Posts Tagged ‘John Clare’

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

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  

 

Hot ice and wondrous strange snow

June 18, 2016

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Hot ice and wondrous strange snow appear in a catalogue of contradictory concepts in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and my summer exhibition explores a world of strange times, weird weather, dislocations and ultimately, the joy of finding oneself in the right place and time.

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The exhibition focuses on The Seasons Alter, an artist’s book which sets Titania’s speech about the disruption of the seasons – words eerily recognisable in our time of climate change and environmental upheaval.

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As a lettering artist, I translate poetry into the language of material form – here it’s a single sheet of handmade paper folded into a double-sided page sequence, endlessly circling like the year, and the text is lettered with a driftwood stick in handmade inks mixed with snow-melt, rainwater, mud and dust.

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I work with poetry, anciently prescient or modern, that says something relevant and often paradoxical about contemporary concerns, focusing on the layers of meaning within each text, so the words can speak afresh, directly to us and about our world.

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The 30 artist’s books in Hot ice and wondrous strange snow mark five anniversaries in 2016 that are particularly important to me.  As well as the two artist’s books setting lines from Shakespeare in this year of his 400th anniversary, I’m also including two works setting lines by Virginia Woolf in the 75th year since her death.

Light through (detail)

This is a detail from Light through, with words from VW’s 1929 diary.

I’m also celebrating the birthday of one of my favourite living poets: Jeremy Hooker is 75 this year, and I’m including nine artist’s books setting lines from his poems; his work is a very important inspiration to me and his most recent collection, Scattered Light, just out from the essential Enitharmon Press has some of his finest poems.  His major collected, The Cut of the Light, is one of my most-read and all-time-favourite books.  I’m just finishing an artist’s film setting 16 of Jeremy Hooker’s poems, and I live much of my working and reading life immersed in his words.

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Above and below two details from By way of words, setting lines from Jeremy Hooker’s City Walking II, a poem that draws on Shakespeare’s King Lear:

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Another very special anniversary (and another poet whose work has been essential to me for a long time) is the 50th anniversary of Maureen Duffy’s novel The Microcosm.  This book changed the world for me when I first read it in my early 20’s, when it was already nearly 20 itself, and I’m proud that my tattered copy was signed for me and my partner Frances by Maureen when we met her in a Soho club years ago.  It’s still essential reading.  Her poetry, too, is a constant inspiration, and I’ve been very lucky to work with her on several major projects in recent years, including our artists’ film of Paper Wings – which will be screening throughout the turn the page artists’ book fair (which is hosting this exhibition).  I’ve included two books setting poems from Maureen’s brilliant most recent collection (again from Enitharmon), Pictures from an Exhibition:

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The image above is a page 3 detail from Turn, and the one below is a detail of All things in flux, setting some lines from First Light, a poem about Turner so moving and engaging that it inspired me to risk a Turner-esque painting of my own:

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And the fifth, but not least, anniversary that the 30 artist’s books in Hot ice celebrate is a professional one; it’s 30 years since I set up as a studio potter.  My partner the writer and poet Frances Bingham and I set up our first studio together not far from here in North London back in June 1986 – and her work has not only been the most formative and significant influence on mine – I couldn’t have done any of it without her.  So the final section of this Norwich exhibition opens with two of my settings from Frances’s novel The Principle of Camouflage, which brilliantly transposes Shakespeare’s Tempest to the north Norfolk coast in the last year of the Second World War, in a magical exploration of place, exile and home, the powers and duties of the artist, the restoration of lost things, the discovery of love and the survival of hope in an apparently doomed world.

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Hot ice and wondrous strange snow 

Artist’s books by Liz Mathews

The Millennium Library in The Forum, Norwich

from 24th to 29th June 2016  10am to 8pm

Open daily, free entry

part of turn the page artists’ book fair

at The Forum, Norwich

Friday 24th and Saturday 25th June 2016

10am to 6pm, free entry

 

These golden days

November 29, 2011

John Clare’s poems for the Autumn months in his Shepherds Calendar are among the most beautiful of the year, as well as the most entertaining – his accounts of nutting and other active pleasures balance the customary melancholy of the season, and this year particularly the Autumn weather has been so ravishing that it’s been hard to feel gloomy. And now that we’re on the very edge of winter, with the first frosts and foggy mornings, our thoughts turn to the snowy delights to come.

This year I’ve been thinking even more than usual about the passing of time, the turn of the year and the dance of the seasons. In August I delivered some artist’s books to the National Library of Scotland, and had the great pleasure of unfolding the four great ‘carpet books’ that make up Love & Freedom: Burns’ Year for the curators to experience.

The four books are each made from a huge sheet of handmade paper (Khadi’s great white – at 2m x 80cm among the largest handmade paper sheets in the world), painted, lettered, torn and folded into a sequence of pages to form a book, but possible to unfold and reform to the single huge sheet.

One of my aims for these books is that they should work both in terms of a single image composition on the whole sheet, as well as through the sequence of individual pages:

I’ll be featuring these books in detail throughout the year in 2012, season by season.

Meanwhile we’ve been preparing for our winter exhibition, which this year is in the gallery at the award-winning Woolfson & Tay bookshop in Bermondsey Square in London, close to the south foot of Tower Bridge. River songs in winter is a collection of my new work in clay, handmade paper and driftwood from the Thames, including artist’s books, wall-hung banners in clay and driftwood, and some lovely pots. For more details, have a look at the page about the exhibition on Woolfson & Tay’s website, and I’ll be writing about it here in December. It’s a selling show (so you can buy off the wall to take away), and it’s on from 29th November right through December until 8th January 2012, changing throughout the month.

Harvest

August 2, 2011

August was to John Clare a pivot of the year, as the harvest drew a concerted effort from everyone in the rural community, and the ‘bustling day’ took precedence over everything else – until it was done, and time to celebrate. This large serving dish from the Shepherds Calendar dinner service is a centrepiece of the plate rack, with its warm appetising colours and the beautiful text. Here’s the back:

Though we’d rather like to hang out in the sunshine (now some’s finally here) throughout August, it’s going to be rather a busy month for us too, as we’re taking some of this year’s harvest to Edinburgh. My partner Frances will be reading from her acclaimed new novel The Principle of Camouflage at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, where it is also an entry for the Festival’s Newton First Book Award – and as it has also been suggested as a possible contender for the Guardian First Book Award this year, it’s receiving a lot of attention for a book from a small publisher. Frances is also reading in the Festival’s Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers series, from the work of Nizametdin Akhmetov, a Bashkir poet.

On the same trip, we’ll also be delivering some of my work to the National Library of Scotland; I’m very proud to say that the NLS is acquiring three of my artist’s books, Season’s Dancing (with text by Robert Burns), Love and Freedom: Burns’ Year (a group of four books, one for each season), and Light Music (from a text by Margaret Tait).

This is the August page from Seasons Dancing, a concertina book made from 24 sheets of handmade paper (A3) which opens out to a continuous circle joining December and January, and celebrating the cyclic dance of the seasons with fragments from Burns’ poems.

The ring of months is double sided, so that as it stands opened out, you can see the months in sequence on the front, and inside, the rhythmic flow of the turning seasons:

The outer pages are painted and collaged month by month, and the pages on the inner side are made with handmade papers in different colours for the flow of the seasons, with Burns’ text dancing round:

Here you can see the December page (And O for the joys of a long winter night) linked to January (That merry day the year begins) – and so on round the year.

Round and round the seasons go

This year I’ve been working on a series of contemporary illuminated manuscripts reflecting the passing of time and the turning year. The largest works (so far) are the group of four books that make up Love and Freedom: Burns’ Year which will also be in the NLS collection; these four books are each made from a single huge sheet of handmade paper, torn and folded into a sequence of pages, but possible to restore to the whole sheet again, like a magic carpet that transports you to another time and place, but which you can also fold up and carry about with you – the essence of ‘book’, in fact. I’ll be writing more about the ideas behind these books (and showing how they look) in September; meanwhile you can see Light Music with its luminous text from Margaret Tait’s film Colour Poems in a page by page sequence in a Work in Focus post – click here.

If you’d like more information about any of my work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

Waiting for the swallows

April 1, 2011

Now that Spring is really here, and in John Clare’s happy words

The trees still deepen in their bloom

Grass greens the meadowlands

And flowers with every morning come

we can really start looking forward to the arrival of the swallows and swifts, since the daffodils have already dared. I love the changing lengthening light of Spring, and the suddenness of the long-awaited transformation, when everything charges out at once.

I’m continuing work on my series of Books of Hours, or contemporary illuminated manuscripts, on the theme of the passing year, working with different forms of the book. Some of them are very large, but The turning year is made from a single sheet of handmade ‘elephant’ paper (70cm x 50cm), torn and folded not into my usual cyclic sequence of pages, but this time as a continuous flow, starting at one end and following a fluid timeline which pours off the other end. The full sheet, before tearing and folding looked like this:

and the sequence of pages like this:

This was a lovely sheet of paper to work with, as it had beautiful irregular deckle edges, with even a few tags of paper floating at the corners. I particularly like the lively uniqueness of each handmade sheet, and enjoy including its quirks into the book’s character. The torn and folded sequence of pages looks like this:

My preoccupation with rivers, seas and watery places is reaching flood level as I prepare for Watermark, my exhibition in the Ice House gallery in Holland Park, which is open daily from 7th to 22nd May, 11am to 7pm.

I’ll be showing waterfalls in clay, driftwood signposts, several kingfishers, fountains and storms, tall ships and circling seas, as well as Van Gogh’s clouds and swallows on the Thames – and during May I’ll be showing some of the works in the exhibition here in my May post.

Meanwhile, I have been doing some other work, including a very enjoyable commission for a portrait of a thatched cottage, in my ongoing series of architectural low-relief sculptures.

I’ve been making these for 25 years now (my first was in 1986), and I must have made many hundreds by now – I love the individuality of each subject, and really enjoy how a likeness develops through the process, so that the finished portrait becomes a very tangible image of the house. I made this one in terracotta – the same clay as the bricks – but I use stoneware for a stone-built house. I have made a portrait of a Swiss log cabin, but I did it in clay, rather than matchsticks. Some more examples can be seen on the Architectural reliefs page, and commissions start at £200. I welcome enquiries about commissions – you can leave me a note in the comments box below, or if you prefer, click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

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.

The turning year

January 5, 2011

This year, my Work in Focus posts will be monthly, including some of my current work and some from my archive. Much of my work is seasonal – or rather I enjoy responding to the changing light and the feel of the turning year – and I’ll be showing some progressing series of work, as we go along. In 1993 I made a dinner service, setting texts from John Clare’s A Shepherds Calendar with a plate or bowl for each month, and I’ll be starting the monthly features with his apposite observations.

I’ve already begun work on one of my major plans for this year: a series of Books of Hours, or contemporary illuminated manuscripts, setting different texts that explore the turning year in individually handmade, lettered and decorated books. I’ll be showing several of these in the coming months and discussing some of the processes, ideas and problems. I’m planning works on several different scales from small to very large, but the first in the series is a small concertina book made with handmade paper, setting a medieval latin text by Boethius in a beautiful translation by Helen Waddell. It’s called The flowering year.

The concertina book opens out to a full stretch of about 4 foot long, so it will stand along a shelf. The economical text conveys the feel of each season so accurately that it seems possible to experience the whole year in this short length, or the turn of a few pages, and the rainy winter page feels very right for today. I must work on a bit more snow.

Among the first of my Books of Hours, I’ve also made a one-elephant book, from a single sheet of handmade paper torn and folded to form the sequence of pages: it’s called The turning year, and the text is my own.

The whole sheet looks like this:

And like this, once torn and folded:

I’m planning some books in quite different formats, and some on a large scale, so I look forward to showing them as they progress.

Of course, midwinter’s a good time to be making pots too (warming work), and Helen Waddell’s translations from Latin texts have also provided inspiration there. On this large dish I’ve set her rendering of a text by Marbod of Rennes, which combines an encouraging glimpse of Spring with a little seasonal festivity:

For more information about any of my work, please leave me a note in the comment box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.

Glad Christmass

December 22, 2010

John Clare’s December poem from A Shepherds Calender is a special favourite, inspiring many of my seasonal pots over the years. I particularly like his spelling, and his greeting between friends and neighbours when meeting ‘their Christmass cheer to share’:

Glad Christmass and a happy year


Winter is come

December 2, 2010

In this snowy week, I’ve been making an artist’s book setting a text from John Clare’s evocative poem Snow storm, called In another land. It’s made from one sheet of handmade paper, painted, lettered, torn and folded into a sequence of 6 double pages. I’ll show it to you page by page, and then describe the making process.

In considering the setting of a text for these books, it’s important to me that the overall design of the whole page should work as well as the individual pages – and that means bearing in mind that the book is turned as the reader reads, making the text on some pages upside-down and some sideways to the main overall image. With this text, I first folded the paper, then painted a snowy scene with sky, hills, and a winter tree overhanging a frozen path or stream with snow-mounded hedges:

Then I added the lettering (with its snowy burthen), following the cycle of the pages starting from top left:

Then, when this was dry, I painted and lettered the covers (in the right place) on the other side, and when those were dry, I tore the paper into the sequence of pages:

then folded the pages into sequence:

then I put it in my patent book-press:

Opened out, the finished work looks like this:

For more information about In another world, my other one-elephant books or any of my work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details for other ways to get in touch.