Posts Tagged ‘lettering art’

The Prospect of Happiness

July 29, 2022

Architectural Portraits & Word-landscapes by Liz Mathews

Burgh House, Hampstead, 6 – 17 July 2022

Burgh House, portrait in terracotta by Liz Mathews

The Prospect of Happiness draws together Liz Mathews’ portraits in clay and paper of special London houses, with the words of writers and artists who inhabit and haunt this timeless place.

The title’s ‘prospect of happiness’ is the view across London from the heights of Hampstead Heath conjured by Frances Bingham. Up here on the heights we may also meet Virginia Woolf visiting the newly-opened Kenwood, before she takes a bus down Tufnell Park Road to visit her friend Roger Fry — and later bravely crosses Blackfriars Bridge by night. Dr Johnson, Constable and Keats all put in an appearance, and Dickens has a moment in Bloomsbury, while Winifred Nicholson colourfully invokes the essence of a happy home. Down by the river Maureen Duffy has a vision of the floating city before plunging into the old Round Reading Room of the British Museum. Handel brings the plane tree to Bloomsbury, and Blake celebrates ‘London’s towers’ among ‘England’s green and pleasant bowers’.

The exhibition’s arranged in three sections, centred on the portrait of Burgh House, and circling out both geographically and with other kinds of connections and conversations between the works.

The first section opens with

The Prospect of Happiness

and

Vision of the Floating City

1. The Prospect of Happiness

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 70cm x 50cm

Words by Frances Bingham from The Principle of Camouflage (2011)

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

Fitz, who speaks these words in Frances Bingham’s novel The Principle of Camouflage, has just returned from wartime exile to beloved London, and climbed to the Heath’s heights to look out over the city and the future. In the last couple of years I’ve often thought about these words of hope, and how, after all the trauma of the war, Fitz looks forward to happier times with resolution — hope takes courage.

I used Thames water and twigs from the Heath for the lettering, to bring the material presence of this view into the work; and the watercolour of the city spread out below includes a few landmarks – St Paul’s, New St Pancras Church (Virginia Woolf’s favourite London church), the British Museum, our house — all the important places. I like to think of this paperwork as an incantation, bringing together the good things about our city and possibilities of the future, under those optimistic words:

The prospect of happiness opens out before me like a sudden view come upon by chance over the brow of a tree-crowned hill, the city with all its possibilities lit up below, the river widening through it to the sea, the downs rising grey-green on the other side, beauty reaching far into the distance…

2. Vision of the Floating City

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 70cm x 50cm

Words by Maureen Duffy from Alchemy (2004)

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

Here we are in company with Maureen Duffy, scribe of London and modern-day troubadour, looking across the river from the Strand side to the South Bank, for a nocturnal companion piece to The Prospect of Happiness. I love the way that the dreamlike quality of the words imbues rather solid architecture with visionary character, romance and yearning, as the city gazes at itself in the dark waters like Narcissus. I made this painting with watercolour and acrylic paints mixed with Thames water, and lettered it with a driftwood stick picked up one mudlarking afternoon, down by the Festival Hall, so that the river itself has a material presence in the painting. The river-line, as in The Prospect of Happiness, was painted with one stroke of the brush, and the paint for the lettering is mixed with grey stoneware-slip, to give body to the grey stone buildings.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

26. Blake’s Graffiti

Banner-book with pages made from flotsam wine-box, handmade paper, linen tape and acrylics, and lettered with a driftwood stick

Words: Kathleen Raine’s What Message from Imagined Paradise?

When we go mudlarking down by the river, we find all sorts of treasures — clay pipe stems of course, but also beautiful river-carved, evil-smelling planks of wood which shrink to splinters as they dry.  I often use driftwood sticks as as lettering tools in my books, and this banner book has pages made from jetsam — or is it flotsam? — a broken wooden wine case that we found on the Thames foreshore down by London’s Southbank Centre, sadly empty. I made another painting on the lid, and for this banner book, painted the crushed sides and bound them roughly together with handmade paper and linen tapes, then lettered them with Kathleen Raine’s poem, asking: What can we hope or pray for that can heal these / Mortal wounds of our brief beloved earth? A good question in the 20th Century, but so much more urgent now.

3. Prism II

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 70cm x 50cm

Words by Winifred Nicholson, from I like to have a picture in my room.

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

I used a wooden clothes-peg as an improvised pen to set Winifred Nicholson’s view of the beneficial effects of colour in the home — as a nod to shining domesticity. I include this joyful rainbow as a celebration of London Pride, and of home, though it’s stretching a point in this London-centric exhibition, because WN was living very happily in Cumbria when she wrote this piece. My excuse is that she did live in London earlier in her life, and was extremely consistent in her lifelong passion for colour and prismatic light.

The effect of the clothes-peg pen on the handmade paper is lovely — because the paint / ink flow isn’t controlled, it floods across the textured paper, so used quite swiftly, it lets a lot of light through the letter-forms, where the liquid paint floats across the hollows of the paper — perfect for these words. Now and again ‘the ebb and flow of the outer world’ can be a bit overwhelming. I like to think that colour itself can be an essential constituent of the ‘harmony of space’. Winifred Nicholson’s writings are always illuminating, sometimes revelatory, and I particularly enjoy how painters often express their views in literary, even romantic ways, so that one can make a fully abstract design with the words themselves.

4. Lightshaft

Paperwork on handmade cotton-rag paper 40cm x 70cm

Words by Julia Strachey, from her Diary 21st July 1933

Titled, text attributed and signed on the reverse

In July 1933 Julia Strachey went for an illicit lunch with Wogan Philipps, at the beginning of their love affair, and afterwards they went to see a picture framer in Lambs Conduit Street to collect some of Wogan’s frames. (He was married to Rosamund Lehmann at this point.) For this atmospheric London interior, romance and excitement mingled with melancholy, I used charcoal, chalk and raw clay powder on black handmade paper, and cantilevered the words round the stairwell to catch light filtered through air heavy with dust-motes. I love the incantatory quality of Julia’s words, but I do wonder if they ever found Wogan’s frames.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Next we move on to the gallery’s long wall, and the architectural portraits:

Whitechapel Pottery and Potters’ Yard box-framed together in the exhibition

19. Potters’ Yard

and 20. Whitechapel Pottery

Architectural portraits in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, both signed and inscribed on reverse

Two glimpses of the artist’s own house: on the right, Potters’ Yard in Tufnell Park is our fourth pottery; we moved here from Whitechapel Pottery (on the left) in 2006. I’ve made portraits of all the places we’ve lived and worked since Frances and I set up our first pottery together in West Hampstead in 1986, and this one’s a quirky, plain little house, built in 1980 on the footprint of the coachhouse of the big house next door. We have the studio and kiln on the ground floor and live above the shop. Whitechapel Pottery, including studio, gallery and living space was all on the ground floor, with a warehouse behind the shop — one room, 90 feet long, and neighbours upstairs, who didn’t really have such lovely window-boxes as I’ve given them here. Nice thought though.

It can be difficult to make a portrait of one’s own house, rather like a self-portrait, due to over-familiarity. But one can choose to be merciless or kind; I aim for accuracy always, but tempered with mercy to achieve the truest likeness possible. In the portrait at least, the lavender is always in flower.

Potters’ Yard, echoing the proportions, floor levels and brick detailing of the big house next door, on its coach-house’s footprint. The Yardroom on the left is our micro-showroom for the pots; the beehive even further to the left once housed bees of North Norfolk, and now stores our garden shears.

Hogarth’s house, in box-frame on the wall

5. Hogarth’s house

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, inscribed on reverse:

Hogarth’s House, Chiswick

William Hogarth 16971764

Lived and worked here 1749-1764

Here’s a much grander artist’s house. Hogarth’s house in Chiswick still stands in a high-walled garden protecting it from today’s thundering traffic. Though the house and garden are much restored, it’s possible still to imagine this most humane and un-vainglorious of eighteenth century painters working in the light-filled rooms, and living a contented life there. I’m a great one for brickwork, and the much-repointed façade was a joy to work on. I like how the disproportionately large oriel bay of the piano nobile, which must have flooded the room with light, overshadows the most ordinary, unflashy entrance.

Hogarth House in exhibition box-frame

6. Hogarth House

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, inscribed on reverse:

Hogarth House, Paradise Road, Richmond

Home of The Hogarth Press and Leonard & Virginia Woolf

Known as Hogarth House in Virginia Woolf’s day and Suffield House now, this elegant Georgian mansion in Richmond gave its name to the Hogarth Press, and retains many features from the Woolfs’ time, including a very impressive doorcase, but it’s much cleaner now, and bears a blue plaque. Virginia Woolf called it ‘Paradise Road’, and she and Leonard moved in to the two lower floors in 1915, setting up the legendary Hogarth Press in the basement a couple of years later. I’ve aimed to catch something of the house’s slightly seedy grandeur in their time, without actually coating it in soot; and I’ve shown the wisteria in full bloom in honour of the flourishing of their work while they lived in the house. Railings are another feature I particularly enjoy in making portraits, as they give me the chance to paint a trompe l’oeille of the view through them to the lower section of the windows, dissolving the solidity of the clay.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

9. Blake’s London

Portrait of Euston Arch on handmade paper

Watercolour, graphite and coloured pencils

Words by William Blake from Jerusalem. Signed and titled on reverse

These 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, of which the poet Southey got a quick preview in 1811, and ungratefully described as: “a perfectly mad poem called Jerusalem”. Blake’s timeless vision, in which ‘a single inspiration informs words and decoration alike’ (according to Kathleen Raine, Blake’s biographer), seems considerably less mad today.

Euston Arch was built in 1837, just ten years after Blake’s death, as the grand entrance to the brand new railway station, Gateway to the North, and embellished with the letters  E U S T O N  cut into the architrave in letters of gold — and then it was demolished in the new London of the 1960s, to the distress of many Londoners including John Betjeman. I drew the arch from an early photograph, and thought Blake’s ‘golden pillars’ could well stand for the beautiful trees of Euston Grove, over 200 years old, contemporary with Handel’s great plane trees of Brunswick square (see Handel’s trees). They’ve survived not only the bombs of the Blitz but the more insidious erosion of Euston Road, the most exhaust-laden air of London, and played their part in protecting Londoners from those lethal fumes. But like Euston Arch this sylvan grove is now threatened with demolition, to make way for HS2 building works and car parks, to the great distress of many Londoners.

I referenced Blake’s own design for his poem in making the work, setting the text in little clouds, and took the lettered font from one of the pages of Jerusalem in Blake’s own finished and illuminated copy of his book, which he kept until he died. The starry sky is from a watercolour drawing in his Book of Job: The Morning Stars Sang Together.

The final lines stand as a plea, 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.

6. Benjamin Franklin’s house

Architectural portrait on handmade paper, with graphite and coloured pencils, and a subsequent intervention

Franklin lived in this house at 36 Craven Street between 1757 and 1775, years that brought him from agent for Pennsylvania Assembly to representing colonial interests before the Crown, making the house in effect the first American embassy in London. After he left London, he was one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776, and later of the Constitution in 1787, when he was also elected President of the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery.

The discreet house behind its closed shutters contains a story of times no less tumultuous than our own, and initially I lettered the accompanying lines from the Declaration of Independence with only the minor and reasonable intervention of replacing the words ‘all men’ with ‘all people’; but the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v Wade on 24th June 2022 gave me such grief that I’ve re-instated ‘all men’, because that’s how it is really, isn’t it?  (And this is only the beginning.)

But I’ve also recently learned that Benjamin Franklin, the great polymath, among his many other inventions also came up with home-abortion remedies, showing that the support of at least one of the Founding Fathers for this iniquitous present situation would be extremely unlikely.

Freud’s house in box-frame

11. Freud’s House

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, signed and inscribed on reverse

Now Freud Museum London, this house in Hampstead’s Maresfield Gardens was where Freud lived for the last year of his life, and his daughter Anna for 44 years until her death in 1982. Freud escaped from Nazi Germany with his family to London in 1938, and his house was a fascinating subject for me, its complicated exterior seeming to conceal the mysteriously complex interior, though one would expect 388 window panes (reader, I counted them) to shed quite a lot of light on the inner scene. It’s rather a solid-seeming house, and the dominant central bay (a little reminiscent of that at Hogarth’s house) was challenging: with low relief sculpture I have to build in the perspective, and it can be difficult to get this to work from several different possible viewing angles. I’m glad to say it does, here, and I always like subjects that take my technique a step further. This dominance of the central bay seems entirely in keeping with its famous owner’s continuing cultural significance. Virginia Woolf wisely declined Freudian analysis, though the Hogarth Press published his work.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Fenton House in exhibition box-frame

12. Fenton House

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, signed and inscribed on reverse

A gem of the National Trust, handsome Fenton House with its elegant gardens and orchard is an enchanting house. Last time we visited, each instrument in the house’s extraordinary collection of harpsichords, clavichords and other historic keyboards was played, the delicate Baroque musical patterns perfectly complementing the atmospheric interiors. Fenton House offers four equally compelling façades to the portraitist — I’d love to do a series of studies of this house alone — but for this collection I chose the entrance front, facing east, with its balustraded projecting end bays, irregularities of roofline, and elegant Doric entrance loggia (c.1807). On one of the chimney stack bricks (those beautiful bricks) was found the date 1693, and its high hipped roof with a steep pitch is very much in the 17th Century tradition. Those freestanding columns were a real challenge, requiring very careful drying of the freshly made portrait, as the columns would have dried much more quickly than the mass of the construction — and since clay shrinks as it dries, the columns could have easily come adrift at the top or bottom joint, or cracked across the middle. (I watched it like a lynx for a fortnight.)

Burgh House in exhibition box-frame

14. Burgh House

Architectural portrait in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, signed and inscribed on reverse

I love making miniature portraits in clay; it’s possible to achieve a real likeness and physical affinity with the subject when a portrait’s made in the same material as the building. Burgh House is built with Georgian terracotta bricks, and its later additions follow the style of the original house very harmoniously. The portrait is made in the same kind of clay as these bricks, a warm terracotta, fired to a similar temperature; the only difference is that my hand-building clay is much cleaner than the brick clay would have been, so I have a finer surface to work with. As well as the beautiful brickwork and the elegantly proportioned windows, to catch a likeness of Burgh House I focused on the feeling of height you always get, looking up at the house from the flowery charm of Gertrude Jekyll’s terrace — and of course the glorious wisteria in full bloom.

With this portrait positioned as the centrepiece of the exhibition, I arranged many of the other works geographically in relation to Burgh House or conversationally to each other, within the confines of the exhibition space (which explains a somewhat haphazard numerical order of works here, as the actual installation departed — as it always does — from the plan).

Also centrally positioned is a working drawing of a portrait of Kenwood:

13. Kenwood

Working drawing for an architectural portrait in pencil on graph paper

As we approach Kenwood — Pevsner’s ‘finest eighteenth century house in London’ — it appears like an insubstantial fairy palace floating on a lake of green.

In September 1925, unwell in bed, Virginia Woolf dreamt of jaunts they would have when she was better: ‘I’m going to Greenwich, to Caen Woods, to Gunnersbury, all in the dripping autumn weather, with tea at an ABC & home to a hot bath.’ She and Leonard got their first walk at Hampstead on Saturday 5th December that year: ‘It was very cold — it had a foggy winter beauty. We went in to Ken Wood (but dogs must be led) & there came to the duelling ground, where great trees stand about & presumably sheltered the 18th Century swordsmen.’  They talked about their friends, particularly Lytton (Strachey), and Morgan (Forster), ‘as we trod back over the slippery hillocks seeing little as we talked’ — and Virginia was reminded, as always by ‘this part of Hampstead’, of Katherine (Mansfield) — ‘that faint ghost with the steady eyes’.

Her visual impressions come swiftly, mingled with the foggy winter beauty, and each impression links to the past, to other places, other people, other images, in a woven fabric of memory and imagination.

This drawing shows one of the early stages of making a portrait: I begin with a rough sketch to establish the disposition of parts and proportions, then a detailed working drawing like this is made, ready for me to transfer it to clay slabs or to thickly textured handmade paper. Each portrait subject imposes different structural limitations on the materials; here, Kenwood is too long in proportion to its height for the clay to accommodate in a single portrait, nor would it fit my kiln shelves in one piece. I’ll construct it in three sections, with joints either side of the central range, making those slightly recessed anterooms underlap the main front so that the division is hidden, though clearly visible in the divided base. Because of the complex detail of the façade, I’ll be making it in a fine creamy stoneware with a very smooth texture that can be readily modelled and sculpted.

Then, when the claywork is done, the drying will need to be very carefully monitored to avoid warping, as each section will move and shrink as it dries. This stage takes at least three weeks, sometimes more, before I can begin the first decoration onto the fully dried raw clay, painting everything that will be under glaze — windows, and any gloss paintwork or metal downpipes. This will often include trompe l’oeille interior views through the windows (like in the next portrait of 2 Willow Road), including perhaps plants in Kenwood’s Orangery, or the corner of a painting visible through the window. Once that first decoration is dry, I’ll commit the portrait to its first (bisque) firing, a long slow cosmic transformation lasting anything from 10 to 14 hours, which takes the kiln to white heat. After this, two days cooling before I can look in to see if the work has survived the process.

If it has, it’s ready for the second stage of decorating — all the stonework, brickwork (chimneys), roof, foliage — and when that’s done, the glazing, applied by brush carefully to the windows over the decoration that’s already fired on. And then the glaze fire. Slowly the portrait takes form and detail, slowly takes on a life and significance of its own, becoming a tangible, visual evocation of the subject that can contain all sorts of personal associations and meanings for the viewer, especially when someone has commissioned a portrait of their own house or a building uniquely meaningful for them, becoming a container of memory and imagination in physical form.

But I like to think that these pencil lines of the working drawing catch something of the airy unsubstantiality of the fairy palace, something elusive and promising, a house of the imagination.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

2 Willow Road in exhibition box-frame

15. 2 Willow Road

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, signed and inscribed on reverse

Their first modernist house, 2 Willow Road was acquired by the National Trust in 1994. It’s a real home, designed and lived in by Erno Goldfinger and built around 1937-39, and it’s an exciting subject for a portrait. The variations of plane within the continuous street frontage are almost as complex as Kenwood’s, and the variety of materials also gave me an opportunity to play with the textures achievable in clay. I made the portrait in a high-firing creamy stoneware with the structural strength to make the columns — the tricky bit, as on Fenton House. I enjoyed showing the lively interiors through the plate glass windows. Glazing the windows after painting a trompe l’oeille of the view inside gives the impression not only of proper windows glazed with actual glass but also of the whole internal space. The front doors, still their original colours, are shaded by the upper storey, which overhangs them in a way reminiscent of Lauderdale House‘s still-slightly-jettied upper storey. And the balconies sport jaunty flower boxes of red geraniums. Each time we passed 2 Willow Road on our way up to Burgh House for the exhibition, the windows were all open in the summer heat, giving a strong impression of the three houses still being real, lived-in homes, a characteristic shared by almost all of the subjects in this collection.

Lauderdale House in box-frame

10. Lauderdale House

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, signed and inscribed on reverse

Originally built in 1582, and saved from demolition in the 1800s by William Morris, Pevsner calls Lauderdale House ‘one of the few survivals in the London area of a large house still partly built in the timber-framed tradition’. Its earliest form was probably on a courtyard plan, and this surviving façade still indicates the jettied upper floor of the original timber-framed house. Wesley preached here (see John Wesley’s house and Leaves from the Gospel Oak), and its history includes fires, rebuilding, Quakers and a reputation as ‘one of the most elegant boarding houses in London’. Now it’s home to a vigorous programme of cultural events, including exhibitions, book launches, and the occasional open-air opera. For this portrait I aimed to allow its unadorned façade to give glimpses of the vibrant life within this ancient building, its warm heart still beating.

Next, the final section of the long wall:

16. Keats’ House and Library

Architectural portrait on handmade paper and graphite, signed and inscribed

Just around the corner from 2 Willow Road is the serene enclosure of Wentworth Place, where John Keats lived for a couple of years from 1818. The house (to the left of the drawing) was then two dwellings in one villa: Keats lodged in the left-hand side, and Fanny Brawne lived next door. The villa was built here close to the Heath in 1815/16, a Regency semi, and was converted into one house after Keats’ time. The Library, on the right in this drawing, is a much later design from 1931, harmonious though the pair now seem. As a subject, the house is a fine example of the way a place, much altered since its moment of greatest note, can still retain something of the character and atmosphere of that time. I aimed to catch the feeling of leafy serenity, birdsong and trees, and the calm elegance of the villa — and perhaps in the lines a faint scent of the poetic spirit that still survives two hundred years after Keats’ time there.

Kentish Town Baths framed in the show

18. Kentish Town Baths

Architectural portrait on handmade cotton-rag paper, with coloured pencils and gold acrylic paint. Inscribed and signed on reverse.

I have a passion for the combination of architecture and text, and Kentish Town bath-house, described by Pevsner as full of ‘fun and games’, is labelled in gold Art Deco script with its name, function, and —helpfully — with the designations ‘Men’s Second Class’, and (poshest door) ‘Men’s First Class’. Three other doors to the right must be for women (first, second and third class)? No — ‘Public Hall’. Oh well, we’ll have to bathe in the Ladies’ Pond on the Heath then — No men or dogs beyond this point.  I’ve chosen, perversely, to make the portrait of this particularly terracotta palace of pleasure on handmade paper rather than in clay because I wanted to catch its festive façade-articulation without the aid of the tactile clay-affinity of a terracotta portrait. I’m looking forward to making a portrait in clay next time — a subject as full of vitality as this one never ceases to be inspiring.

But in a curious way, the handmade paper has many similarities with the clay, not only in its original wet state. As a ground, it’s porous and accommodating, allowing the lines of the drawing to be incised into the density of its surface, so that each brick, each letter, is incised and sculpted into the depth of the plane. This works so well with the brickwork, allowing each brick to be separately delineated, yet merged with the whole, and it gives a really curious three-dimensional feel to the drawing.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Dr Johnson’s House and the Curator’s Cottage, in box-frame in the exhibition

21. Dr Johnson’s House

and 22. The Curator’s Cottage

Architectural portraits in terracotta, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1040°, both signed and inscribed on reverse

I’ve only recently completed these two portraits, having considered the best way to go about them for years. The five storey house would be an excellent subject, with beautifully articulated façade and elegant windows and door-case, but for the fact that it stands on the north side of Gough Square, and extends eastwards (to the right) into the corner of the range of buildings that form the east flank of the square, with the upper stories of the house wall internally contained within the neighbouring house, and only the ground floor forming the side wall of an arched roadway (sottoportego).

And the cottage, tucked into the tiny courtyard to the left (west) of the house, stands at right angles to the big house, looking towards it as though keeping an eye on it, so a clay portrait in low relief of the two together is a challenge.

This highlights one of the difficulties with making portraits in low-relief: they’re not three-dimensional models, but rather show the view from a human perspective, not the bird’s-eye-view that gives a lot of roof. Any building that asks to be seen from several angles is always worth a group of studies, exploring the different character of each face. For this portrait, I eventually decided to include the otherwise hidden upper section of wall above the alley, and to make the Curator’s Cottage separately, in proportion to the master house, standing in attendance. The red camellia growing in the courtyard links the two, as does the charming repetition of detail, like the door-case, scaled down for the little house.

I like the feeling in the portraits of the big house’s focus being all on the interior, with some of the contents (portraits, library, lamps) visible through the lighted windows, in contrast to the attendant cottage, where the focus is all external, looking out towards the big house. And it seems appropriate that a portrait of Dr Johnson’s house should involve a lot of thought.

The Curator’s Cottage, with its scaled-down twin front door-cases, brick facings and zinc dormer hoods, echoes the big house very engagingly, and its haphazard collection of pots and flowering plants in the shared courtyard only adds to its charm. This is one of my favourite pieces in the collection, perhaps because its miniature scale packs a lot of character.

Charles Dickens’ House & Museum

23. Charles Dickens’ House & Museum

Architectural portrait on handmade paper, with graphite and coloured pencils, signed and inscribed.

There are several of Dickens’ London houses extant — including one in Highgate; this one at 48 & 49 Doughty Street is also an excellent museum. The blue plaque records that

CHARLES DICKENS

1812 – 1870

Novelist

Lived Here

but that was actually only for a couple of years from 1837 to 1839. Here he finished The Pickwick Papers, and wrote Nicholas Nickleby and Oliver Twist, both novels which expose the brutality of poverty in London at the time, and the disparity of power between rich and poor, conditions he had experienced. The house/museum really does feel as though Dickens has just stepped out to take the air and will be back home in a minute. I used paper in homage to his work, and it proved a marvellous subject, nicely disrupting the uniformity of the terrace with a few quirky details, such as the vivid scarlet front door. A writer’s front door, like the British Library, should be red, of course.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

John Wesley’s house and Leaves from the Gospel Oak, sharing a box-frame in the exhibition

Opposite Bunhill Fields where Blake lies buried, Wesley himself laid the foundation stone of his ‘perfectly neat but not fine’ house on 21 April 1777. He lived here from 1779 until he died in March 1791 aged 87 — but only in the winters. In summer he was out preaching, often living rough, doing his honourable duty in a wicked world.

24. John Wesley’s house

Architectural portrait in stoneware, with underglaze oxides and a clear glaze on windows, fired to 1260°, signed and inscribed on reverse

and 25. Leaves from the Gospel Oak

Artist’s book on handmade paper, words by Frances Bingham from London Panopticon, in watercolour and acrylic, lettered with an oak twig

Like St Augustine, Wesley preached under the Gospel Oak. I used a twig from a big old oak tree on the Heath as a lettering pen for this artist’s book celebrating that local legend, vanished now but for its name, but perhaps, in the right light, still possible to find.

Leaves from the Gospel Oak heralds the final section of the exhibition showing artist’s books:

Talisman

and Crossing Blackfriars Bridge

17. Talisman

Artist’s book on a sheet of handmade paper, words by Maureen Duffy from Darkling. On reverse front and back covers, signed and attributed.

Maureen Duffy’s poem Darkling addresses John Keats directly, poet to poet, citing the poet’s words as his ‘true portrait’. I found an example of Keats’ handwriting in a letter (now in the Bodleian library) from him to Shelley on August 16th 1820, and imitated his flowing script with a steel-nibbed pen such as he would have used, in sepia ink like the faded once-black of the letter, on soft creamy grey handmade paper, like the aged paper of the letter. I used this paper unadorned as the ground for the first two pages, painting a watercolour sky for the rest of the pages. The words circle round, high-lit in silver paint over the brown ink, with the stars splashed about in silver. For me, the book form shares some qualities with clay portraits: it’s a vessel, a volume filled with meaning, where object and  meaning can become one — a talisman, containing not only the words of Duffy’s poem, but even Keats’ words too, ‘shimmering down the years’.

Talisman‘s front cover and slipcase: each of my artist’s books has a lettered and painted slipcase in handmade paper

The front cover and slipcase for Crossing Blackfriars Bridge

8. Crossing Blackfriars Bridge

Artist’s book made from a sheet of handmade paper

Words by Virginia Woolf from The Years; on the reverse, the book’s front cover, titled, and back cover with attribution and signed

Here is Virginia Woolf stepping out over Blackfriars Bridge, pausing in one of its little alcoves to look down on the water, minutely examining the qualities of the water, and observing what it does with the light. This combination of material quality and imagination was foremost in my mind when I made the book from a single sheet of handmade paper, folding it first before painting the moon with iridescent acrylic paint mixed with Titanium white, and then I brought the swirl of silvery blues mixed with Thames water gradually out to the deckle edges of the paper. Then I lettered the words with my favourite Thames driftwood stick, highlit the words in places, and then when all was dry, tore the sheet into the page sequence. Sometimes when I’m painting like this, I like to load the brush with river water, and dip it briefly into the paint colours, then allow it to flood out over the paper where it will. I don’t want to control it too much, and I love it when this kind of watery effect happens of its own accord: the river glideth at his own sweet will (as Wordsworth would say, upon Westminster Bridge).

Crossing Blackfriars Bridge (detail)

27. Constable’s Clouds

Artist’s book with words and cloud composition by John Constable, handmade paper, watercolour and acrylic paints, lettered with a twig

This artist’s book, too, is made from a single sheet of paper (always handmade cotton-rag paper), which I’ve painted, folded and torn into a sequence of six double pages, so that it can be opened out to the whole sheet and framed. I particularly enjoy the dual nature of these books: the volume containing a painting, or the book hidden inside the picture. 

The words are from Constable’s notes for cloud and sky-studies in 1821, describing the skies of the Heath and the view from the top of this hill; the composition of the cloud study is from one of his luminous small paintings in the V&A.  During lockdown, when the usual roar of planes and London traffic shrank to a whisper, the skies above the Heath returned to almost the pristine state that inspired Constable so much: clear, full of birdsong and breezy freshness. But the roar’s back now.

Constable’s Clouds – cover and slipcase

The Round Reading Room at the British Museum in box-frame in the exhibition

28. The Round Reading Room at the British Museum

Artist’s book on handmade paper 1m x 70cm, words by Maureen Duffy from Londoners. On reverse: front and back covers, signed and attributed.

It’s hard to remember, now we’re all devotees of the British Library, that it only took over in the late 1990s from the round Reading Room in the BM beloved by generations of writers, with its circular desks and 19th Century scholarly ethos. But that round room, covered now with exhibition spaces, continues to exist in the minds and memories of many writers. In her 1983 novel Londoners, Maureen Duffy’s hero Al is writing a biography of an early French poet, and having a very trying time with the director of a radio documentary; Al takes refuge in the round Reading Room, and celebrates its treasures and the embrace of its calm atmosphere in this lyrical text. I set the flowing riff on a huge single sheet of handmade paper, words circling towards a still centre, in the calm blues and golden greys of the original beautiful domed space.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

Rough City Song in box-frame

29. Rough City Song

Artists’s book on handmade papers with acrylics; words by Virginia Woolf from The Docks of London, one of six essays for Good Housekeeping 1931.

One of my early artist’s books, this riverside London scene’s made from torn shards of handmade papers, and a quirky collection of little ships. It’s quite closely related to my monumental artist’s book Thames to Dunkirk, now the largest book in the British Library, though it’s much smaller. 

It, too, has an incantation by Virginia Woolf —

Here growls and grumbles that rough city song, that has called the ships from the sea and brought them to lie captive beneath its warehouses.

Written for The Docks of London, this is from one of six incandescent essays called The London Scene that Woolf wrote for Good Housekeeping in 1931 — and my goodness, what articles they are! (If a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well.) I lettered the words with a Thames driftwood stick, in paint mixed with Thames water. I took many of the ideas from this setting on to later books, and some of the techniques too; and though I wouldn’t make it in exactly the same way now, I like how its roughness and simple construction reflect the words.

Turning the corner with Trackside

Trackside in box-frame

30. Trackside

Artists’s book on 28 sheets of handmade paper in concertina form; watercolour and acrylics, text lettered with a driftwood stick, setting a complete poem Trackside by Maureen Duffy, from Wanderer (The Pottery Press, 2020).

Maureen Duffy read her poem Trackside at the launch of her latest collection, and told us how it was inspired by a train journey out of Liverpool Street Station, eastwards along the river to Southend, to visit her cousin — and as she read the poem, we in the audience could see the grime of station and sidings and East End gradually give way to the ‘backdrop of woods and fields… green and growing.’

I found this poem irresistably inspiring for an artist’s book, steadily diminishing railway tracks providing a design framework to draw the narrative through the pages — one long line, all the way to Southend — and the view, close up and far, following the text. I photographed the rails and sleepers at Kentish Town West overground station to get the stones and the fixings right for the first, closeup pages.

I think of books like this as contemporary illuminated manuscripts, and perhaps they can serve the same function as the medieval ones did — and still do — objects of contemplation that can connect us with spiritual truths behind the everyday.

Trackside – cover and slipcase

The final group in the exhibition begins with Handel’s trees

and ends with The rushes in the ditch

31. Handel’s trees

Artists’s book on single sheet of paper, lettered with a plane-tree stick

Words from London Panopticon by Frances Bingham.

Handel’s beloved Persian plane trees still grace the sacred precinct of London’s Brunswick Square, two centuries and more since they were first transplanted there beside the Foundling Hospital so dear to his heart, as well as Hogarth’s. The trees have survived storms and drought, bombs and Blitz, and generations of children hanging from their huge spreading branches.  We visit them each season, picnic beneath their shade in summer, photograph them in snow, celebrate their first leaves each spring, and collect their russet leaves each autumn.  This book was lettered with a twig dropped by one of the trees, and the leaf canopy painted one August, after a picnic among cavorting dogs.

32. In Norfolk

Double-sided artist’s book on a single sheet of handmade paper, with

watercolour and acrylics; words from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway

On a summer’s day in Mayfair, Richard Dalloway and Hugh Whitbread (in Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway) stand on the corner of Conduit Street after lunch with Lady Bruton, looking in at a shop window, not wishing to buy anything, wishing in fact to part — ‘only with contrary winds buffeting the street corner, with some sort of lapse in the tides of the body, two forces meeting in a swirl, morning and afternoon, they paused.’  Richard Dalloway is ‘half-thinking’ of Norfolk, the vision dreamily swirling in the air so that the windy London street corner transforms into a soft warm wind blowing on petals and waters, where haymakers rest at noon from their morning’s labours amid the rustle of grasses and cow parsley trembling in the breeze, and we feel the ‘steadfast blazing summer sky’ in Norfolk that is actually shining down on the lunchtime London street corner.

To bring in this sense of duality, being in two places at once, and the tension between the two aspects, I set this text as a double-sided book on a sheet of blue paper, the words flowing round from one side to the other, swirling like the wind and ruffling the pages. I lettered it with a driftwood stick from a Norfolk beach, and a wooden clothes-peg.

The Strand of the Thames in box-frame

The Strand of the Thames, limited edition quarter-size facsimile

Page detail from The Strand of the Thames

33. Strand of the Thames

Artists’s book made with handmade papers, digital prints and acid-free photo mounts in an edition of 20; watercolour original now in the British Library. Words by Virginia Woolf from her diary 1939.

For this artist’s book we followed in the footsteps of a walk that Virginia Woolf took along the foreshore of the Thames, bravely clambering down some rickety steps and exploring the riverside beaches. I made grisaille watercolours of sites along the route, on handmade paper with Thames water to mix the paint, and constructed these into a 1940s-style photo album.  That book is now in the British Library’s collection, along with one from this edition of quarter-size facsimiles — a signed and numbered edition of 20 — in which photographs of the watercolours are made into an album, mounted with acid-free photo corners. In the exhibition, a concertina book like this can only be shown one page at a time in a box display, so I put in a couple of copies of the limited edition to show one or two different pages.

Page detail from The Strand of the Thames

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

33. From Grass to Harvest

Artists’s book made from 24 sheets of handmade paper constructed into a double-sided concertina book with one page for each month; the December page can be joined to the January page with linen tapes to form a circle reflecting the unending cycle of the year. 

This is the February night page, a wintery scene from Virginia Woolf’s The Years. Set in London, Woolf’s novel gives a vivid picture of the changing city through the seasons and over one woman’s lifetime. Woolf knew north London well, living in Bloomsbury, visiting her friend and rival Katherine Mansfield in Hampstead, walking in ‘Caen Wood’ and regularly taking the ‘beloved omnibus’ down Tufnell Park Road to visit her friend the art critic Roger Fry at Huddlestone Road. For this book I gave each month a page, alternating day and night scenes from The Years, and set the words mostly in Woolf’s London places. On this page, the ‘beautiful’ snow is Titanium white paint mixed with snowmelt, and it falls on Tufnell Park Road’s northernmost end where it rises towards Dartmouth Park, Highgate and the Heath (with the number 4 bus stop on the left).

35. Fired City

Artists’s book made with 14 sheets of handmade paper, acrylic paints and inks; words from Riversoup by Frances Bingham and the Agas map of 1560s; maps drawn from the Agas map, Hollar’s ‘Exact Surveigh’ of London 1666, and Luftwaffe photographs from 1940.

This book takes a trip down the river through time and space.  Riversoup is an artist’s film that Frances Bingham and I made together — her words, my images — following the Thames from the Pool of London down to the estuary, and this part of the film-script links the Great Fire of 1666 with the Blitz in 1940. For this artist’s book, I set her words running along the river within a continuous map of London, beginning in the 16th Century’s ‘antient and famous City of London’ and the gardens and great highways of the West End (from the Agas map of the 1560’s), on through the devastated city burned by the Great Fire as far as the Tower (from Wenceslas Hollar’s 1666 ‘Surveigh’), and out to the heavily bombed wartime East End and the Isle of Dogs (1940 Luftwaffe photos).

I’ve juxtaposed words from Frances’ film-script with the caption from the Agas map’s escutcheon celebrating the ‘abundance of commodities’ and ‘plentifulnesse’ of fresh water fish that the river of Thames provides.  I drew the maps from successive times, layering the physical appearance as well as the texts; the devastation of the Great Fire was revealed by Hollar’s ‘Exact Surveigh’, completed soon after the disaster of 1666 to record the damage for the great re-building effort that was to come; and the devastation of the Blitz revealed by Luftwaffe photos taken in 1940, also to record the extent of the damage, but for a different reason.

36. London Panopticon map

Drawings in pencil and map in coloured inks and pencils for London Panopticon by Frances Bingham, published by The Pottery Press, 2020

London Panopticon begins down by the river near London Bridge at high tide, about four o’clock in the morning.  Blue, a London guide, walks a pilgrimage through time and the city, up to the heights of Hampstead Heath with its twilight view over the city — and ends with another curious journey.  And so this tour comes full circle, back to the Heath.

I drew a series of pencil drawings for the book’s chapter-heads, inspired by the illustrations in one of my favourite London books, Walter Jarrold’s London of 1925, with Ernest Haslehurst’s paintings and Robert Lee’s black and white title-drawings. Here, the original pencil drawings are mounted on handmade paper with the hand-drawn map which is the book’s contents page.

The rushes in the ditch, the final work in the exhibition

37. The rushes in the ditch

Artist’s book on a sheet of handmade paper, watercolour. Words by Richard Jefferies, from his essay A Pageant of Summer, quoted in Jeremy Hooker’s Ditch Vision: essays on poetry, nature and place. On reverse: front and back covers, signed and attributed.

Back on the summer Heath, the rushes I painted for this single sheet artist’s book were bulrushes in a Heath-ditch.

Of this visionary text, poet Jeremy Hooker says: ‘The writing is charged with love of its subject’, and he shows how ‘Jefferies emphasizes the supreme value of the ‘common rushes’ as if for the instruction of a reader who may overlook it, or the refreshment of a reader starved of the proximity of a flowering ditch.’

And further, he shows the way that Jefferies uses ‘a pictorial style not to indulge in word painting, but to render the life of the rushes and their interaction with the environment.’

This interaction is what I seek out in all my work, the connections and containments.

That, and ‘writing charged with love’.

Thank you for joining me on this tour of The Prospect of Happiness at Hampstead’s Burgh House in July 2022.

To view the exhibition price list please click here.

To enquire about any work in the exhibition, buy or commission please contact me on this link. (It takes you to the contact page on my house portraits website, in a separate tab.)


Autumn on the wing

September 28, 2015

Maureen Duffy invitation

I’m looking forward to some autumn events: firstly an evening with Maureen Duffy on 14th October, as part of Fabrication: King’s College London’s Arts and Humanities Festival.  I’ll join Maureen (in conversation with Katie Webb) to talk about working with her poems in artist’s books, and show Paper Wings, my setting of her love-poem cycle Songs for Sappho, which reflects some of the dazzling inventiveness of the poems. Paper Wings is now constructed into a 28-foot-long double-sided book – following its incarnation as an installation at Enitharmon’s Bloomsbury gallery last autumn – and we’ll be discussing some of the unusual materials and processes of its making.  The event will be followed by a drinks reception and you can reserve free tickets at

https://maureen-duffy.eventbrite.co.uk

Paper Wings Song 43 (text by Maureen Duffy)

Song 43 from Paper Wings  (text by Maureen Duffy)

Then on Tuesday 20th October I’ll be giving a talk to the North London Lettering Association, called By way of wordsa quote from Jeremy Hooker’s poem City Walking (1) – and I’m looking forward to showing some of my recent work setting his texts on clay, driftwood and handmade paper, as well as talking about lettering materials and techniques, and life as a lettering artist seeing everything by way of words.  The NLLA welcomes non-members to its meetings (tickets £4), which regularly feature artists, letterers and calligraphers in demonstrations and talks of great interest to anyone who reads the world by font, language and pictogram; details and directions at

http://www.northlondonlettering.co.uk/programme/

Detail from p1 of In the light (text by Jeremy Hooker) artist's book by Liz Mathews

Detail: page 1 of In the light  (text by Jeremy Hooker)

And my third outing this autumn will be to the Small Publishers’ Fair at Conway Hall on 6th and 7th November; I’ll be on the Artists Books Online stand with several other book artists, and I’ll be showing books from the small to the very large, all for sale and easily carried away.

SmallPubsFair 2015 Ecard

SmallPubsFair 2015 Ecard

The fair is a thrilling annual event stuffed with beautiful, thought-provoking, imaginative, quirky and affordable artworks which would restore anybody’s faith in the vitality, diversity and inventiveness of the book arts, and indeed the multifarious imaginations of British artists, designers and makers working with text.

Autumn from All the year by Liz Mathews (text by John Clare)

Sweet Autumn   (text by John Clare)

light wells

March 28, 2012

My next exhibition, light wells, is set in the light-drenched spaces of the meeting rooms of the London Centre for Psychotherapy in leafy Kentish Town, just down the road from my studio. It’s on from 23rd April to 7th September 2012, and visitors are welcome throughout the exhibition (Monday to Saturday, 10am to 5pm) by appointment (please phone 020 7482 2002). At midsummer, the LCP will be hosting an open day and exhibition event, long light, when I’ll be there talking about mudlarking, making artist’s books, and the poetry that inspires my work. Meanwhile, here’s a preview:

light wells: perspective, perception and imagination

There is always some kind of light contained within the dark.

The painter Winifred Nicholson expressed this conviction through her work, painting light and colour with a visionary awareness, seeing everything with the joyful prismatic aura of living light: a ‘rainbow of light, rainbow of darkness’.

The group of works brought together in light wells examines the relationship between the inner life and its outward expression, the light contained within the dark vessel, showing through the delicate, complex structure of the physical, like sunlight through the leaves.

Sometimes the light is the natural light of the sun, moon or stars flooding the landscape, sometimes the glancing illumination of perception and insight, sometimes the visionary half-light of dreams.

As a lettering artist, I work in clay, handmade paper and driftwood from the Thames, but my primary structural medium is words. I see my work as a way of fishing the letters up from ‘the deep o’ the pule’, mapping their celestial dance, dredging them from the well, finding them in the driftwood’s grain – a way of seeing the light in thought, word and physical form.

In this collection I have worked with texts about perception – how the light falls on the mind’s eye; about perspective – how we individually interpret what we all see; and about imagination – the light within.

Each text inspires a different form, or physical means of expression: sometimes the text will suggest to me the containment of the vessel, the earthy embodiment of clay, the cosmic transformation of the fire, the circling flow of the throwing process. Other texts suggest the light-bearing transparencies of the paper, or the spiralling sequence of the pages of an artist’s book, or the dual-natured transitional form of water-carved driftwood.

With each text, I seek to give an initial impression of its meaning (the ‘whole’ image), which is confirmed and deepened by a more considered reading – so that the text is literally ‘read’ as integral to the form of the work, and the word-by-word or letter-by-letter details become structural elements in linked sequence.

Most of my artist’s books are made from a single whole sheet of handmade paper, which is folded, painted, lettered and torn into a sequence of pages; it’s important that it can be reformed and seen as a whole image, that its integrity is unbroken, but it also can be read as a flowing sequence of pages, allowing the reader to turn and handle the painting as a book with all the enjoyment of its feel as a space-containing ‘volume’.

I like the link here between the pages’ spiralling flow and the inner spiral of the clay vessel’s thrown form: this is reflected and brought to the surface with the setting of the lettering flowing round the vessel, drawing the reader into an awareness of its physical form, dimensions, weight, volume, in the act of reading the text.

On paper, I use an unconventional lot of mark-making tools, including wooden clothespegs, chopsticks, slate shards, feather quills – and my favourite lettering ‘pen’ is a little driftwood stick picked up on a beach of the Thames. On the clay, I always letter with a brush, freehand onto the raw dried pot. I love unglazed clay – its stoney feel, colour and texture – and I like to let it breathe, to allow the fire deep in. But the glazed clay has its own light-bearing, wetness-remembering qualities, too – I like the two feelings to coexist in a pot.

When I’m working with driftwood, I don’t interfere with the river’s carving, except to incise or highlight the lettering; the beautiful shapes formed by the tree’s growth and the water’s intervention seem to hold the letters of the text within the grain, waiting to be revealed. And when I’m working with paper, I like to let the light show through from the ground. I love the handmade paper’s responsiveness, how it soaks up or resists the colour, how its texture affects the flow of the ink, how it meets me halfway, instead of sitting there impassively waiting to be painted on. I love a bit of unpredictability in something I’m making – I want it to have a life of its own.

light wells: an exhibition of work in clay, handmade paper,       and Thames driftwood

by Liz Mathews

23 April to 7 September 2012

London Centre for Psychotherapy, 32 Leighton Road London NW5

Visitors welcome by appointment throughout the exhibition;           Monday to Friday 10am to 5pm – please phone 020 7482 2002

long light midsummer open afternoon Saturday 23 June 1pm-4pm

Admission free

To the sea

June 1, 2011

With June, true summer begins. John Clare’s lines from A Shepherds Calendar (June poem) capture for me not only the sights and sounds, but the feeling of the month.

We are enjoying being back in the studio after our maytime excursion to the Ice House in Holland Park, where my Watermark exhibition was the first show of the summer season. This month, I’d like to give you a tour of the exhibition, to show how it worked in that beautiful space.

This image of one of my driftwood sculptures was on posters throughout the park, leading to the Ice House.

The entrance to the Ice House.

The exhibition had 60 works in clay, handmade paper and driftwood, in two rooms, a square entrance hall and a round inner room like the inside of a great pot:

All of the work was connected by the theme of water, in the poems, in the materials, in our bodies, and running through our lives, from source to sea.

Source was the first work in the exhibition: made from Thames driftwood, with the lettering of the text carved and incised with the woodgrain:

Implicit in each beginning is its end.

(Kathleen Raine)

A dish made from a slab of clay, with the perhaps unwise inscription:

I am the poem of earth said the voice of the rain

(Walt Whitman)

Living water, a waterfall in clay with a vivid text by Vita Sackville-West flowing down like leaves down a stream.

Into the inner room, and in the middle, a Persian garden with goldfish and a large pool bowl, The voice of the river, with a beautiful text by Frances Bingham:

I am the voice of the river singing in your dreams

A lullaby of waters, a litany of streams

The first group of works around the circular space had several artist’s books made from a single sheet of handmade paper torn and folded into a continuous sequence of pages. The idea is that the image works both as a whole, and page by page in the book:

This form of book, where the text moves round in a continuous circling flow, and the paper, though shaped by hand, retains its wholeness, has for me some structural relation to the pots thrown on the wheel, and the spiralling setting of their text. I enjoyed showing visitors the way that the book opens page by page, and then reforms into a whole image.

The next group of works included some more of these artist’s books, including one called Inland, with a beautiful text by Wordsworth:

and a tall jar and paperwork, with texts by TS Eliot and Virginia Woolf:

On to the middle group:

where the central work is Tree-river-river-tree:

Here the image in four parts develops with the text, in a four-way reflection.

My own image reflected in the glass of the frame, as I photograph a paperwork with one of my favourite texts:

I am the daughter of earth and water

(Shelley)

The next group in the inner room centres on another artist’s book and a group of Water vessels:

Because I love, there is a river flowing all night long

(Kathleen Raine)

And the last group round the circle included two driftwood sculptures:

All things, with a text by Vita Sackville-West:

and Stream wash away, with a text by Kathleen Raine:

and Love flows, a tall bowl with a beautiful text by Frances Bingham:

In the middle of this circular inner room was a long cabinet containing concertina artist’s books, opened out to their full extent:

with Kingfisher, a brilliant text by Richard Price, in the end frame.

We return to the outer room for the last groups in the exhibition:

These pots and paperworks were shown on the brick chimney-piece of the Ice House, and included a group of Three phosphorescence pots with white-gold lustre:

three bowls with Valentine Ackland’s poem Idyll, written in Spain during the Civil War:

and six spheres with 9ct gold lustre:

And then the final group of works, or coda:

An artist’s book Coda, with text by Matthew Arnold

Another waterfall in clay, with text this time by Valentine Ackland

A pair of artist’s books, with beautiful texts by Frances Bingham:

And, finally, on the open door, the last work in the exhibition:

A little further

we will see the sea

breaking into waves

(George Seferis, translated by Edmund Keeley & Philip Sherrard)

Watermark at the Ice House

April 30, 2011

John Clare’s May poem in his Shepherds Calendar evokes the delights of this lovely month, and here I’ve set a fragment of text around the flared rim of a salad bowl, garnished with may blossom, flowering rosemary, dill and early lavender. This bowl is part of our dinner service, which has a plate or bowl for every month, and I’m starting each month’s post this year with the appropriate piece. Everything seems to have come early this year, including May itself, and we will be ‘mingling in the warmth of May’ in Holland Park, as my new exhibition Watermark opens on 7th and closes on 22nd May, presented in association with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

The Ice House gallery is a beautiful space, a one room house built in beautiful brick with a cone-shaped tiled roof. Planning the exhibition for the space has seemed to me like working within a great pot.

Here is the catalogue text, with images of some of the work:

WATERMARK by LIZ MATHEWS

THE ICE HOUSE IN HOLLAND PARK

Kensington High Street, London W8

7 – 22 MAY 2011 daily 11am – 7pm

Here, in a house of clay made for ice, beside the pond in this green space, we have an awareness of the pattern of water drawn on the world, of the sap in the trees and our bodies, the falling rain, the great river flowing through the city, the surrounding seas. Watermark looks at the patterns floating on the surface and dowses for the undercurrents.

I work with clay, driftwood and handmade paper, all materials full of this water – or the marks it has left – seeking to reveal both the character of the material and the transformative process: the clay’s original wet soft malleable state and the action of the fire, or the dried paper’s light-filtering qualities and the once-wet ink’s determination.

The earth/clay/body link is fundamental in my work: our place within the landscape, the elements, the seasons, time, the flow of the water. I like to examine how the light shows through.

Text is of the essence. I use lettering as an architectural framework, mapping, enclosing and entering the volume contained.

Marks on the surface lead the eye to the inner space – not only within the vessel form but also inside the planes of wall panels or the layers of paperworks – circling towards the heart of the matter.

Containment, the relation between the outer surface and the inner volume, is expressed through an engagement of text and image, finding the letters in the grain, catching the words in the current, floating them on the surface of the deep.

I liken this process to that of setting poetry to music, with the same implication of translation, and the same integration of words and form. Setting a text or poem in this way gives both an immediate visual apprehension, and a slower, more contemplative reading which can lead to an enhanced awareness of the text and its relation to the form. Also, for me there’s always an element of performing the text in the making process.

I work with white stoneware, natural found materials (such as driftwood from the Thames) and re-purposed materials (copper pipes, hemp sash-cord) with related qualities. I also work with handmade recycled cotton rag paper (khadi) making artist’s books and paperworks, again with structural concerns related to my claywork, particularly in a flowing or circling sequence of pages.

I welcome chance contributions from the process or the quirks of found materials, the changes and patina added by time, and I like themes to surface in a sequence of related works, rather than prescribe too much.

(unexpectedly, I found a whole flock of kingfishers, for example)

I paint freehand onto the raw dried clay with a brush, in underglaze metal oxides; then some surfaces – perhaps only inside – are glazed; on some pots I use 9ct gold lustre.

On paper I paint in watercolour, acrylics and inks, as well as natural pigments and raw materials – charcoal, beeswax, salt, sand – and I use random mark-making tools – wooden peg, clay shard, slate fragment, flint, feather, and only now and then a brush.

My favourite lettering pen is a small driftwood stick, picked up on the Thames beach by the Southbank.

Liz Mathews   Potters’ Yard  2011

For more information about Watermark 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.

As always, please don’t use any of these images without permission.


A topography of Thames to Dunkirk

November 10, 2010

Thames to Dunkirk, my enormous bookwork, has gone to its new home (just down the road) in the British Library. When we delivered it yesterday, we were able to weigh it (over 3 stone!), and unfold it to its full extent in one of the Library’s longest meeting rooms, to show it to curators in all its glory.

I supplied some background information about the materials, sources and process involved in the making of Thames to Dunkirk, which I’m including here:

A brief topography of Thames to Dunkirk by Liz Mathews


Thames to Dunkirk is a handmade book or illuminated manuscript made in 2009.  It measures 1 metre high x 70 cm wide and about 10 cm deep when closed, and when fully opened to freestanding 1 metre high and up to 17 metres long. It is double sided, made with 24 individual sheets of paper, each page a sheet of handmade acid-free cotton rag paper in Atlas size (I metre x 1.4 metres), 400gsm.  The book is constructed as a concertina, the pages fixed back to back forming alternate hinges.

Process and sources

My own introduction to the Dunkirk story was in 1973 when I was 12, and my sister gave me Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, in an edition with Anne Linton’s line drawings.

I now realise that these beautiful drawings were based on contemporary photographs now in the Imperial War Museum archive:

In 2008 I read in Virginia Woolf’s diary her account of that time, including the story of her neighbour Harry West’s escape from Dunkirk with several looted watches. I was struck by the enormous variety of experience within this shared event – how different it was for each of the 300,000 people there, as well as those who waited at home – a spectrum of responses from victorious exultation to rage and dissent. Through research in the Imperial War Museum archives and the National Maritime Museum, as well as published accounts, I gradually perceived ‘Dunkirk’ as a constructed myth that was both created and subverted by thousands of individual accounts – a hugely complex collective story.

This sense of the scale of the event, not just in actuality but in the national psyche, led me towards the idea of constructing a surreally large book that could unfold to reveal different layers of the story.  The scale of the work would reflect the disorienting enormity of the phenomenon and embody the myriad experiences that have contributed to the ‘imaginative transformation of a historic into an archetypal event’ (Kathleen Raine).

To draw these elements together, I was again inspired by Virginia Woolf, who wrote in a letter to Stephen Spender ‘I should like to write four lines at a time, describing the same feeling, as a musician does; because it always seems to me that things are going on at so many different levels simultaneously’. Four lines at once, running concurrently, to map the myth and tell all the stories in common time.

The four lines I chose were:

1) An incised watercolour map of the Thames from source to sea, running the whole length of the first side of the book,

with the names of the small ships of the rescue Armada lettered in pen and ink along the river (at the place where they came from, where possible),

beginning at the earliest navigable point with Westerly, and flooding out into the Estuary:

2) A watercolour of the great stretch of Dunkirk beaches running along the other side,

(the details of landscape taken from aerial photos by the RAF in 1940, now in the IWM),

with the names of all the witnesses whose stories or accounts I had read lettered (in sepia ink with a wooden peg) on the beaches,

the formation of their orderly queues taken from contemporary photos and aligned with the river incised in reverse as though through the paper.

3) The narrative account of BJ Bonallack’s poem That night we blew our guns, lettered (by brush with a faded old black ink)

in a script taken from a letter typed in 1940,

the rigid spacing of the ‘type’ text reflecting the measured restraint of the account, and the poem running the whole length of the book, at the top of the pages on both sides:

4) and flowing beneath, a text by Virginia Woolf (from The Waves):

an alternative, subversive, questioning voice like an undercurrent, the phrases juxtaposed with the lines of the ‘type’ text to counterpoint and highlight the tensions and correspondences between them,

the free and fluid script lettered with a pen I carved from a piece of Thames driftwood picked up on the beach in London.

I made a first version with 24 sheets of A3 handmade paper, to design the layout of each page and establish the balance and continuity; this prototype revealed many technical issues – for example the variations of the paper’s absorbency with the different inks and watercolours, and the problems of printing between pages caused by absorbtion of the paste. Then I enlarged the design, each A3 page requiring 18 A4 grid sheets to scale up the layout to the Atlas page.

I worked on one huge page at a time, first folding the page in half, then incising the river (or its reverse, to map the composition on the Dunkirk side), then painting the watercolour river, or (later) the watercolour grisaille landscapes and the beach and sea; on both sides I had to pay particular attention to continuity of placing and colour. Then, when dry I sealed the watercolour painting with a clear acid-free acrylic sealant to prevent the ink bleeding, and when this was dry, next lettered the Bonallack text (upside-down, of necessity, as the paper was too large to reach across), and finally the Woolf text with the driftwood pen – the right way up. I was able to lay out the ‘type’ text in pencil first, but the Woolf text is mostly improvised.

With this order, I completed each page in a day, and set it to dry in a stack. When all the pages were done, I made the back page (which connects the Thames side with the Dunkirk side) with a text I found on a scrap of paper in the IWM archive, the unhelpful Admiralty Instruction issued to volunteering small ship crews to direct them across the channel to Dunkirk,

and then the front title page, with the back-to-source reverse image of the Thames.

With all the pages ready, I started to construct the book (with the help of my partner), a few pages at a time to reduce the risk of the adhesive soaking through the pages, and causing the ink to bleed or print across. The constructed sections, and finally the completed book, were pressed in an improvised press made with two large sheets of acid-free card and our largest art-books. I then made the portfolio/case in the same press, with even larger sheets of paper (Stockwell), but these not made by hand.

Materials

The paper was made in India, and specially ordered by Shepherds Falkiners in Southampton Row, London. The paper makers have supplied this information:

The Khadi Atlas handmade paper is made from 100% long fibred cotton rag, it is acid free and possibly one of biggest tub sized rag papers made anywhere in the world. Cotton rags have longer fibres than linters which are the shorter fluffy fibres of the cotton seed generally used in paper making. Genuine rag papers are rare and it is the fibre length of this raw material that gives KHADI rag papers their exceptional strength and durability. The cotton rag we use comes from T-shirt cuttings, a reliable source of pure woven cotton. Rags are pulped in a Hollander beater. Neutral pH internal size (glue) is added at this stage. KHADI rag papers are the only handmade papers in India made with neutral pH size and so they are the only ones that are genuinely acid free.

The sheet is formed on the mould in a vat of water. The process involves a very small amount of fibre and a lot of water. The fibre is retained on the surface of the mould while the water drains through the mesh. The characteristic deckle edges of the sheet of paper come from the slippage of pulp between the deckle and mould. The mould is lifted from the vat and the sheet is laid or couched onto a woollen felt. Another felt is placed on top and the process is repeated. When a pile of sheets interleaved with felts has been made they are pressed in a hydraulic press to remove excess water. Papers are loft dried. After drying, sheets are tub sized (surface sized) with gelatine.

The mill, KHADI PAPERS INDIA, now directly employs over 50 men and women from local villages and indirectly provides work for bookbinders, printers, envelope makers and the carpenter, Irrappa, who makes our moulds and deckles. We now have our own organic farm, irrigated by run-off water from the paper mill. Here we grow mangoes, bananas and organic vegetables.

Other materials used in the making of the book include Shepherds conservation adhesive (neutral pH), Winsor & Newton watercolours, acrylic inks and sealant, and an elderly bottle of Quink from c.1950’s. Materials used in the slipcase were acid-free machine-made Stockwell paper covering acid-free board, with conservation adhesive and linen reinforcements and tape.

Context

Thames to Dunkirk was made in the context of a group of related works called Watermark, each work relating text to form and image, and using specific material qualities in a process of building-up or layering. I like to work on the edge of where text and form and image meet, to see how the light shows through.   I work in clay (throwing on the wheel or handbuilding), driftwood from the Thames (in constructions of pages like banners and panels), and handmade papers, examining the materials’ closely related qualities and formal references. As well as watercolour and oxides, I use natural pigments and raw materials – charcoal, beeswax, salt, sand, driftwood, linen, ink – and I use improvised mark-making tools – wooden peg, clay shard, slate fragment, flint, feather, scrap of driftwood.

I use lettering as a topographical framework for design, both mapping device and entry to the volume enclosed.  The marks on the surface allow the eye to read the form and content of the inner space, not only within the vessel but also metaphorically within the planes of wall panels or the layered light-bearing textures of paperworks. I liken this process to that of setting poetry to music, with the same implication of translation and reinterpretation, and the same kind of engagement of text to form; there is also an element of performing the text.

Thames to Dunkirk is on show in the British Library’s exhibition for 2012, Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands, from 11th May to 25th September 2012.

The Dunkirk Project

May 15, 2010

For the last year I’ve been completely engaged with the largest single work I’ve ever made. It’s a freestanding paper sculpture,  1 metre high and about 17 metres long, constructed in the form of a huge concertina book. It’s called Thames to Dunkirk.

This May 2010 sees the 70th anniversary of the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. In the course of my research when making Thames to Dunkirk I was struck by how extraordinarily different each person’s account was of an event shared by hundreds of thousands of people, the sheer variety of experience within such a momentous shared event, and the far-reaching effects of conflict on the individual. Through fragments of stories, my work explores the forces of compulsion and power, the tensions between individuality and duty that led to this sea’s edge extremity.

The book, opened out, reflects in its size something of the surreal scale of the event, and altogether subverts the concept of ‘book’ – something familiar, useful, dependable, portable – into something altogether unfamiliar and difficult to handle, which you have to walk all the way round to read. It also reflects some of the tensions between individuality and communal responsibility that we’ve seen so much of recently – how we can be swept away on rivers not of our own choosing, into conflict or State-determined disaster, or indeed sold down the river by the powers that rule our lives. During the time I was making this work (July 2009) 94 soldiers died in Afghanistan; the contemporary relevance is evident without overstatement.

Thames to Dunkirk is now part of a major online interactive installation, which I hope will give some new insights into the lasting legacy of one of our most potent legendary events. The Dunkirk Project is online now, the story will be unfolding daily during the nine days of the anniversary, and I hope you’ll want to contribute to the collective story.

The Dunkirk Project is at http://thedunkirkproject.wordpress.com

Clay pages and balancing gravity

May 7, 2010

One of the things I return to again and again in my work is a process of connecting small individual elements into a larger entity, the separate parts woven together and unified by the flow of words in the text, like the pages of a book.

In the Southbank Centre’s Poetry Library I was given an exciting opportunity to work with the space itself, and to articulate a response to the architectural and conceptual nature of the space. I wanted my work to penetrate the library, not just to hang about in the exhibition area. One of the ways I approached this was to treat certain parts of the space like a big pot, the pillars for example, or the glass lift, or one of the aisles between the bookstacks, and examine how I would respond to that shape and the space contained in a pot I was making.

Here, of course enters the problem of scale. Working in clay obviously imposes some limitations of size – my kiln’s capacity is about 7 cubic feet, which seems to take up quite a lot of room in my London studio, but isn’t huge for a kiln. The shelves are about 19″ square, so the largest individual things I can make are either panels that will fit on one shelf, or pots that fit into the vessel of the kiln space without shelves. These objects are large, but won’t cover a wall. One solution to the size limitation is the ancient art of tiling or mosaic or brickwork – making a large thing from small elements which can interlock or overlap or connect in layers. And the best way I’ve found to make this connection, to interlock the elements, is to allow a text to flow across the sections, to make each tile a word, so that the work is ‘read’ as a whole individual object, just as the brick wall becomes something more than the sum of its parts, or the book unites its pages to an entity.

Several of the works in my Poetry Library exhibition were made like this, using the architecture to determine the form of the work, and setting the text in response to it. Waterfall took its overall form from the shape and proportion of the partition wall, with its sloping top and rather fluid sense of separating space from space:

The text is from Valentine Ackland’s poem By Grace of Water. Here it’s important that the wetness of the raw clay should be present in the fired work, and I’ve aimed for this with the folding of the clay and the physical placing of the letters, setting them like leaves floating and spinning downstream, linking the panels into a whole with the flow of words. The letters were set first with pencil on the dried but still raw clay, then the oxide was painted on with a brush (some areas in the hollows being quite difficult to reach) and then the panels were fired on sand quite slowly to allow for movement and shrinkage in the clay. Then I glazed them, to add to the watery effect, and this needed to be carefully controlled at top temperature to prevent the colour bleeding into the molten glaze. The panels are hung from copper pipes and cuphooks.

Another stimulating problem was the two great pillars bang in the middle of the exhibition space in the Poetry Library. Hard to ignore, these huge pillars run right through the building, down to the earth below, rooting and supporting the whole edifice. I wanted to reflect this sense of solidity, and the cathedral-like effect, with a text that would clothe the pillar like vestments, wrap it in prayer flags, but I also wanted something that would convey a sense of spiritual lightness to balance the gravity.

The poem begins with a rising wind, and I used thin paperclay flags to wrap the pillar in a banner that waves and flaps and streams in that wind. The physical lightness of the paperclay flags allows them to be hung with embroidery silks tied round the pillar, using the same colours as the lettering, and referencing both the domestic and the sacramental. With this banner, the installation was part of the making process; I don’t have room in my studio even to lay out a work as large as this to see if it will fit, so I installed with my fingers crossed. Luckily the form is very flexible, so I was able to adjust it to fit the pillar’s requirements, and in the process I realised that it would work just as well on a flat or curved wall as on the pillar.

 

And love wells within me and spills over the world

Because of the unknown dark and the great banners unfurled

Out there beyond me, that beyond which folds

About us, warm as life, and is our life, and holds

Our days and deaths and births within its sheltering folds.

(Every Autumn a wind like this wind blows by Valentine Ackland)

Signed one-off, measurements variable but about 1m wide and 2m high, for sale £960

(Most of this text is taken from Working with words, a series of gallery talks given in the Southbank Centre in 2008. The full text can be read in my artist’s book, Journey from Winter, in the Poetry Library’s rare book collection.) For some more banners, please have a look at the Banners page.

To buy or enquire about any work, please leave me a note in the comments box below, or click on contact details.

Jolly Spring doth enter

March 19, 2010

Earth now is green and heaven is blue Jolly Spring doth enter

Spencer’s encouraging observation is lettered in green and blue round the flared rim of Green Earth, an open shallow bowl of a good size for fruit or salad, as well as a cheering thing to look at and handle.  The flowers are flax, thyme, periwinkles, lavender and cornflowers, with some blue-eyed grass – a foretaste of the joys to come. I very much enjoy making seasonal pots, responding to the turning year. For some other Spring pots please see the Meadow page, and for some snowy works have a look at the Paperworks page. I’ll be featuring Summer, Autumn and Winter pots later in the year, including some special pots for Christmas. The Green Earth bowl is thrown on the wheel in white stoneware clay, lettered and decorated by hand with brushwork in underglaze colours, fired, glazed with a clear glaze and then fired again. It’s 27cm across the rim, and 9cm high. Signed one-off, for sale £120. To buy or enquire about this or any work, please leave me a note in the comments box below or click on contact details. All photos copyright Liz Mathews. Permission is needed for any use of these images.

Hope of Poetry

March 8, 2010

A space made with words

The lettering on this tall bowl is set so that it maps the physical contours of the bowl for the eye to understand, with colours that reflect what’s happening in the text, and with the lettering responding to the curve of the vessel and the physical implications of the text.  The lettering is applied with a brush, and then fired into the body of the clay, in this case without a covering clear glaze, to allow the earthy texture of the unglazed clay to surface.

This articulation of form allows a tactile apprehension of the pot’s dimensions, its enclosing of space, expressing the individuality of each vessel I throw on the wheel. The sense of a space made with words is then extended by the setting of the words to reveal their meaning.

Here the text is from a poem by Valentine Ackland called Hope of Poetry, where she presents her belief in the future and her faith in poetry as a physical thing, vulnerable like a tender little green plant, but strong and unquenchable like a flame. I’ve set the text around the earthspace of the clay vessel, mapping the contour with concentric rings of colour that reflect the text, and using these bands of coloured text to make the bowl appear almost see-through, to draw the eye inward.  And I’ve used the parallels and tensions in the text to mirror the outer and inner surfaces of the vessel, to allow the viewer to apprehend the relationship between without and within, and between text and form, and to see through to the core of bright fire at the heart of both.

(This text is taken from a gallery talk given on 19th May 2008 at the Southbank Centre.)

Signed one-off. 19cm high x 19cm at rim.

To buy or enquire about any work, please leave me a note in the comments box below or click on contact details.

All photos copyright Liz Mathews.

Permission is needed for any use of these images.