Posts Tagged ‘Robert Burns’

The longest night

December 21, 2021

And O for the joys of a long winter’s night

Winter night, words by Robert Burns, artist’s book by Liz Mathews, painted and lettered on a single sheet of handmade paper.

For Robert Burns, the winter solstice has its compensations, and it’s obviously a good plan to make the most of what you’ve got. For others, including John Donne and Maureen Duffy, the year’s midnight marks the turn of the year towards spring.

I made this artist’s book, Steel Solstice, on the winter solstice in 2015, inspired by Maureen Duffy’s poem A Christmas Concert (Pictures from an Exhibition Enitharmon 2016). We catch the sounds of a steel band swirling round a chilly shopping arcade with a snow flurry:

all the old rubbed seasonal songs

ricocheting between the twin steel skins

until feet begin to tap, smiles flit, coins skim


… we watch snow falling against the grey

city sky, shepherds astounded, magi

on their way, hear sleighbells jingle

while their small hammers tap in the tune

and only their music sings

… in a moment

redeeming winter’s, Lucy’s, shortest day

and longest night

with promise of returning spring.

(Thanks to Maureen Duffy for permission to set and quote her poem.)

Steel Solstice (like Winter night) was made from a single sheet of handmade paper, painted, folded and torn into a sequence of pages, so that the book can be read page by page, or restored to the single image of the steel drum, painted in steely greys and silvers against a swirl of seasonal snow and the early dusk.

Inspired by all three poets, I’d like to wish for us all good cheer for the festive season, and happier times to come with the returning spring.

Liz Mathews, London 21.12.2021

In the cauld blast

January 25, 2012

Burns’ Night is to many of us the great winter feast, an occasion to celebrate not only the life and works of the Immortal Bard, but to reinforce a worldwide sense of community embodied in his songs and poetry.  For the last few years I’ve been making a series of artist’s books as contemporary illuminated manuscripts, taking as a theme the turning year and the dance of the seasons, and Burns’ poetry has been a great inspiration.

Seasons Dancing is a concertina book that opens out to form a standing circle, a continuous double-sided ring of words nearly 5 metres in circumference, with a flowing, lilting circle of lines from Burns’ poems evoking each month page by page and joined at the turn of the year, flowing onward like a sound wavelength, following the cycle of the year – regular, repeating, ever new; it folds down to a manageable largish book.

Burns’ Year: Love and Freedom is in the form of four books, one for each season.

Each of the four books is made from a single sheet of handmade paper (at 2 metres x 80cm, some of the largest handmade paper in the world, made in India by Khadi Papers), torn and folded into a sequence of pages, but readily reformed to its whole state, unfolded and opened out to spread before you this sacred space open to all, 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.

In the four books that make up Love & Freedom: Burns’ Year, some of Burns’ ideas about inequality, oppression and dispossession (‘how things are shar’d’), his profound sense of home and exile, and his awareness of the solace of love are bought together by means of his characteristic association of radical politics and the consolations of Nature (‘free alike to all’).

Themes of fragmentation, dispersal and restoration/reconstruction are present not only within the texts and the form of the books, but also within the materials and making processes: like the threads of a woven plaid, the flocculating molecules of the clay body, the fragments and scraps of paper pulp reform to a unity in the great sheet; like the bricks in a wall, or the parts of a musical score, the individual elements are reconstructed to wholeness.

Each book follows on from the one before, as do the seasons. In Winter Wild, the dispersal of autumn hardens into a solid state, in a setting of Burns’ poem O, wert Thou in the Cauld Blast, mapped and contained by the plaid (based on the Lennox tartan, to reference the tune for which Burns wrote this song, Lenox love to Blantyre). The fragments come together and resolve to a paradoxical equilibrium, the icy wind countered by the protecting plaid – a rather slight defence, we may feel, but time- honoured.  Here is the book, page by page:

As you’ll have seen, I’ve worked with fine thin colours, an icy silver grey and some delicate threads of wintry sunlight, the small marks defining the threads of the plaid made with the same driftwood twig that I used for the lettering. I’ve aimed to use the colours to reflect and respond to the colour and mood of each line, each word of the text, as one would in setting a text to music. To balance the different colours of the text both phrase by phrase and within the overall whole image is very important for how the book works in its dual character.

The colour palette of the four books is essentially the same, concentrated or diffused in tone according to the season’s particular light, and with a characteristic hue added for each season: silvery grey for winter, golden yellow for spring, azure for summer and russet for autumn. This colour is highlighted on the individual slipcase for each book, with its linen draw-tabs, and brought together in the box which houses the four books.

I’ll be describing each book in detail as the seasons turn throughout this year, as well as showing some more pages of the months from Seasons Dancing.

Both Seasons Dancing and Love & Freedom: Burns’ Year are now part of the National Library of Scotland‘s collection of artists’ books.

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.


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.

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.

A Midsummer Cushion

July 8, 2010

July is the month of John Clare; one of our customs at Potters’ Yard is to celebrate his birthday (as we do Shakespeare’s) and we always have a picnic from this great plate that I made for his bicentenary in 1993.

It is a very old custom among villagers in summer time to stick a piece of greensward full of field flowers & place it in their cottages which ornaments are called Midsummer Cushions

Plates thrown on the wheel have a special kind of strength – the opening up of the wedge of clay on the turning wheel forms a structural spiral, setting all the clay’s molecules in a spiralling alignment that allows for quite large plates and flat dishes to be made without cracking, as long as the drying is carefully controlled. I don’t usually make them this big though (42cm across); my most regularly commissioned sizes are

10″ (26cm – good dinner plate or cheeseplate – from £90) and

12″ (30cm – good for serving dish – from £120)

– or the smaller 8″ (20cm – from £70) for sideplates or baby plates, commissioned for births, christenings and namedays.

Another intrinsic strength is in the high firing temperature of the stoneware clay I use; the clay vitrifies in the firing – becomes stone-like in its physical construction, the gaps between the molecules close up, so that the fired clay is no longer porous and absorbent, but hard and compressed. This of course adds to its durability and strength, especially when combined with a hard covering glaze. The only enemy then is a tiled floor and a dog to trip over.

Long ago I made a nameplate for a friend’s restaurant, which he fixed proudly to the wall. After a few years it fell down, hitting a table on the way down to the carpeted floor – it was completely undamaged, but it made a good dent in the table top. It’s now on a shelf on a platestand. We still use some of the first plates I made (in ?1989) everyday; the John Clare dinner service I made in 1993, with a plate or bowl for each month, we keep for special occasions – and we use the Midsummer Cushion plate only once a year on 13th July.

I sometimes make plates not on the wheel, with a slab of clay hand-rolled (with a rolling pin) and formed, dried and fired on a support made from the same clay, which is removed after firing, leaving the plate’s wavey rim self-supporting. These rather sculptural objects each have their own special shape, retaining the ‘selvedge’ made by the rolling process, and the irregular line – but they’re quite strong enough for use (though I wouldn’t put them in a washing-up machine) and they look very groovy on the table. I particularly like the clear strong colours for serving food, and the unusual, irregular shape showing the plate’s origin in the soft, malleable clay and the process that formed it.

There are more examples of different plates on the inner space and Meadow pages (see links above left).  If you’d like to know more, please leave me a comment below, or click on contact details.

Green be your woods

May 7, 2010

Green be your woods and fair your flow’rs

Your waters never drumlie

There summer first unfald her robes

And there the longest tarry

Burns’ beautiful lines always make me think of a sea of bluebells in the woods, so ravishing a sight at this time of year.  I’ve tried to catch the duskiness of that blue on this bowl, the glow in the shadows, by using a clay very slightly darker than my usual creamy white – this one’s like unbleached linen – with the bluebells painted in a similar tone. The text is lettered by brush in dark green round the flared rim of the bowl:

with the bluebells and their lovely strappy leaves spread out in a spray across the bowl’s expanse.  This pot was thrown on the wheel with 2kg of stoneware clay, the foot turned, and then I decorated the text and foliage with a brush in underglaze oxides. Then the bowl was fired twice, first to fire the colour into the clay body, then to fire the clear glaze into the clay’s surface. I made it with a group of other meadow pots, some with flowering rosemary and thyme, some with primroses and cowslips.

Signed one-off, 25cm across x 7cm high, for sale £70 now sold.

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

Permission is needed for the use of any of these photos.