Stories and marks

March 1, 2011

John Clare’s ‘tale of spring’ is a very encouraging beginning to the month, promising an imaginative glimpse of what’s to come. His delight in the narrative ballad of the seasons is a constant inspiration in my work, and I love the idea of the story of the turning year. Translating this deeply familiar theme into words that strike us as fresh each time we read them, and accurate, John Clare transforms a time-honoured, repetitive trope into a work of art that captures the essence of individual experience, universally, giving us back something that we’ve perhaps lost or forgotten.

This idea is the inspiration behind my Books of Hours, contemporary illuminated manuscripts contemplating the movement of time and the mystical dance of the seasons through fragments of poetry, exploring different ways of translating the text into objects of illumination. This month I’m working on Seasons dancing, setting Burns’ poetry of the turning year – which I’ll be showing in these pages next month. Meanwhile, I’ll show you the March page from Singing the Year, with text by Vita Sackville-West, with just a glimpse of February past and April to come:

Capturing the feel of a text that in itself is vividly visual is a very exciting challenge to me, and one that it’s not easy to define in terms of actual process or techniques. I try to let the light through from the text, rather than illustrate it. In the Van Gogh exhibition at the Royal Academy last summer, I overheard a puzzled visitor say ‘It’s just marks, isn’t it?’  And later in the year, when we were revisiting the sacred texts in the John Ritblat Gallery containing some of the most precious treasures of the British Library, another overheard remark was ‘These are just stories’. Marks and stories is just what we do.

A painting of mine is the cover image for The Principle of Camouflage, my partner Frances Bingham’s new book (a literary novel, coming out in April this year, and available now from Two Ravens Press). I painted Sea light in response to the story, rather than as an illustration to it; I was aiming to catch the fleeting luminous quality of the light, and something of the particular space and atmosphere evoked.

I used a board with quite a rough ground, prepared many years ago by Frances’ great uncle, the artist Guy Worsdell, who had a studio at St Ives and whose paintings and woodcuts (though not often landscapes) are drenched in that light. I like to think that some of it comes through my overlaid marks.

Maureen Duffy has said of The Principle of Camouflage:

A true work of the imagination, transporting Prospero’s isle, and us, to wartime Britain on a shining wave of sea images.

and this vivid imagery has inspired several other works of mine, including a small group of elephants (artist’s books made from a single sheet of handmade paper, painted, torn and folded into a sequence of pages). Sometimes the setting of the text seems like a form of performance – a way of inhabiting the text in the moment, not unlike reading it aloud, in the way it concentrates the mind on the form and flow of the words while making the marks. I will be showing some of these books in Watermarkmy next exhibition, at the Ice House Gallery in Holland Park during May (I’ll be adding full details here soon) and meanwhile I’ll give you a preview of one of the books, called Storm.

Before tearing and folding, the sheet looked like this:

And after, like this:

I’ll be adding details about Watermark next month. Meanwhile, if you’d like more information about any of my work, please leave me a comment in the box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

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