, gender, space and time.’ (Maggie Gee in the TLS)

Past Present by Maureen Duffy

In Past Present the coupling of two long poems makes a weird and powerful statement about England on the edge; a land with an imagined mythic past, a millennial present and perhaps apocalyptic future. The second poem of the coupling is a catchy, robust new translation of the medieval lay Sir Orfeo, which Maureen performed last summer at Hampstead’s Burgh House, accompanied by Music for Sir Orfeo composed and performed by acclaimed jazz pianist Dorian Ford and award-winning world music singer Vimala Rowe.

For this celebration Maureen read from the poem that opens Past PresentPiers Plowless – which embodies this fantastical/political troubadour strain; it’s her contemporary riff on the medieval poem by William Langland, The Vision of Piers Plowman, a powerful critique of an affluent society that sacrifices its most vulnerable citizens for the financial gain of the few – a dark vision of Austerity Britain never more relevant than right now.

…I see them stream as in Blake’s darkest dream over London Bridge…

Piers Plowless has recently been included in the British Library’s influential online series Discovering Literature, in an article by Lawrence Warner, who describes it as a ‘modern reincarnation’ of Langland’s poem, but ‘not a translation… Even better, it is a poet’s invocation of the poem across time and space’.  We in the audience held on to our hats!

9780993017124.jpgOur second pamphlet is a playtext: The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney by Frances Bingham, script for a new play, produced at Arcola Theatre London in November 2017:

In the blue hour of Paris twilight one trailblazing artist paints a remarkable picture of her life, her liaisons and her passionate self-belief: Natalie Barney.

Frances also writes across the literary spectrum, and has published fiction, poetry, and non-fiction, including her acclaimed critical edition which rediscovers the poetry of Valentine Ackland. She had a daunting task, not only in following Maureen, but also because she was reading to an audience that included Amanda Boxer, the actor who commissioned the play and starred in the world premiere production last November. Amanda inhabited the part completely and unforgettably, as so many of us witnessed, but for our celebration on Shakespeare’s birthday we had to put up with the writer’s reading…

They say it takes two to tango, but in my case it’s sometimes three.  Or more.

Natalie Barney was an unstoppable force in modernism and the early gay rights movement. Her lovers were the most beautiful women of the era; her friends were the most celebrated artists of twentieth century culture. She was condemned by some as a wrecker of lives and fascist sympathiser, celebrated by others as a dynamic patron of the arts and supporter of writers, especially women, in her legendary Parisian salon. The Blue Hour is an impressionistic portrait of this phenomenon and the multiple stories of her life; an imagining of her inner voice.

9780993017131Our third reader was Jeremy Hooker, poet and critic, teacher and broadcaster, whose collection of prose poems Under the Quarry Woods was published on 23rd April, the third in our triptych of pamphlets. This is his 17th collection of poetry, published alongside 18 volumes of prose in the form of journals, essays and influential critical studies of writers from Dorothy Wordsworth to David Jones, as well as editions of writers including Richard Jefferies, Alun Lewis, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen and Frances Bellarby. For the last fifty-odd years he’s been writing about poetry, nature and place, and Under the Quarry Woods continues this life’s thought and work. These prose poems are quarried from journals written at his home in South Wales, on the outskirts of Treharris, a former pit village in that once-important mining area:

‘The difference, here, is that my sense of belonging has lifted off, like mist blowing away from the hills.  And what is laid bare is the history, the world-transforming movements that changed the landscape, and the way of life they created in the communities, in neighbourhoods that are now ghosts of themselves, with people that are made to feel useless, people who are lost.’

Alive with observations, impressions, memory and dream, the poems cumulatively form a meditation on a place and its people, revealing an industrially-scarred landscape with a deep history, its harshness illuminated by glimpses of natural beauty and possibilities of regeneration for the land and its fractured communities.

All three of our writers read and performed their work with real engagement, giving an inspiring and moving experience for the audience.  Although very different in style and voice, they share in common qualities of beautiful lyricism and true humanity – and one audience member said to me afterwards that she had been enthralled in turn by each reader – and found the evening inspiring and hope-restoring in these difficult times.

Pottery Press logo

The look and feel of a book is important to us both. Each pamphlet has an individual design, with covers and accompanying images by me. As a lettering artist, I aim for a fitting vessel for the very special words: a design that’s appropriate for each individual text, and instead of illustrations, I include accompanying images where appropriate, giving the words space and a context that allows them to speak for themselves. Sometimes these are settings of the words (as in Under the Quarry Woods), sometimes they’re colour studies that evoke the atmosphere of the text (as in Past Present) or black and white title pages or drawings that visually punctuate the pages. Each book is designed, edited and typeset independently, and printed in a small edition with full ISBN apparatus so that it can be ordered through any bookshop. The books can also be purchased directly from us at Potters’ Yard – contact details here.

Under the Quarry Woods by Jeremy Hooker

ISBN:978-0-9930171-3-1 £5

 

The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney by Frances Bingham

ISBN:978-0-9930171-2-4  £4

 

Past Present: Piers Plowless & Sir Orfeo by Maureen Duffy

ISBN:978-0-9930171-1-7  £5

 

 

 


The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney

November 3, 2017

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‘They say it takes two to tango, but in my case it’s sometimes three.  Or more.’

Here at The Pottery Press we’re proud to announce the publication of our latest book: The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney, Frances Bingham’s revealing new play which opens at the Arcola Theatre in London on 7th November.  Amanda Boxer (Mosquitoes, National Theatre; Medea, Almeida Theatre) plays Natalie Barney in this world premiere, directed by Kenneth Hoyt.

In the blue hour of Paris twilight, one trailblazing artist paints a remarkable picture of her life, her liaisons and her passionate self-belief.

My cover painting for the book is a watercolour called Twilight in the Rue Jacob and was inspired by a still from Tristram Powell’s 1962 film Natalie Barney, showing Natalie opening the doors of her book-filled room to the leafy shadows of her twilit garden, an image that seemed to me central to the story.  

Natalie Barney was an unstoppable force in modernism and the early gay rights movement.  Her lovers were the most beautiful women of the era; her friends were the most celebrated artists of twentieth century culture.

The play welcomes us in to share a private hour with Natalie and to witness her wild and visionary creed up close; the book allows us to savour again this intimate exchange.  There’s an interview with the actor Amanda Boxer, director Kenneth Hoyt and writer Frances Bingham on Youtube and Facebook, as well as a Facebook event, and Frances has contributed a guest blog post to the Arcola Theatre’s blog, which you can read here.

The Blue Hour of Natalie Barney is Pottery Press Pamphlet number 2, and is available to buy by post from The Pottery Press, or in person from the Arcola Box Office or the Owl Bookshop, Kentish Town, for £4. Or you can order it from any good bookshop with ISBN 978-0-9930171-2-4